One of the barriers against institutions like prisons for children is the Foundling Asylum, collecting 25,000 from the streets over the last twenty years. Only the poor abandon their children, Riis says, and those that are picked up by the police in hallways, on the doorsteps of the rich, and on the streets become wards of the city. After a night at Police Headquarters they are sent to the Infants’ Hospital on Randall’s Island. Few live much longer than that—65 percent of the 508 received at the hospital died last year (though that number includes those born at the hospitals, so foundlings’ mortality is most likely higher).
Although Riis is supportive of institutions like the Foundling Asylum that are already catering to the needs of the poor, here he stresses the overwhelming crisis to which such institutions are responding. Again, for Progressives, children’s well-being and education were the key to social improvement and reform, which is partly why Riis spends so much time devoted to the plight of children alone.
In addition, many babies are dead by the time they are picked up, sent ultimately to a trench in the Potter’s Field. Most of these are found in the East Side, left by unmarried mothers. Others return from the island hospital and deposit their babies at Sister Irene’s Asylum on 68th Street. They are asked in return to nurse their own and another baby until both are strong enough to be left. In other cases “pay babies” are sent out to be nursed by other women, whose work pays the rent of hundreds of tenement families.
The Potter’s Field has already been mentioned as the place where inequality, destitution, and indignity continue from life into death—a situation only made more tragic when those buried anonymously are abandoned babies and children. The practice of “pay babies” is meant to underline the nuanced variations of desperation among the working poor.
Riis describes the shocking practice of baby-farming, or starving babies to death, in which people make a living by adopting several babies for cash: they feed these babies sour milk until they die, then get an inexperienced doctor to say the death was no fault of their own. Riis has heard of another case in which a step-mother was put on trial for incredibly cruel treatment of a child: the motivation was apparently the tiny amount of insurance on the child’s life. Certain companies specialize in insuring children’s lives: Riis is appalled by one formal agreement that capped the premium for a child under six at ten cents.
Riis’s sensational tales are meant to draw attention to the specific issues facing the city’s most vulnerable, youngest residents, but also to return to the major problem of corruption plaguing New York’s poorest neighborhoods. Here he explores the depths to which desperate people will go, including inviting a child’s death for insurance reasons, but also the more socially acceptable evil of the insurance companies themselves.
Riis expresses relief at turning to the many charities that have sprung up to help the city’s most desperate children, from Day Nurseries to Fresh Air Funds, and that have made New York a “cleaner, better, purer” city than it used to be. The Five Points House of Industry is one example, having rescued 60,000 children in total. Riis is touched by the sight of children praying at its nursery school each night.
Even while Riis continues to stress how little has been done to improve the live of New York’s poorest, he also wants to draw attention to existing organizations whose work might also remain unknown among many of his readers, and might thus serve as a model for further reform.