On December 15, 1912, the New York Times ran a highly unorthodox headline: SANTA CLAUS PLEASE TAKE NOTICE! HERE ARE NEW YORK’S 100 NEEDIEST CASES. The equally unorthodox story began: "Fathoms deep beneath the exhilaration and joyousness of Christmas there is a world of desolation and hunger which few of the dwellers in light and air have had time or chance to realize; the world of famine in the midst of plenty, of cruel heart and body hunger with bounty in sight, but not in reach." There followed 100 short case histories of what the Times called the "uttermost dregs of the city's poor," culled from the files of the city's three largest charity organizations.
The response was immediate: food, blankets, toys, and clothing poured into the Times's offices, along with offers of adoption, employment, and medical care. The "Hundred Neediest Cases" appeal became an instant Christmas tradition, growing exponentially from its first $3,630.88 to reach nearly $5 million annually today.
Behind this growth lies a profound change, however. The prototypical needy case in the first decades of the appeal was a struggling widow or plucky orphan; today's is more likely to be a single mother of five who finds her welfare check inadequate. This change reflects one of the century's most momentous cultural developments: the transformation of elite opinion regarding poverty and need. The elite once held the poor to the same standards of behavior that it set for itself: moral character determined the strength of a person's claim for assistance. Those who worked and struggled and yet were overwhelmed by adversity deserved help; the idle and dissolute did not. Over time, though, elite opinion came to see the cause of poverty not in individual character and behavior but in vast, impersonal social and economic forces that supposedly determined individual fate. In response, need became the sole criterion for aid, with moral character all but irrelevant. The Neediest Cases appeal concludes this century an agnostic regarding individual responsibility and a strident advocate of the welfare state. The story of how it got there traces the rise of moral relativism among opinion and policy makers, the triumph of the entitlement ethos, and the transformation of the New York Times itself into a proponent of victimology and double standards.
At the heart of the first Neediest Cases appeals lay a crucial moral distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Times publisher Adolph Ochs started the appeal to channel the charitable impulse of the Christmas season toward the truly needy, as certified by the charity organizations that distributed the donations. Those who tried to make a career out of poverty or refused to help themselves would not get aid. Unapologetic about its moral approach, the Times opened its 1913 appeal with this admonition: "Because the Christmas spirit is strong within you, do not give to the professional beggars on the streets, unworthy, all of them, and often criminals." Such "indiscriminate giving" only encouraged pauperism. The Times proposed to educate readers into a deeper understanding of poverty.
The distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor was particularly relevant to early twentieth-century New York. It was a world where upright individuals could work extraordinarily hard—as factory hands, seamstresses, and laundresses—and still be poor. Misfortune was everywhere. Tuberculosis and other diseases crippled or killed entire families. Mental illness sent children and adults alike to "institutions." Most important, no government safety net existed; private charity was the sole external resource available to the poor.
The first case histories reflected these hard realities, with tuberculosis, in particular, a leitmotif. What is most striking about the articles is their moral fervor, often shading into sentimentality. They made strong emotional appeals, emphasizing family values and individual courage. A case headlined YOUNG WIFE’S CHEERLESS FUTURE from 1913 is typical in accentuating the pathos of its subject: "In a large department store a pale, toil-worn woman stands all day behind the glove counter. Despite her cheerless life and an apparently hopeless future, she is always courteous to customers, patient and obliging. Her husband is in a hospital, an advanced case of tuberculosis. There are three delicate children at school." The young wife is on the verge of a physical collapse, her wages insufficient to pay the rent and provide food. The article asks for assistance until 13-year-old Katherine, the oldest of the children, is "ready to help."
Case 92 from 1912 struck another familiar theme—the orphan "little mother": "A girl of 19 is being father and mother both to a cluster of little brothers and sisters, six in number, and her next youngest brother, now 16, is helping her as much as he can. She spends her days in a shop and her nights at home as a cook, dressmaker, and nurse to her little family." Such stories were lessons in the virtues of perseverance and responsibility.
Widows also dominated the first decades of the appeal, their plight described with unabashed emotionalism. A 20-year-old widow from 1912, for example, too frail from childbirth to support herself, is "resisting with all her might and main the impulse to send her child to an institution because it is the one beautiful and wonderful thing left to her of her starved and chilled romance." This emphasis on the innocence and worthiness of the charity recipients prevailed for the next four decades.
Throughout the twenties the Times held firmly to its moralized view of poverty and asserted the rectitude and purity of its beneficiaries, even when, as sometimes happened, a Hogarthian world of social squalor peeped out from behind them. A 1921 case headlined GOT MEALS FROM ASHCANS described two "ragged, unwashed" sisters, seven and five years old, who fed themselves from garbage cans. Abandoned by their parents, they were passed around among relatives living "in crowded shant[ies]" who didn't want them: "At first the relatives put them on the floor at night and let them cry themselves to sleep. Later they put them along the wall on chairs which served as beds for more important members of the household. When sound asleep, Doris and Fanny would be lifted out and placed on the floor, to make the chair beds available for the real owners. They are undernourished and suffering from severe skin troubles due to the ashcan diet. . . ." Yet the story concluded: The "good stuff in [the sisters] is indestructible. They are still two sweet, good-tempered, bright little girls."
Some social problems remained taboo for decades. A case from 1921 stands out for its rarity, as well as for its discreet circumlocutions about illegitimacy: "Mildred, very young and inexperienced, left the city telling her family and friends that she had work in another city. Several months later she returned, explaining that it had been unsatisfactory. She now has a position which barely enables her to support herself. Leaving her parents, she goes out alone, on one excuse or another, as frequently as she can, and visits a place were she sees Shirley, a tiny, blue-eyed baby. Mildred's earnings are so small that she can only partially pay for the child's board. She is greatly worried over money, and feels her position keenly. So far she has concealed everything from her family and her friends, but she has almost made up her mind to take Shirley home with her and let people think what they will. She wants to do what is right, but the situation is extremely perplexing." Nineteen twenty-one being a different era, Mildred's case elicited a marriage proposal from a sympathetic reader.
In 1921 an illegitimate birth was a crisis. For decades thereafter, a reference to a broken promise of marriage accompanied any mention of illegitimacy in the pages of the appeal. The illegitimate children were always sent to a foster home, on the assumption that an unmarried mother was an inappropriate parent.
In its early years the Hundred Neediest Cases exerted an enormous pull on New Yorkers' imaginations, even finding its way into novels of the time. The appeal was highly individualized: contributors could earmark their donations for a specific case, and each case listed a specific amount needed—at most, several hundred dollars. Donors therefore had a sense of making an immediate difference in individual lives.
The stock market crash of 1929 passed without mention in the Neediest Cases appeal, but the Great Depression most definitely did not. The appeal's response to the depression is a telling moment in its early history. On the eve of the welfare state's birth, the fund stressed its own voluntary nature: "The fate of these hundred cases rests entirely with the conscience of the reader. There is no compulsion to give." Rather than using the depression as a lever for its fund-raising, the charity drive sharply distinguished its purpose from that of the public welfare programs just then being launched. The Neediest Cases, the Times said in 1933, were "victims not of economic storms but of life itself," having "been stricken with still greater misfortune [than unemployment]." The paper worried that the "ill, the helpless, the deserted ones" would be overlooked in the nation's massive response to joblessness.
And indeed, the cases from the thirties were no different from those of the preceding two decades. As ever, the paper stressed the moral qualities of the recipients. A case from 1933 crystallized the genre: "No combination of troubles, it seems, can quench the spirit of Selina G. At 71 she is sick in a hospital ward. After a lifetime of struggle, she thinks up `last lines' to speak to the welfare visitor: `Good-bye. I'll see you next week. That is if I don't elope.' . . . A half century ago, while she was still a young bride, Selina had to support her husband, whose lungs had become affected by his work in a tannery. She did this for the twenty years he lived, a confirmed invalid. She kept on supporting herself by domestic service until stomach ulcers forced her to stop two years ago. . . . Then she was taken to the hospital, a very sick old woman and a little frightened, though she tried to hide that with her badinage."
As public relief programs grew in scope, however, the fund had to confront its relationship to them. "It will be asked, quite understandably, why private charity should be necessary in these days when the government is providing relief on so vast a scale," acknowledged the Times in 1937. The answer to this question, posed almost yearly over the next two decades, was in constant flux. Sometimes the Times would explain that the fund attended to matters of the spirit while public relief tended to material needs; other times, that the fund helped those who did not qualify for public assistance; and at yet others, that the fund provided specialized services (such as rehabilitation and medicine) unavailable publicly. But no matter how the Times defined the fund's role vis-a-vis welfare, up through the sixties it always presented public relief as an act of remarkable generosity on the part of the public, not as an entitlement.
If the appeal's sunny disposition toward public relief appears refreshingly innocent today, that is because welfare did not represent the same constellation of problems as it does now. "We didn't worry about long-term dependency back then," recalls Arthur Gelb, a former Times managing editor, who wrote the Neediest Cases profiles in 1944 and 1945. Today Gelb oversees the appeal as president of the New York Times Company Foundation. The forties were a more innocent world, he says: "The stigma of going on relief was so great that it was inconceivable to stay on. People kept their heads high." Even the movies reinforced the ideal of independence, Gelb recalls: "All the heroes had an idea: get out of poverty, get a job, because you have to earn a living on your own." The appeal itself constantly lauded the work ethic.
In December 1942 the Times's front page rang with news of battles between the Allies and the Axis powers in Tunisia and Burma. Locally, juvenile delinquency in New York City schools was rising, a fact attributed to the war. Opening the 1942 drive, the Times posed its regular question: "`Is it possible,' you may ask, `that in these days of public relief and war employment there are still those who need my aid?'" Its answer this time—and from then on—stressed the fund's newest priorities: counseling and therapy. "Psychological problems," the paper said, "are often more pressing than physical ones." For the first time, in 1942 the Times included the cost of counseling in the amount requested for each case.
The rise in juvenile delinquency certainly confirmed a growing spiritual malaise. But in contrast to older models of social work, which had stressed the moral reformation of the poor, the Hundred Neediest Cases increasingly incorporated trendy psychoanalytic explanations for, and responses to, social problems. Lack of "self-fulfillment" was starting to take its place among recognized personal ills. A 1942 case was headlined BEGINNING TO FIND HERSELF; another case described an aspiring artist burdened with a guardian aunt, wholly unsympathetic to her artistic hopes, who believed that the girl's proper place was at the lingerie counter of a department store.
A few cases began to anticipate, faintly, today's pervasive social dislocations. One described a baby found bruised, with a swollen forehead. The mother, picked up roaming the streets, claimed that the child had injured herself. The unemployed father had "irresponsibly" deserted the family, said the Times. But both society's and the Times's response to such problems remained firmly moral, rooted in notions of individual responsibility. The mother was committed to an asylum, the child put up for adoption-both actions based on recognition of the mother's unfitness. In those days the Times did not shrink from labeling parents irresponsible or incompetent.
The postwar years saw the triumph of the psychoanalytic model. Contemporary thinking about family relations found its way into the drive, particularly the newly fashionable problem of "overly strict" child rearing, which reflected the emerging elite condemnation of traditional families. The case histories presented illegitimacy and juvenile delinquency as products of repressive childhoods, and social workers taught parents to give their straying children more freedom as an antidote to "rebellion."
Other family dramas unfolded in the Neediest Cases: a mother in 1949 was "terrified of becoming the kind of mother [her] mother was"; a periodically abandoned wife and mother was counseled to gain a "more objective view of her marriage" with an eye toward divorce. Social ties were starting to loosen—divorce was growing more prevalent, children more unmanageable. In one 1949 case a 21-year-old woman, who "never felt she had a real home" because her parents had divorced, had an illegitimate son after her lover broke his marriage promise. Six years later the son had become a troublemaker and petty thief. According to the Times, a "psychiatric examination showed that his problems stemmed largely from a need for more attention from his mother." On the advice of the Brooklyn Bureau of Social Service, the mother quit her job and went on public assistance so as to give her son the "companionship he craves."
Such wrongheaded intervention in the lives of troubled families would go on to have a long history in the Neediest Cases. To take one example from our own day, a story in early 1996 headlined THERAPY HELPS A PROTECTIVE MOTHER COPE told an unintentionally heartbreaking tale of traditional values destroyed by liberal elites. A Guyanese single mother was allegedly causing "stress" in her son with her "rigid rules" against jeans and sneakers—rules more appropriate, the Times noted with alarm, for a British private school. Then the mother started having her own "stress" and discovered, through therapy, that she had repressed her memories of childhood sexual abuse—the Holy Grail of counseling. Now, presumably freed from the demons that had erupted in so cruel a dress code for her son, the mother has loosened her restrictions on him. The counseling—by an older but no wiser Brooklyn Bureau of Community Service, now renamed—succeeded: he now sports an earring and baggy pants, the Times reported proudly.
As if in recognition of the changing emphasis of the fund, the Times in 1949 stopped listing the amount needed for each case, explaining that a dollar amount could not be put on the "psychological help" that the charitable agencies now provided. The earlier notion that a reader could provide the entire amount needed to help a specific individual get through a specific crisis gave way to the idea of more generalized, permanent assistance for ongoing social ills.
The year 1949 marked one more milestone for the appeal. The Times cast aside its long-standing convention of distinguishing the "deserving" from the "undeserving" poor: "What a bleak world it would be if we helped only those who were thoroughly blameless! A good many of us make our own bad luck, and we suppose that some of the people represented in the Neediest Cases would not be in trouble now if they had managed their lives differently. It may even be appropriate once in a while, when help is asked, to recall Lord Chesterfield's words: `Do not refuse your charity even to those who have no merit but their misery.'"
One can only guess why the Times acknowledged the self-made bad luck of some of the Neediest Cases. Most likely the changing nature of the caseload simply forced itself upon the paper's attention. While the classic pure victims—widows and orphans—still generously leavened the appeal, they were matched by more troubling cases of family disintegration and irresponsibility—relatively innocuous compared to the raging social pathologies that would show up two decades later, but nevertheless noticeably different from the uplifting stories of triumph over adversity that dominated the first appeals.
Nineteen fifty-six was a year of extraordinary prosperity at home and increasing tension abroad. Cold-war consciousness infused even the appeal itself. The "health of a democratic society like ours" depends on voluntary assistance, wrote the city and state welfare directors in their statement on private philanthropy, a feature of the appeal since the Great Depression.
That same issue of the Times also contained a full-page ad for Elvis Presley's "latest and greatest" album, signaling the explosive arrival of the youth culture that peacetime prosperity had spawned. The 1956 Neediest Cases Fund documented the underside of that culture with an unprecedented amount of juvenile delinquency and gang activity. Children were growing disturbed and unmanageable.
By the sixties, all hell had broken loose. Truancy, delinquency, failure at school, illegitimacy, and parental abandonment pervaded the cases. The first case in 1965, headlined WAITING, described two children, two and three years old, who had been deserted by their mother in front of a candy store. "My mummy said to wait here," the three-year-old explained. In another case an 11-year-old with a shiftless, rowdy father was described as fitting the "familiar pattern of the pre-delinquent." A father was arrested for molesting a neighbor's child. Several of the cases had attempted suicide, some in their teens.
The prosperity of the 1950s reached still greater heights in the 1960s, yet suddenly everybody seemed to be talking about poverty. In 1962, Michael Harrington published The Other America, which set the stage for the federal War on Poverty by arguing that America had ignored millions of poor people who had been victimized by the same forces that were making most Americans prosper. New York mayor John Lindsay launched his own local war on poverty when he came into office in 1965. It included a demand, announced on the first day of the 1965 Neediest Cases appeal, for federal job training money for women who were "family heads"—signaling the start of a fateful campaign to normalize and destigmatize the unmarried welfare-dependent mother.
In the midst of this ferment over poverty, the Neediest Cases Fund made a startling, if only implicit, acknowledgment: welfare dependency had become a problem. In their annual statement on behalf of the appeal, the state and city welfare commissioners argued that "the rehabilitation of dependent people requires the skilled help of the voluntary agency staffs, the pioneers in this field." Suddenly, the fund's purpose was no longer to assist the helpless but to wean the dependent off government aid—a monumental shift, which passed without further mention. Its implications, though, were huge: rather than eliminating poverty, the massive public effort to end it had worsened it, at least among younger, able-bodied people.
For all the social disintegration that was showing up in the appeal, one taboo remained—against the normalization of illegitimacy. As in past years, when women profiled in the appeal had an illegitimate child, the assumed next step was putting the child up for adoption. In one 1965 case, for example, a social worker was said to be helping an unwed 19-year-old mother "face up to the decision she must make" to relinquish her baby. But this long-standing social consensus was under attack. Already 90 percent of the 311,000 children in the city receiving public assistance were without a male parent in the household.
By 1969 the Hundred Neediest Cases Fund had hit the rock bottom of social squalor. The appeal itself recognized that the era was one of "growing social disorganization." Welfare was spiraling out of control both in the city and nationwide, thanks to the welfare rights movement. New York's rolls were rising at a monthly rate of 17,000—triple what Mayor Lindsay's budget had forecast. Crime, too, was out of control; the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence called American cities a "mixture of fortresses and places of terror."
The Times's fund put faces on these troubling trends. In one case a drug-addicted mother had disappeared two years previously, the father was bringing women home and locking out his two teenage children overnight, the daughter was pregnant by an older man, and the mother, recently released from jail and back in touch, wanted the son to come live with her. In another case the ten-year-old daughter of a heroin-addicted father and a paroled drug-dealer mother said she remembered strange teenagers shooting up in her kitchen. An out-of-wedlock son of a 19-year-old mother, who was herself illegitimate and had lived "on the streets" since she was 15, languished in a foster home, hostage to the mother's refusal to give him up for adoption. Truancy and delinquency were rampant, and more and more of the profiled teen mothers were keeping their children and going on public assistance. The underclass had taken over the fund in a big way.
As the social and moral disintegration mounted, the Times made a profound change in its editorial line on the Neediest Cases Fund. Gone were the holiday paeans to the generosity of ordinary citizens; gone, too, was the paper's honesty about self-induced misfortune. Instead, this was the moment that the Times turned sour and became an apologist for the welfare state. The editorial opening the 1969 campaign began: "The fifty-eighth annual appeal for New York's Hundred Neediest Cases arrives at a moment in this country, state and city when there is some confusion about the poor among us and what they desire. Much of this talk has been ill-informed and theoretical, taking the harsh line that penury and despair are self-induced and that financial aid is going to the lazy and undeserving." The Times insisted that the appeal represented people "trapped in prisons of circumstance."
This one editorial contained in miniature the agenda for the cultural elite for the next two decades: first, to deny that welfare had become a trap and that conditions in the inner city reflected a moral, as much as an economic, decline; second, to disparage as greedy, unfeeling, and possibly even racist those who questioned the welfare status quo; and third, to insist that individuals acted not of their own free will but because of environmental conditions beyond their control.
The modern era of the Neediest Cases had begun. From now on, the appeal would evolve into an increasingly strident and political platform for welfare advocacy. The moral certainties of the first decades of the appeal dissolved into a dogmatic "open-mindedness" about the various "life-style choices" that resulted in apparent need.
The format of the Hundred Neediest Cases appeal changed radically after 1972. That was the last year the Times printed profiles of all the cases simultaneously. It was also the last year the appeal was called the "Hundred Neediest Cases"; thereafter it became just the "Neediest Cases" and presented only one or two profiles at a time sporadically over many weeks. The Times never acknowledged or explained the change, but the nature of the few cases presented in 1972 may suggest a reason. Just one conveys the unprecedented degradation that now confronted Times readers: "Jennie" was a pregnant 17-year-old who had been raped by one of her mother's live-in "men friends." One brother was in jail for pushing heroin; the other two used drugs; she herself started using at age 13. Drugs had probably already affected her unborn child. She had attempted suicide. Catholic Charities was going to help her apply for public assistance so that "she will be free of her family and not have to depend on her friends." No mention was made of adoption: social service agencies by then embraced the view that single mothers should get public support to raise their illegitimate children.
Such social pathologies certainly were a challenge to the charitable impulse. For many years thereafter, instead of spotlighting the recipients, the appeal ran stories primarily on the agencies that distributed Neediest Cases money. One such profile, describing how the Community Service Society worked to divert youth in the South Bronx from the "delinquent-labeling process of the juvenile courts," seemed oblivious to the fact that some Times readers would deem the label "juvenile delinquent" perfectly appropriate for a teen criminal and wouldn't appreciate efforts to return such thugs to the streets.
A new Neediest Cases genre sprang up in the early seventies: bellyaching by the agencies about government cuts. Gone were the days of gratitude for public welfare; now the appeal regularly berated the public and the government for stinginess in supporting the poor. In 1973, as the front page followed the course of the Arab oil embargo, the appeal quoted Marina S. Heiskell, chair of the Community Service Society of New York, as saying: "We have witnessed an unbelievable trend of government cutbacks in health and welfare programs. The age-old public hostility toward the poor has not decreased, and alienation among groups—young and old, black and white, rich and poor—have [sic] even grown. At a time when there is more and more for us to do, we are faced with less and less to do it with."
Editorially the paper echoed the agencies' complaints: "Government funds, which were never plentiful," it moaned, "are dwindling." Just three years previously, the state and city welfare directors had noted with satisfaction government's "unprecedented" commitment, "in effort and in funds, to the alleviation of . . . mass deprivation." It was now taboo to mention that by any historical measure, welfare spending was extraordinarily high.
In 1975, the depth of New York City's financial crisis, the agencies reiterated their complaints against government budget cuts. Welfare benefits were too low, complained a director of the Community Service Society (though, of course, high welfare benefits were one cause of the city's budget crisis); the vice president of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, Joyce P. Austin, charged that the public was blind to the effect of the budget cuts. By now the appeal had become as much a mechanism for trying to boost public funding of the social service agencies as for inspiring private giving.
By 1981 the blame-the-government theme of the appeal had become explicitly political. Joyce Austin singled out President Reagan for "sweeping" and "unprecedented" cuts in food stamps, welfare, subsidized housing, and job training—services, she said, that "support the very essentials of life," as if government services, not individual initiative, support life.
During the seventies and early eighties, the Times generally refrained from such blame-the-government tirades. No more. The 1996 appeal opened editorially with as sensational a statement of the theme as the most radical agency directors might make: "The children, the sick, the elderly and the poor, who make up the most defenseless elements of New York City's population," the paper charged, "have suffered brutal blows from cutbacks in government services in recent years. The signs of trouble are as visible as the homeless in the streets, the abandoned buildings and the abused children in the headlines." The imagery equated welfare cutbacks with physical assault, and indeed the editorial went on to blame fatal child abuse on inadequate government welfare spending. Wholly absent was any sense of individual responsibility for creating or solving social problems.
The fund's spokesmen and recipients blame the public as well as the government for creating or contributing to poverty—despite unprecedented spending on the poor and the unprecedented openness of today's economy and society. On the fund's 75th anniversary in 1986, Thomas DiStefano, head of the Catholic Charities of Brooklyn, declared that the problems facing the poor have not changed over the years: "Many people are still burdened by poverty, discrimination, and injustice," he said—in other words, society's supposed racism and lack of justice are responsible for individual need. The then-president of the fund from the Times, Fred Hechinger, called "the plight of the homeless . . . a mark of public shame," his assumption being that public hard-heartedness is to blame, not advocate-driven policies that keep disturbed people from getting needed medical care.
In the new Alice-in-Wonderland world of the Neediest Cases appeal, charity heads, echoed by the Times, belittle the efficacy of the private charity they are soliciting. "It's naive and disingenuous for anyone to say that private charities can fill the gap [of congressional welfare cuts]," sniffed Megan E. McLaughlin, head of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, in 1995. Such talk suggests how little private charity seems to matter to these private agencies, which have come to rely more and more on government funding and to view themselves as handmaidens of the welfare state. Adolph Ochs, the founder of the Neediest Cases Fund, would have found this contempt for private initiatives astounding. Upon buying the Times in 1896, Ochs declared his philosophy: the paper would be devoted to sound money, low taxes, and "no more government than is absolutely necessary to protect society, maintain individual and vested rights, and assure the free exercise of a sound conscience."
Not only do the Neediest Cases charities value government welfare spending more than private donations, but much of their current charitable work, as profiled in the appeal, consists of signing up people for government assistance or fighting to restore benefits. Donors to the fund, therefore, pay twice: first, their donation is used to obtain welfare; then their taxes are used to pay welfare. A 1995 profile of the Community Service Society, for example, described a 53-year-old Vietnam veteran who had lost his welfare benefits for failure to comply with the finger-imaging requirement. The veteran claimed he hadn't been informed of the requirement—a universal explanation among welfare recipients whenever they are penalized. The Community Service Society represented the veteran on appeal and won his benefits back.
And who are the victims who appear in the profiles today? Drug abuse still rages through the cases—a boyfriend on crack sets fire to the house of his companion, an unwed mother; a girl who began using drugs at age 15 has five children by age 18; a grandmother cares for the abandoned children of her addicted daughter. The Times has even found a place for the victims of middle-class disorders. As one especially memorable profile opened, "The anorexia began during a cruise to the Bahamas."
Though the fund still profiles elderly widows, disabled breadwinners, and handicapped children, an overwhelming number of contemporary cases stem from one simple fact: having children out of wedlock. Take away illegitimacy and much of the Neediest Cases caseload would disappear. From the out-of-wedlock births in the appeal follows a predictable string of setbacks, including welfare dependency, homelessness, drug use, and often prostitution. The convention of mentioning a thwarted intention to marry has long since withered away; today many of the appeal's illegitimate births could be immaculate conceptions, for all the mention of a father.
Today's typical case is a garden-variety welfare mother. One unwed mother of four left New York for rural Florida when her relationship with her children's father broke up. She didn't like it there ("It was like Mayberry," she explains) and returned to Harlem. After a brief stint living with a son, she declared herself homeless and got a city-subsidized apartment in the Bronx, where she lives on welfare. Though it's a tight fit in the apartment, the Times reassures its readers, the family is managing. This saga, in the woman's view and the Times's, demonstrates true grit: "It's like you have to fight to survive. That's what makes New York New York, I guess," she announces. Presumably as proof of her strong passion for justice, the Times notes glowingly that she lectures subway passengers for not giving money to a panhandling couple claiming AIDS.
As this case suggests, worthiness is now quite a flexible concept for the appeal. A measure of how far we have come from the virtuous widows and orphans of Adolph Ochs's time is the case of a Puerto Rican woman who, despite admitting to $10,000 of welfare fraud, now lives in a subsidized apartment on food stamps, welfare payments, and child support. Luz Pena's story epitomizes the Times's current value-free approach to need. In the first half of the century, her successful bilking of the welfare system would have placed her in Ochs's category of "professional beggars"; now, however, the fund views her as needy because the deduction of restitution from her welfare check leaves just $80. Pena is emblematic of modern social welfare theory, wherein the sole criterion for assistance is material want; playing by the rules is no longer relevant.
The Times considers no one's opportunities so golden that the failure to take advantage of them is condemnable. Consider a 1996 profile of a 17-year-old with a drinking problem. The story begins with a deliberate attempt to jolt the reader: "Jennifer M. did not drink much in the mornings, maybe a swig of vodka at home or a beer on her way to school, just enough to make a teenage alcoholic feel that she could face the day." Jennifer began drinking at age 14, while on scholarship at a Brooklyn prep school. "`It was more of a party thing,' she said. `We were young. It was fun. . . . The 10th and 11th grades were a blur to me.'" Now in a rehab program, she has had several relapses—smoking marijuana with friends and nearly drinking herself into a coma at a club—but had been clean for three months at the time of the article.
Jennifer's story is indeed a sorry affair, and it is good that she is getting help. But her predicament is not a fact of nature but a product of her reprehensible behavior, made all the worse by her squandering a free prep-school education. The Times treats the situation as if individual will or responsibility never entered the picture. Had the paper cast the story in terms of a fall and redemption, had it acknowledged the moral challenge Jennifer faced, it would have made a more sympathetic—and certainly a more honest—case. But in the Times's world, all victims look alike.
Even when modern cases seem to echo the early ones, they do so in an oddly dissonant key. The "little mother"—a young girl bereft of her mother, struggling to raise her brothers and sisters—was a mainstay of the early appeal and proved particularly moving to the Times's readers. A similar situation in the 1996 appeal—a 14-year-old orphan named Kenya Eubanks, being raised by her 21-year-old sister—sounds familiar until you read on: the older sister has a three-year-old illegitimate child; both girls are on public assistance. In an earlier age the assumption would be that such a household needs adult supervision: the older sister is already struggling with Kenya's boy problems and failure to do her homework. In today's climate the social worker got them their own apartment. In such a situation the chance that Kenya will herself reach age 18 without having had a child seems small.
The Neediest Cases Fund still accomplishes wonderful things: it rehabilitates the disabled, sends handicapped children to camp, and buys glasses for nearly blind widows. But its unwillingness to render judgment on self-destructive behavior is part of a moral climate that has done real and lasting harm to the poor. Elite opinion contributed to the creation of today's underclass and must take some responsibility for reforming it. It is not enough to change welfare programs, to let responsibilities devolve to states and localities, to emphasize work over entitlement. We must once again start to draw moral distinctions in our public discourse—to praise virtue and blame vice. In this all-important task of cultural renewal, the Times continues to stand squarely in the way, stubbornly clinging to the destructive views it has done so much to disseminate.