The Child Welfare Response to Youth Violence and Homelessness in the Nineteenth Century

By Nelson, Kristine | Child Welfare, January 1995 | Go to article overview

The Child Welfare Response to Youth Violence and Homelessness in the Nineteenth Century


Nelson, Kristine, Child Welfare


Once again the United States is facing the interrelated problems of homeless families and children, street gangs, and youth violence [Detweiler 1992; Gulati 1993]. In many cities, children are engaging in criminal behavior to support themselves and joining gangs that threaten the safety and stability of urban neighborhoods [Pryor & McGarrell 1993; Stark 1993]. Neither the problems nor society's response to them are new, however. Both closely parallel the conditions and responses prevalent in New York City and other developing urban areas in the nineteenth century. Confirming historical data are found in annual reports of the major organizations offering services to delinquent and dependent children, in newspaper articles, and in secondary sources describing social and economic conditions in mid-nineteenth century New York City. These sources provide descriptions of the origins, characteristics, and programs developed for street children.

The increase in street children in New York City nearly a century and a half ago resulted from economic changes that have parallels today. Thus, a knowledge of history is helpful in analyzing "innovative" programs and social policies to deal with "new" problems. Misconceptions about the origins and nature of both the social problems and the social welfare programs inhibit our ability to learn from the past and to respond effectively to social problems.

The Response of Charitable Organizations to Economic Crisis

Charitable organizations in the nineteenth century were, for the most part, responding to the social effects of economic change. The Panic of 1837, which lasted until the mid-1840s, for example, profoundly influenced New York City charities. With unemployment estimated at 33% [Schneider 1938: 262], cynicism and suspicion replaced the optimism and pious fervor of the previous decade's evangelical missions to the poor. Losing faith in the power of religion to reform, charity workers began to think of the poor and unemployed in terms previously associated only with the so-called "vicious poor"--criminals and alcoholics [Spann 1981: 71].

Increasing despair about the effectiveness of ministering to adults turned reformers' attention to the problem of street children, a problem publicized by Chief of Police George W. Matsell's 1849 report on juvenile crime. He documented the large number of vagrant children ages six to 16 in the lower wards of the city who survived by stealing, begging, and prostitution, or who simply made nuisances of themselves by hanging around street corners. He warned that this was a "deplorable and growing evil" that required an immediate remedy [Schneider 1938: 329].

Although a system of public schools had been established in New York City in 1842, in part to deal with problems of vagrancy and delinquency among the city's youth, only about half of the city's children attended school by mid-century. Since the schools emphasized moral education and character building rather than trade education, working-class students found them irrelevant and quit by age nine-if they went at all [Spann 1981: 260-261]. Matsell argued that street children should "be compelled to attend our schools regularly, or be apprenticed to some suitable occupation" [New York Juvenile Asylum 1860: 103].

Matsell's warning caught the attention of charitable organizations in the city. Both the New York Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor (NYAICP) and the American Female Guardian Society (AFGS), previously oriented toward helping the adult poor, responded to Matsell's report with a change of direction [NYAICP 1849: 27; AFGS 1851: 26-27; AFGS 1853: 21]. Turning their energies toward "the thousands of children in our large towns and cities, without friends or home, who are growing up ignorant and vicious, thus becoming fit subjects for the prison or the gallows" [AFGS 1854: 8], the two groups established a shelter, an asylum, and a family placement program to remove children from the city. …

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