Read CHAPTER XVI. of The Children of the Poor , free online book, by Jacob A. Riis, on


Looking back now over the field we have traversed, what is the verdict? Are we going backward or forward? To be standing still would be to lose ground. Nothing stands still in this community of ours, with its ever-swelling population, least of all the problem of the children of the poor. It got the start of our old indifference once, and we have had a long and wearisome race of it, running it down.

But we have run it down. We are moving forward, and indifference will not again trap us into defeat. Evidence is multiplying on every hand to show that interest in the children is increasing. The personal service, that counts for so infinitely much more than money, is more freely given day by day, and no longer as a fashionable fad, but as a duty too long neglected. From the colleges young men and women are going forth to study the problem in a practical way that is full of promise. Charity is forgetting its petty jealousies and learning the lesson of organization and co-operation. “Looking back,” writes the Secretary of the Charity Organization Society, “over the progress of the last ten years, the success seems large, while looking at our hopes and aims it often seems meagre.” The Church is coming up, no longer down, to its work among the poor. In the multiplication of brotherhoods and sisterhoods, of societies of Christian Endeavor, of King’s Daughters, of efforts on every hand to reach the masses, the law of love, the only law that has real power to protect the poor, is receiving fresh illustration day by day.

The Fresh Air Work, the Boys’ Clubs, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, bear witness to it, and to the energy and resources that shall yet win the fight for us. They were born of New York’s plight. The whole world shares in the good they have wrought.

Kindergartens, industrial schools, baby nurseries are springing up everywhere. We have children’s play-grounds, and we shall be getting more, if the promised small parks are yet in the future. Municipal progress has not kept step with private benevolence, but there is progress. New schools have been built this year and others are planned. We are beginning to understand that there are other and better ways of making citizens and voters than to grind them out through the political naturalization mill at every election. If the rum power has not lost its grip, it has not tightened it, at all events, in forty years. Then there was one saloon to every 90.8 inhabitants; to-day there is one to every 236.42. The streets in the tenement districts, since I penned the first lines of this book, have been paved and cleaned as never before, and new standards of decency set up for the poor who live there and for their children. Jersey Street, Poverty Gap, have disappeared, and an end has been put, for a time at least, to the foul business of refuse gathering at the dumps. Nothing stands still in New York. Conditions change so suddenly, under the pressure of new exigencies, that it is sometimes difficult to keep up with them. The fact that it is generally business which prompts the changes for the better has this drawback, that the community, knowing that relief is coming sooner or later, gets into the habit of waiting for it to come that way as the natural one. It is not always the natural way, and though relief comes with bustle and stir at last, it is sometimes too long delayed.

Another mischievous habit, characteristic of the American people, preoccupied with so many urgent private concerns, is to rise up and pass a law that is loudly in demand, and let it go with that, as if all social evils could be cured by mere legal enactment. As a result, some of the best and most necessary laws are dead letters on our statute books. The law is there, but no one thinks of enforcing it. The beginning was made at the wrong end; but we shall reach around to the other in season.

The chief end has been gained in the recognition of the child problem as the all-important one, of the development of individual character as the strongest barrier against the evil forces of the street and the tenement. Last year I had occasion to address a convention at the National Capital, on certain phases of city poverty and suffering, and made use of the magic lantern to enforce some of the lessons presented. The last picture put on the screen showed the open trench in the Potter’s Field. When it had passed, the Secretary of the Convention, a clergyman whose life has been given to rescue work among homeless boys, told how there had just come to join him in his work the man who had until very lately been in charge of this Potter’s Field. His experience there had taught him that the waste before which he stood helpless at that end of the line, looking on without power to check or relieve, must be stopped at its source. So he had turned from the dead to the living, pledging the years that remained to him to that effort.

It struck me then, and it has seemed to me since, that this man’s position to the problem was most comprehensive. The evidence of his long-range view was convincing. Society had indeed arrived at the same diagnosis some time before. Reasoning by exclusion, as doctors do in doubtful diseases, the symptoms of which are clearer than their cause, it had conjectured that if the “tough” whom it must maintain in idleness behind prison-bars, to keep him from preying upon it, was a creature of environment, not justly to blame, the community must be, for allowing him to grow up a “tough.” So, in self-defence, it had turned its hand to the forming of character in proportion as it had come to own its failure to reform it. To that failure the trench in the Potter’s Field bore unceasing witness. Its claim to be heard in evidence was incontestable.

Now that it has been heard, its testimony confirms the judgment that had already experience to back it. There is no longer room for doubt that with the children lies the solution of the problem of poverty, as far as it can be reached under existing forms of society and with our machinery for securing justice by government. The wisdom of generations that were dust two thousand years ago made this choice. We have been long in making it, but not too long if our travail has made it clear at last that for all time to come it must be the only safe choice. And this, whether from the standpoint of the Christian or the unbeliever, from that of humanity or mere business. If the matter is reduced to a simple sum in arithmetic, so much for so much child-rescue, as the one way of balancing waste with gain, loss with profit, becomes the imperative duty of society, its chief bulwark against bankruptcy and wreck.

Thus, through the gloom of the Potter’s Field that has levied such heavy tribute on our city in the past even the tenth of its life brighter skies, a new hope, are discerned beyond. They brighten even the slum tenement, and shine into the home which just now we despaired of reaching by any other road than that of pulling it down. Tireless, indeed, the hands need be that have taken up this task. Flag their efforts ever so little, hard-won ground is lost, mischief done. But we are gaining, no longer losing, ground. Seen from the tenement, through the frame-work of injustice and greed that cursed us with it, the outlook seemed little less than despairing. Groping vainly, with unseeing eyes, we said: There is no way out. The children, upon whom the curse of the tenement lay heaviest, have found it for us. Truly it was said: “A little child shall lead them.”