Riis blames pauperism for the process by which society associates poverty with the need for punishment rather than compassion and reform. He asks his reader to just briefly glance at the penitentiary on the islands next to Manhattan. Sometimes the desire to return to the saloon is so great that a prisoner risks his life to escape and swim to shore. Next to it is the workhouse, what he calls the “summer resort” of the slums, where little productive work is actually accomplished. Next to that is the almshouse, where rows of old women smoke, knit, or idle and grumble from morning to night. When Riis asked the warden if he could “take” them (that is, their picture), the warden was delighted and urged him to take the thousand of them. Riis notes that many of these old people have been sent to the almshouse by their children to die. Society pays for them, but it’s hardly a pleasant way to end one’s life.
Again, by distinguishing non-working “paupers” from the hardworking but desperate poor, Riis feels that he can lobby for better conditions for the latter group, while continuing to condemn the former group for its laziness and weak work ethic. But the city, he argues, blurs the line between the two by punishing even the hardworking poor for their inability to pay the rent or create stability for their families. Tenement-house reform, to Riis, is wildly preferable to the punitive kinds of housing that he explores here, from the almshouse to the workhouse, where the domestic ideal that he imagines is warped beyond recognition.
Riis next watches the women of Blackwell’s Island Asylum walk by, strapped to a rope because their diagnosis, “suicidal mania,” means they cannot be trusted with the river in sight. The asylum houses an average of 1,700 women, and the men’s asylum on Ward’s Island is even larger. A doctor tells Riis that no one who is sent to one of these places ever returns to the city cured and free. Instead they’re sent back to what Riis calls a “whirlpool” of crime and poverty until reaching the Potter’s Field.
For Riis, places like the Blackwell’s Island Asylum are precisely the opposite of the kinds of housing reform that New York needs. By stepping outside the tenement neighborhoods themselves, he shows how the shocking conditions perpetuated within these neighborhoods are also continued at city-run institutions beyond Manhattan.
Riis now turns to the “alcoholic cells” at Bellevue Hospital, which held 3,694 prisoners last year. Altogether, the prisons, workhouses, hospitals, almshouses, and asylums in New York admitted 138,332 people in 1889. Over two million dollars was spent on them; together with the cost of the police and the criminal courts, Riis concludes, the total price of maintaining a “standing army” of paupers, criminals, and the sick poor is over seven million dollars per year.
Riis adds up the populations served at these institutions, as well as the cost to taxpayers, to emphasize the extent of the problem and to ask his readers to imagine what else might be done—and done better—with such huge expenditures. As it is, he argues, these institutions do not reform but rather “maintain” a population trapped in poverty.