How the Other Half Lives

by

Jacob A. Riis

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How the Other Half Lives: Chapter 21 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Riis imagines that at this point the reader won’t be shocked to learn that over the past 8 years, 135,595 New York families have sought charity. But the reader might still be struck that nearly a tenth of those who died in the city during that period were buried in the Potter’s Field. These statistics are rigorously researched, but they are almost certainly incomplete. Riis estimates that about 6.5 percent of the New York population is entirely helpless: orphans, the disabled, or very old. More than half of the poor were so because they could not find work; one-sixth were professional beggars and were training their children accordingly. The Potter’s Field, in particular, represents absolute desperation—the hope of a decent burial is the last to which the poor will cling.
Riis uses the general term of the Potter’s Field to refer to several graveyards and burying grounds throughout the city. His intention is to stress the ways in which anonymity and lack of care for the poor continues from life into death. Riis also returns to his earlier statements about the importance that poor tenement residents place on a decent burial: that this too is so often denied them only underlines the ways in which poverty is intertwined with the lack of basic dignity offered to this population.
Themes
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Corruption   Theme Icon
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Riis records that the families receiving charity lived in more than 31,000 different tenements, where he argues that pauperism (by which he means receiving relief either officially or by begging) grows like a weed, its growth favored by the environment. The pauper’s absolute hopelessness distinguishes him from the honestly poor, Riis thinks, though the line is blurred in the tenement, which houses both groups.
Riis distinguishes between “poverty” and “pauperism”—while the former is a result of social conditions and should be met with compassion, Riis is a typical Progressive in proclaiming the moral benefits of honest work, and has little patience for “paupers” or the non-working poor.
Themes
Housing, Reform, and Improvement  Theme Icon
Diversity, Cosmopolitanism, and Ethnic Prejudice Theme Icon
Corruption   Theme Icon
The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon
Riis compares the beggar to the “tough” who thinks the world owes him a living, but the beggar doesn’t have the nerve to resort to violence, instead becoming a master strategist. Riis has encountered a number of beggar women holding what seemed like an infant, but turned out to be a bundle of rags. He knows one story of an Italian woman arrested for begging with a little girl whose rags were meant to elicit sympathy; an investigation showed the woman to be a “pauper capitalist,” making hundreds of dollars a year.
For Riis, the “strategies” of paupers are morally repulsive because they involve deception rather than an attempt at honest work. While he expresses shock and disgust at the conditions of those who toil to the point of illness or death, in a way he seems to think that’s preferable to those who resort to begging in order to survive.
Themes
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Making begging a crime has lowered the number of offenses, Riis says, but there are still thousands arrested each year. He is struck by the fact that the Irish are the nationality most likely to beg: Italians, who Riis thinks are adept at begging back home, account for less than 2 percent. He notes that Italians come to America to work, and are thus relatively immune from the corrupting influence of the tenement, while this is not the case for the Irish.
Here Riis speculates freely on the reasons that immigrants of certain nationalities are more likely to be beggars in New York than others. At some points in the book, he is careful to trace cause and effect through history, but here he relies more on received truths and stereotypes than on data or analysis.
Themes
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Diversity, Cosmopolitanism, and Ethnic Prejudice Theme Icon
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Riis lists a number of other cases of fraud, in which families prefer to elicit donations rather than work honestly. He argues that the amount of real suffering among the poor only renders reform more vital, such that beggars must work if they want to eat. He tells of a Health Department report from last July that a family with a sick child was in desperate straits at an uptown tenement. By the time a doctor arrived, the child was dead, and the other children were crying for food. What was needed, Riis argues, was work and living wages, not charity, which instead only worsens the situation and makes people dependent.
Here Riis continues to underline the importance of drawing a distinction between pauperism and poverty. He argues that the prevalence of the former is actually impeding reforms that would improve the lot of the working poor. While Riis has spent some time promoting the work of private philanthropy, he is convinced that “charity,” that is, direct transfer of money or other benefits to the poor, is not the best way to combat poverty.
Themes
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Riis says that $8,000,000 is spent on public and private charity each year in New York, and suggests that those funds instead be invested in a labor bureau that would join employers with those seeking work. But the best source of reform is the tenement, built precisely to house paupers and professional beggars. Though the tenement and the pauper might never be entirely eradicated, reforming the former is the best way to attack the existence of the latter.
Like many other Progressive reformers, Riis understands a strong work ethic to be a powerful means of reform, and something to be preferred to pure charity. He also reiterates his conviction that housing conditions are directly conducive to moral as well as economic and social status.
Themes
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Poverty and Morality  Theme Icon
The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon
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