In nineteenth-century America (as in other times and places), one common explanation of poverty was that the poor were responsible for their own condition. Stereotyped as being lazy, impressionable, and prone to vice, their struggles were thought to be inevitable or even just retribution for their sins. Much of How the Other Half Lives is concerned with what Riis does consider moral failures, as he delves at length into alcoholism, prostitution, and parents’ abandonment of their children. But he also turns accepted social judgment on its head, arguing that poverty and squalor are not the result but the cause of corrupted morals.
Riis turns a sympathetic eye, for instance, on women who are unable to find steady work and who resort to accepting payment for sex. Rather than reacting with shock and disgust—two widespread and socially sanctioned responses to what was known as the “disease” of prostitution—Riis argues for compassion and understanding toward these women. Similarly, he explains much of the petty crime so common in New York slums as stemming from society’s failure to enroll the poorest children in school and to allow their families to look after them. Instead, he describes how many of these children find their way to the streets, where older, more seasoned thieves teach them to beg and steal. Riis’s evocative and often painful descriptions of squalid living conditions in New York’s slums are meant not to condemn the residents themselves for living in such a way, but rather to expose how easy it can be for people in such desperate straits to commit crimes (legal or moral).
By lingering over specific and often dramatic signs of destitution, and by tracing people’s behavior back to their socioeconomic conditions, Riis argues that social assumptions about the moral degradation of the poor are wrongheaded, their understanding of cause and effect reversed. By showing that the poor are forced to act in ways that society condemns, he suggests that tackling the root causes of poverty, rather than engaging in hand-wringing over certain behaviors among the poor, is the best means of resolving both social inequality and society’s moral ills.
Poverty and Morality ThemeTracker
Poverty and Morality Quotes in How the Other Half Lives
Long ago it was said that “one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.” That was true then. It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those who were underneath, as long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat. There came a time when the discomfort and crowding below were so great, and the consequent upheavals so violent, that it was no longer an easy thing to do, and then the upper half fell to inquiring what was the matter.
Might not the conference have found in the warning of one Brooklyn builder, who has invested his capital on this plan and made it pay more than a money interest, a hint worth heeding: “How shall the love of God be understood by those who have been nurtured in sight only of the greed of man?”
Danger and trouble—of the imminent kind, not the everyday sort that excited neither interest nor commiseration—run even this common clay into heroic moulds on occasion; occasions that help us to remember that the gap that separates the man with the patched coat from his wealthy neighbor is, after all, perhaps but a tenement. Yet, what a gap! and of whose making?
The meanest thief is infinitely above the stale-beer level. Once upon that plane there is no escape. To sink below it is impossible; no one ever rose from it. One night spent in a stale-beer dive is like the traditional putting on of the uniform of the caste, the discarded rags of an old tramp.
As scholars, the children of the most ignorant Polish Jew keep fairly abreast of their more favored playmates, until it comes to mental arithmetic, when they leave them behind with a bound. It is surprising to see how strong the instinct of dollars and cents is in them. They can count, and correctly, almost before they can talk.
As we stop in front of a tenement to watch one of these groups, a dirty baby in a single brief garment—yet a sweet, human little baby despite its dirt and tatters—tumbles off the lowest step, rolls over once, clutches my leg with unconscious grip, and goes to sleep on the flagstone, its curly head pillowed on my boot.
There is nothing in the prospect of a sharp, unceasing battle for the bare necessaries of life, to encourage looking ahead, everything to discourage the effort. Improvidence and wastefulness are natural results.
One may walk many miles through the homes of the poor searching vainly for an open reading-room, a cheerful coffee-house, a decent club that is not a cloak for the traffic in rum. The dramshop yawns at every step, the poor man’s club, his forum and his haven of rest when weary and disgusted with the crowding, the quarreling, and the wretchedness at home.
A number of [saloons], on the contrary, had brought their owners wealth and prominence. From their bars these eminent citizens stepped proudly into the councils of the city and the State. The very floor of one of the bar-rooms, in a neighborhood that lately resounded with the cry for bread of starving workmen, is paved with silver dollars!
But of the thousands, who are travelling the road they trod to the end, with the hot blood of youth in their veins, with the love of life and of the beautiful world to which not even sixty cents a day can shut their eyes—who is to blame if their feet find the paths of shame that are “always open to them”?
Tenement-house reform holds the key to the problem of pauperism in the city. We can never get rid of either the tenement or the pauper. The two will always exist together in New York. But by reforming the one, we can do more towards exterminating the other than can be done by all other means together that have yet been invented, or ever will be.
There is often tragic interest in the struggles of the ensnared wretches to break away from the meshes spun about them. But the maelstrom has no bowels of mercy; and the would-be fugitives are flung back again and again into the devouring whirlpool of crime and poverty, until the end is reached on the dissecting-table, or in the Potter’s Field.
The man was arrested, of course, and locked up. To-day he is probably in a mad-house, forgotten. And the carriages roll by to and from the big stores with their gay throng of shoppers. The world forgets easily, too easily, what it does not like to remember.