Riis turns to the “problem of the children” in the tenements: he’s often tried to count the number of small bodies in each building, but he doubts that anyone has succeeded. Last year, he says, some workmen found the body of a small boy crushed under a pile of lumber, whom no one had missed and no one ever claimed.
Already Riis has drawn our attention to the many, apparently largely ignored, children crowding the tenements. This would be particularly shocking for Progressive reformers who saw childhood as the key to social improvements.
Riis argues that the boys growing up in tenements could be profitably trained from an early age to become mechanics, but the trade unions’ “despotism” has prevented that path, meaning that boys are condemned to drudgery or else, if their families have no time to look after them, to peddling or begging. Thus they end up on the street.
Riis doesn’t elaborate on what he means by “despotism,” but Progressive reformers were sometimes ambivalent about trade unions, both working with them to pass labor legislation, and remaining suspicious of their gaining too much power.
Riis argues that these young “savages” are still children at heart: they have a love of beauty that can be seen if one of them ever brings flowers from the fields into a tenement block, brightening the faces of the other children and keeping the peace in a neighborhood better, Riis says, than a policeman would. Most of the time, however, no one has time or energy to fetch flowers from so far away: instead children grow up in dark, dingy homes with only the promise of hard labor awaiting them. Riis quotes the findings of one gentleman’s survey in a downtown public school: of 48 boys 20 had never seen the Brooklyn Bridge, five minutes’ walk away; only three had ever been to Central Park.
Once again, Riis stresses that beauty and aesthetic pleasure are not extra luxuries for tenement neighborhoods, but rather essential tools in reforming and improving these areas of the city—here, because children, in his view, are naturally well-inclined to beauty. The statistics Riis cites are meant to shock his readers by exposing how trapped these children remain in their segment of the city, never managing to experience the cultural offerings of New York available to its more privileged populations.
Last summer, Riis encountered a small boy at the Police Headquarters. No one knew where he came from, but he was thrilled to have a bed for the night and bread with an egg for breakfast. In response to Riis’s questions, he said that he didn’t go to school nor to church; he never bought bread, only beer.
Riis’s anecdote, here stemming from his own reporting rather than heard from someone else, is meant to reveal how early children can be corrupted as a result of poverty and lack of a stable home life.
Riis has also seen little girls whose alcoholic father had put them out on the street after their mothers’ death. He contrasts people’s indifference about these children’s lack of knowledge about Christianity to the busy missionary activity of New York Christians on behalf of children thousands of miles away.
For Riis, it is scandalous that New York’s wealthy, including reformer types, spend their time agitating to convert foreign populations when there is plenty to be done in their very own hometown.
Riis describes the work of the Children’s Aid Society, which is attempting to combat this situation by sheltering thousands of homeless or orphaned children. There is also the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to children, which has defended 138,891 children, as well as the asylums and institutions in New York housing 15,000 dependent children. Riis underlines the vast population at stake.
Riis has already cited reports from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the country’s first child protection agency: he wants to draw attention to their endeavors but also insist that there is much more to be done.
Riis argues that the key to combating poverty is to focus on children before they are corrupted by the influences of the streets and tenements. For now, it’s mostly private charity reaching out to them: the city offers only reformatories, workhouses, and prisons.
Riis implies that the government could potentially offer poor children an alternate path just like the private charities whose work he mentions.