- Almost Worthy: The Poor, Paupers, and the Science of Charity in America, 1877–1917 by Brent Ruswick
In a world stifled by poverty, governmental bodies, civil society organizations, and academics alike offer solutions ranging from institutionalized philanthropic giving to randomized evaluations. Debates abound on the proper way to address poverty holistically. Today’s “science” of poverty alleviation represents a remarkable shift in thinking relative to historical notions of addressing the poor. The history of this shift remained largely underexplored by academics until now.
Brent Ruswick’s Almost Worthy offers an historical evolution of the scientific charity movement’s transformation of the pauper in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. [End Page 586]
Pauperism, or the state of being willfully poor, posed a challenge to reformers attempting to determine who was worthy of receiving aid. Weaving perspectives from a number of the movement’s actors allows readers to grasp a sense of the tensions associated with the escalation of pauperism. But no sooner than the pauper had arisen as a topic of debate, concern with the pauper declined within academic discussions. Almost Worthy explores why this particular transition occurred and how the general perceptions of poverty during the Gilded Age evolved. Furthermore, an exploration of the advent of scientific innovation (e.g., surveys, field studies) to identify the “worthy vs. unworthy” poor captures the shift from previous individualized notions of poverty. Although the scientific charity movement declined by the 1910s, one can appreciate how it left an historical imprint on society by introducing science to the study of poverty and serving as an underpinning for professions such as social work.
The role of science in the study of poverty is an underexplored historical topic, and Ruswick addresses the academic dearth in this account. Over an approximate thirty-five-year time period, paupers came and went as a topic of academic discussion. More than the problems that paupers posed for society, pauperism signaled the introduction of science as a tool for social reform. Charity organization societies arose, and with them quantification and classification. Almost Worthy illustrates how analyses from surveys and field studies shaped the thinking and policy generation of reformers in this movement. This historical application of scientific norms speaks to current debates on use of quantification to address social problems, as policymakers generally request the data as a basis for policy change.
A particular strength of Almost Worthy is Ruswick’s painstaking and cogent analysis of the rise and decline of the scientific charity movement. An integration of case studies and secondary sources in the beginning of the book ensures that readers recognize the perceived antecedents of pauperism and how they justified the need for the movement. Moreover, readers note the movement’s scope at multiple levels of analysis, including detailed journal accounts from individual leaders, archival records from charity organization societies, and poverty-related surveys administered by national organizations. Meticulous analysis is also presented to shed light on the movement’s decline in the early 1900s. Eschewing the traditional view of individuals with unwavering stances, Almost Worthy presents changing views of the movement’s leaders over time by utilizing their own accounts.
Despite drawing from an array of historical sources and including a number of diverse perspectives, the collective voice of paupers remains sparse throughout the book. Aside from anecdotal accounts of paupers like “Big Moll” and “Mrs. Pierce” (chapter 1), readers [End Page 587] do not obtain the paupers’ perspectives on the positive or negative implications of evolving attitudes towards them. I am aware of the difficulty in obtaining and integrating such views, but given this limitation, Almost Worthy makes its contribution with a widely held “top-down” view. Given the increasing importance of the scientific charity movement in historical debate (p. 26), I encourage scholars to include the paupers’ voice in future studies.
Almost Worthy will resonate with a wide number of academic audiences. Social movement scholars keen on exploring multiple antecedents and consequences of...