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Almost Worthy

The Poor, Paupers, and the Science of Charity in America, 1877-1917

Brent Ruswick

Publication Year: 2012

In the 1880s, social reform leaders warned that the "unworthy" poor were taking charitable relief intended for the truly deserving. Armed with statistics and confused notions of evolution, these "scientific charity" reformers founded organizations intent on limiting access to relief by the most morally, biologically, and economically unfit. Brent Ruswick examines a prominent national organization for scientific social reform and poor relief in Indianapolis in order to understand how these new theories of poverty gave birth to new programs to assist the poor.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Series: Philanthropic and Nonprofit Studies


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xi

The kernel that grew into Almost Worthy has been with me since October 2000. As the project grew, it touched every significant element of my life. Too often, I fear, it intruded into space that ought to have been reserved for dear friends, family, and...

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1 Introduction: Big Moll and the Science of Scientific Charity

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pp. 1-34

In June 1881 a council of concerned Indiana citizens filed a petition with the Board of County Commissioners of Marion County, asking that they investigate the rampant abuse and negligence rumored to be infesting the Marion County Poorhouse. Thomas A. Hendricks, a former Indiana governor, U.S. senator...

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2 “Armies of Vice”: Evolution, Heredity, and the Pauper Menace

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pp. 35-69

In the late 1870s, the pauper became a threat not only to the nation’s economic and moral health but to its biological health as well. Americans learned of Darwinian biology and the various social implications that commentators drew from the “struggle for existence” at the same moment that economic depression...

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3 Friendly Visitors or Scientific Investigators? Befriending and Measuring the Poor

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pp. 70-104

Through daily encounters with the needy in dozens of North American cities from Vancouver to Atlanta, volunteers of the scientific charity movement investigated, registered, classified, and sometimes aided the poor. Far removed from the annual gatherings of leading reformers and academics at the National...

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4 Opposition, Depression, and the Rejection of Pauperism

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pp. 105-142

Scientific charity’s leaders directed almost as much scorn at other charitable institutions as they did at the paupers who supposedly benefited from those institutions’ misguided generosity. They advertised scientific charity as a corrective for the ill-conceived and poorly executed work of the entrenched...

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5 “I See No Terrible Army”: Environmental Reform and Radicalism in the Scientific Charity Movement

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pp. 143-178

On 18 May 1891, a gravely ill Oscar McCulloch released his final and definitive statement on scientific charity and poverty, “The True Spirit of Charity Organization.” The moving prose expressed an almost complete abandonment of his earlier positions regarding biology and pauperism. The man who had helped launch...

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6 The Potentially Normal Poor: Professional Social Work, Psychology, and the End of Scientific Charity

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pp. 179-203

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, influential leaders of the scientific charity movement repudiated their initial premise that most poverty originated in character defects and shied away from the more draconian approaches suggested from that premise. Reformulating scientific charity, they adopted a...

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pp. 204-210

When asked what my historical study of scientific charity organizers and their struggle to end poverty can teach us about the problem of poverty today, I prefer to demur. My reluctance to connect the dots between past and present tends to disappoint those undergraduate students who begin...

Appendix 1. Course Syllabus, Alexander Johnson: Study Class in Social Science in the Department of Charity

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pp. 211-214

Appendix 2. Course Syllabus, Mrs. S. E. Tenney: The Class for Study of the Friendly Visitor’s Work

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pp. 215-216


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pp. 217-244

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 245-258


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pp. 259-265

E-ISBN-13: 9780253006387
E-ISBN-10: 0253006384
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253006349

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 10 b&w illus.
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Philanthropic and Nonprofit Studies
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OCLC Number: 843777439
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Almost Worthy

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Poor -- Services for -- United States -- History.
  • Charities -- United States -- History.
  • Nature and nurture -- United States -- History.
  • Poverty -- United States -- History.
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