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The Charity Organization Societies

   While state charities and institutions expanded, local charities also experienced unprecedented growth. Immigration accompanied by rapid urbanization and industrialization, increased city social problems. Poverty and its accompanying difficulties forced older established charities to expand their relief services. New charities, both public and private, responded to the challenge.

   As charity resources expanded, experienced workers saw the need for improved organization and management. These developments were similar to what was then developing among state boards which followed a design earlier developed in England. Upper-class American Protestants often looked to England for models to use in approaching problems in the United States. A charity organization to manage and organize relief was established in England in 1869. Using the English model,American charity workers began to apply order to the problems in their communities.

The Hardship of 1873

   The general philosophy behind charity organization societies (COS) was a continuation of the state boards movement to promote scientific charity. The organizational framework was again borrowed from the English charities. However, much of the stimulus for their rapid development was the economic depression of the 1870s. Lasting most of the decade, the 70s depression threw millions of men out of work and sparked riots and strikes. In the summer of 1873, strikes spread throughout the urban East and shut down most of the nation's railroad traffic. Commerce ground to a halt and the strikes precipitated armed intervention in many states. City officials, shocked and frightened by the poverty, destitution and general unrest, expanded local relief efforts hoping to moderate the depression's severity and to re-establish social order.

   Many charity workers were appalled by what they perceived as a serious step backwards in the progressive evolution of their new field. They felt that many of the new relief efforts were inefficient and poorly organized. Furthermore, they were convinced that the profligacy of the new programs would lead to the moral demise of the poor by spreading dependency and pauperism. This general concept that relief was, in and of itself a sinister activity, was a holdover from earlier days. However, it was reinforced by the conversion of many charity workers to the popular new social philosophy of Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism was based on the teachings of Englishman Herbert Spencer who preached that relief was destructive to society and the poor because it created dependency and sapped their motivation.

   The first charity organization societies were created to reorganize the public and private charities that had proliferated during the depression of the 1970s. Many charity leaders were disturbed by what they saw as an inefficient and chaotic array of urban philanthropy. Their strategy was to use the same blend of science and business efficiencies that had previously been applied by the state boards. The charity organization societies planned to apply the principles of scientific charity while carefully avoiding the common pitfalls of dependency and pauperism.

The Birth of the Charity Organization Societies

The first American charity organization society was established in Buffalo, New York in 1877. Over the next two decades the movement spread rapidly. At the turn of the century, virtually every major urban area in America hosted some form of charity organization society. Their basic approach quickly expanded beyond management and organization to include some characteristics that became trademarks of the movement.
   First, the charity organization movement broke from earlier traditions by avoiding the dispensation of direct relief. Many leaders were, in fact, critical of agencies that did offer direct relief. Josephine Shaw Lowell, founder of New York's charity organization, and a major leader in the movement was once asked by a contributor how much money would go directly to the poor and she proudly replied,

Not one cent!

   Second, most of the movement's members sought to inject order into the chaotic and often redundant mix of services so prevalent among local charities, through the creation of exchanges. The exchanges, or registries, were actually central record keeping systems that kept track of almoners and prevented the indigent from receiving relief from more than one agency.

   A third important cornerstone of the charity organization movement and an important innovation was the introduction of a treatment component. Charity leaders did not simply wish to make charity more efficient and scientific. They believed poverty could be eradicated through the introduction of additional scientific techniques. The new techniques included planned intervention or treatment. Almoners would be able to lift themselves out of poverty because they would be morally elevated through engagement in this process. Someone, though, had to perform the crucial tasks of investigation and treatment, and that someone was the friendly visitor.

Riots were common during this period.

A popular cartoon depicting social darwinism

Horatio Alger stories contributed to the myth that wealth was always a product of hard work and application.

Josephine Shaw Lowell

Effects of 1873 illustration

Adapted from

Special thanks to the late Professor Dan Huff and Boise State University School of Social Work

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