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The Charity Organization Enters the 1890's

   Even during the days of its greatest expansion, the charity organization movement had many critics. Labor leaders deplored the miserly attitudes of the organization and the punitive values of its visitors. Jane Addams admitted that all too many visitors were cold and stingy.

   Leaders of the notoriously corrupt political machines actually capitalized on the conservative attitudes of the charity organizations. One such political leader admitted that while the charities studied and investigated he would find the poor unfortunate a job and a place to sleep and win both his gratitude and his vote. Writing about the charity organizations in general, radical John Reed said:

...there is none of Christ the compassionate in the immense business of organized charity; its object is to get efficient results-and that means, in practice to just keep alive vast numbers of servile, broken-spirited people.

   Initially, leaders of the movement reacted to criticism defensively and continued to treat the poor like wayward children who needed guidance and advice from a socially superior person.

The Depression

    On the other hand, the charity organization movement was gifted with an impressive array of flexible and talented leaders. The severe depression of the 1890s caused some charity pioneers to change the more punitive policies. Starting in 1893 and lasting through most of the decade, the 90s depression was even more severe than the one that had occurred in the 1870s. Banks foundered and unemployment soared. Three million men were idle. Strikes became more numerous and violent.

   The strikes at Homestead in 1892 and Pullman in 1894 ,and the Mining Wars of 1898 were symptoms of extensive social unrest. Socialism, communism, and even anarchism became popular not only with intellectuals ,but also among working people.

   Farmers, frustrated by the low prices of commodities and unfair charges by the railroads, linked with labor to form the populist movement. General Jacob Coxey, advocated for a public works program to hire the millions of unemployed, capturing the imagination of thousands of Americans with his poor people's march on Washington.

   Racism, so often a symptom of class tensions, rose to disturbing levels. Some African-American leaders such as Booker T. Washington counseled patience.  Other leaders, such as W.E.B. Du Bois  an Ida Wells, advocated a more militant approach in opposing racism. Race riots broke out in several southern cities. Between 1892 and 1898 more than a thousand African Americans were lynched. These events accelerated the exodus of southern African Americans to the urban Northeast.

   The cities suffered the worst. In New York City three-fourths of all its inhabitants lived in tenements. In Mulberry Bend, the heart of the Italian district, one-third of all babies born in 1888 died before their first birthdays. Traditional agencies such as the Children's Aid Society and the Salvation Army were overwhelmed, incapable of meeting the demands placed on their services.

   The culture of the cities was also changing dramatically and that complicated relief efforts. The majority of inhabitants in America's largest cities were now immigrants and their children.

Jane Addams

General Coxey on The March

Booker T Washington

Waiting for the Orphan Train

Adapted from

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

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