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From the Depths: The Discovery of Poverty in the United States

By Robert H. Bremner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
The Condition of the Poor; Late Nineteenth-Century Social Investigations

The helpful result of our study should be to renew the search for the preventive causes of degeneration, and to re-instill a consciousness of the necessity of improving both character and conditions.

AMOS G. WARNER, American Charities. A Study in Philanthropy and Economics.

T HE information on urban social conditions gathered by settlement residents, institutional churchmen, Y.M.C.A. secretaries, and agents of charitable societies was usually obtained as an incident to other activities. Surveys and monographs undertaken by these groups influenced workers in the movements involved and were sometimes consulted by students and teachers of sociology; but as a general rule they were not intended for, or readily accessible to, the general public. Such knowledge as the average citizen possessed on the subject of poverty he acquired (if not by personal experience) from popular journalistic treatments of the problem.

There was no lack of curiosity about the existence of slum dwellers in the latter half of the nineteenth century, much of it excited by the peculiar depravity which was assumed to characterize that life. For a half century after 1842, when Charles Dickens startled the country with his description of the coarse and bloated faces of the inhabitants of the Five Points, a succession of books rolled off

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