Poverty and Equality: A Distant Mirror

In one sense, Joel Schwartz’s new effort, Fighting Poverty with Virtue, is tremendously timely. Bill Clinton’s Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 was designed to “end welfare as we know it,” turning greater attention to poor people’s habits than to their pocketbooks. George Bush’s compassionate conservatism is meant to pick up the pace, overtly seeking “to save and change lives.” The White House’s ominously entitled “Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives” is apparently set to unleash new waves of moral reformers. Schwartz’s book seeks to provide moral, philosophical and historical sustenance for these initiatives. He focuses on four “largely forgotten figures” (p. xvi): Joseph Tuckerman, a Unitarian minister who served the poor in Boston in the 1820s and 1830s; Robert Hartley, founder of New York’s Association for the Improvement of the Poor; Charles Loring Brace, a Methodist minister who directed the New York City Children’s Aid Society in the mid-nineteenth century; and Josephine Shaw Lowell, a civil war widow who helped found New York’s Charity Organization Society in 1882. Examining their individual careers, Schwartz documents their collective belief that “the poor [can] best help themselves by practicing humble virtues like diligence, sobriety and thrift” (p. xv). We can make the poor “less poor,” they claimed, “by making them more virtuous” (p. xv). Poverty policy is moral, not economic. Changing behavior is more vital, and more beneficial, than transferring cash. If this sounds newly familiar, it should. After “a long historical detour,” Schwartz writes, happily “we are returning to an anti-poverty approach reminiscent of [these] moral reformers” (p. xix).