Homelessness, contrary to those who date its inception to the Reagan administration, is nothing new in New York. In June 1872, between 20,000 and 30,000 homeless and vagrant children haunted the city, sleeping not on their grandmothers’ couches—as homelessness is sometimes defined, as a legal matter, today—but actually on the streets. They included newsboys and bootblacks, scrounging to survive; pickpockets working in teams on Christopher, King, and Rivington Streets; and gang members who stole cotton, iron, or baggage from the docks of lower Manhattan. As early as 1852, the city’s prisons held 4,000 criminals under 21. We know these facts not thanks to some archive of the city’s Department of Homeless Services—which did not exist in the nineteenth century—but to one man who undertook to uplift these “ruffianly masses [who] are simply neglected, street-wandering children and who have come to early manhood.”
These days, we remember Charles Loring Brace, founder of the Children’s Aid Society, mainly for his work “placing out” thousands of poor urban children into midwestern farm families, a massive foster-care effort featured in the 1979 made-for-TV movie Orphan Train. But he did much more than that, including a great deal for the many more children of the street who remained in New York. In an 1881 speech at Harvard, Brace described these children in a way that brings to mind our own underclass: “The vast immigration of poor foreign peasants and laborers [and] the neglect of the marriage-tie and consequent breaking up of family life, with a certain independence allowed to youth . . . for these and other causes, there has come to be in the United States . . . a growth of a poor, vagrant and criminal class of children, scarcely ever known before in the civilized world.”
Brace’s greatest accomplishment in New York was a privately financed system of shelters and schools that helped tens of thousands of homeless kids a year—at a time when the city’s population was under 1 million. His life is a reminder that the assimilation of poor immigrants and the uplift of the American poor in the late nineteenth century were not inevitable but rather the results of concerted action by committed people. He deserves to be better remembered—both for what he did and how he did it.
The Connecticut-born, Yale-educated Brace came to New York in 1849, drawn both by personal ties—his best friend, Frederick Law Olmsted, who would later design Central and Prospect Parks, already lived in the city—and by a mission to minister to the poor. He saw this task as his Christian duty and as key to the prospects for success of the young American experiment. There was, he would write in 1854, “no danger to the value of property or to the permanency of our institutions so great as those from the existence of a class of vagabond, ignorant, ungoverned children.” Such concerns led Brace to begin “child-saving”—taking vagrant youths off the streets not just to shelter them but to steer them away from membership in “the dangerous classes,” as he put it in his powerful 1872 memoir, The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years’ Work Among Them.
His first effort, which would become his signature program in New York, was the Newsboys’ Lodging House, opened in 1854 above the New York Sun’s offices at 128 Fulton Street. Between 1854 and 1881, a growing number of Lodging Houses took in no fewer than 170,000 boys. Not all were actual newsboys—that is, boys who sold newspapers on the street—as the Society’s 1858 annual report noted; their ranks also included “boot-blacks, match-sellers, apple-vendors, button-peddlers, baggage-carriers and those engaged in other petty pursuits.” Horatio Alger popularized their lives in such novels as Ragged Dick, in which a “gentleman” asks “our hero” why he is so “ragged and dirty”:
“They didn’t have no wash-bowls at the hotel where I stopped,” said Dick.
“What hotel did you stop at?”
“The Box Hotel.”
“The Box Hotel?”
“Yes sir, I slept in a box on Spruce Street.”
This was typical, according to the Society’s records: “Many of those who are regular lodgers would otherwise sleep in market-houses, hay barges, old cellars, open stairways, ash barrels, coal barrels or walk the streets at night.” Their lives were brutal in other ways, as M. S. Beach, editor of the New York Sun, observed in 1860. “Newsboys, as a class, were hard characters,” he wrote. “A few leaders there were ‘up to any thing,’ and those not strong enough to match them physically, paid tribute. Downright highway robberies, committed by these leaders on the smaller ‘fry,’ were of daily occurrence.”
Brace recruited these boys to his Lodging Houses with the promise of a clean bed and a good meal. Once inside, however, they got much more. “The evenings of the week are passed variously by the boys,” said the Society’s 1861 annual report. “On Wednesday there is an interesting lecture; on Thursday a prayer meeting; on Friday a singing teacher attends; and on Sunday there are exercises appropriate to the Sabbath. The Afternoon and Evening School occupies the other evenings of the week, a brief devotional exercise meeting closing every day. The free Sunday dinner is still provided and given to all who refrain from working that day.” As the first Lodging House grew, it came to include a gym and a savings bank—“to induce the boys to save for they were great spend-thrifts.” Asked to contribute to the institutions’ operating expenses with their earnings, the boys themselves helped support “a night school for instruction and a Sunday evening Religious meeting.”
The Methodist Brace was a religious man, but the Children’s Aid Society was not sectarian. He wrote: “The evils are so great and the means of diminishing them so small, that persons honestly seeking to remedy them can work together without difficulty. . . . We have in our schools Jews, Quakers and Agnostics working with others to aid the poor.” Brace was leading the way in building a distinctively American sort of nondenominational civic institution.
He was also skeptical of vague, theoretical preaching. “There is nothing gained in talking to these lads on abstract subjects,” he advised his Harvard audience. “It is not uncommon for a devout speaker whose mind is full of the eternal verities to ask these lads, What of all things on the earth or in heaven they would rather have? And the answer to our discomfiture, is almost always, ‘Hard cash, Sir!’ or ‘Greenbacks, Sir!’ ” Or, Brace continued, a well-intentioned speaker might, quoting the Bible, ask the boys, “When your father and your mother forsake you, who will take you up?” Their reply was not the Psalmist’s, however: it was “The Purlice! The Purlice!”
The Children’s Aid Society wasn’t altogether novel; it had antecedents in New York, such as the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, founded by Robert Hartley in 1842. But the ethic of uplift and self-improvement doesn’t inform Hartley’s reports, written only a decade before Brace began his work. For Hartley, poverty was a fact of life that those of means were obliged to address. “Man in his present state, is encompassed with numerous physical and moral evils, with which the necessities of his condition require him constantly to conflict,” Hartley wrote. “His subsistence is made to depend upon labor, and toil or penury is the common lot. But as various unavoidable causes often unfit him for toil and deprive him of the rewards of his industry, without the interpositions of benevolence, suffering and death would inevitably ensue. Hence the duty of providing for the destitute.”
Brace, in contrast, encouraged “self-help.” He was, as Joel Schwartz observes in Fighting Poverty with Virtue, a moral reformer—a man who sought to mold boys into moral adults, people who, as they encountered novel situations, would naturally make the right choices because they held the right values. “The principal value of our Enterprise, we believe, as distinguished from similar efforts, is that our whole influence is moral and in no respect coercive,” Brace wrote. “Those who have much to do with alms-giving and plans of human improvement soon see how superficial and comparatively useless all assistance or organization is which does not touch habits of life and the inner forces which form character.”
Brace thought hard about the boys’ “habits of life” and how to influence them. “I like better stories presented to them,” he explained, “where men have given up everything for a cause, and got back nothing material; or that they should hear of the highest Sacrifice of all, where all was apparently lost and yet where all was gained.” Sometimes the boys were warned against particular evils: “We preach on making false change, on selling old papers for new, on lying to employers, on stealing, fighting and gambling.” But the goal transcended teaching such specific forms of good behavior, because the boys were “ignorant, homeless, with few high ideals and they go forth on the morrow to be exposed to every low, brutal and powerful temptation. They will be tempted, on the day after your meeting, to steal and fight, to get drunk and rob, to lie and swear and to indulge in every kind of vice.” What they needed, Brace believed, was “some Power to hold them up against this torrent of temptation, something which will elevate and ennoble their nature, which will enable them to rise above the waves of vice and evil about them.”
So it was, too, at Brace’s smaller Industrial Schools for Girls. These were what today we would call a job-training program—in sewing and the other domestic arts—but they, too, emphasized character development. At first, Brace recalled, the schoolroom was in “pandemonium . . . how shocking [was] the language of the little girls. . . . Yet the gradual effects of kindness, the influence of patience and of tact in discipline have steadily changed these schools into the most orderly and most industrious places of education in the city. . . . The effect of the cleanliness and order enjoined, the influence of discipline and industry as well as the moral teachings given, were to raise these little girls above the reach of the usual feminine temptations of their class.”
The contrast with organizations that help “at-risk” children today is striking. Typically, they promote a utilitarian worldview—“Don’t do something because it will hurt you”—as opposed to the core idea of right versus wrong. There is, for example, Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or Dare, which hopes to scare younger kids from using drugs by bringing police officers to elementary school classrooms nationwide. Or consider Peace Games, a national organization teaching an antiviolence curriculum to some 8,000 elementary and junior high school students that “imagines a world where every child has the skills, knowledge, supportive relationships, and opportunities to prevent violence and build safer communities.”
The difference between such approaches and Charles Loring Brace’s is like that between memorizing multiplication tables and learning arithmetic. Not only can a moral sense lead to all the accomplishments that Dare and Peace Games encourage; it can also lead to the right decisions about the myriad issues and situations that these programs cannot anticipate.
Moreover, many modern children’s aid organizations focus not on direct assistance but on advocacy for government action—that is, changing the system allegedly culpable for the predicaments of those in need. The Children’s Defense Fund, modestly referring to itself as “the voice for all the children of America,” directs most of its energies toward expanding government income-assistance programs; in fact, it pioneered the now-ubiquitous use of children as the shield of choice for those favoring a larger welfare state. The Children’s Aid Society itself is now among the multitudes engaged in issue advocacy. Still extant, based on East 22nd Street, it continues to provide services to children, though mainly as a government contractor. But it also pushes for increased spending on public schools and health-care access for the poor.
These days, when the Society talks about Brace, it chooses to portray his work chiefly as a precursor to the contemporary welfare-state approach. Yes, Brace sometimes engaged in advocacy. But in general, he wanted government to make children fulfill their own obligations and responsibilities. In the early 1860s, for example, he successfully pressed the city to hire its first truant officers, to make sure that kids attended school—a far cry from today’s relentless drives to expand government-provided social services.
The scale of what Brace did is stunning, especially for those who believe that only government can undertake large-scale efforts to help the poor. Over its first 27 years, the Children’s Aid Society provided temporary assistance and moral instruction to the 170,000 children who passed through its seven Lodging Houses. It also placed 50,000 orphans and other street children in homes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and other points west, in order to bring them under the “healthy influence of family life.” And it established “21 day schools”—vocational schools for older kids—“and 14 night schools, with an aggregate annual attendance of about 10,000 children.”
Brace’s contemporaries realized that he had made a positive difference. One “W. H. Lefferts, Sergt. D.A. Police” sent the Children’s Aid Society a letter in 1861, asserting that “there are not one half as many petty thieves and female offenders against property as last year, or in former years.” Beach, the editor of the Sun, was more explicit in giving credit to the Society and its Newsboys’ Lodging Houses. In contrast to previous years, he wrote, “a fight or a row among the newsboys is seldom seen. The smaller ones pursue their traffic unmolested and all things relating to the newsboys give token of better times among them. If these changes are not all due to the Lodging House, I believe that by far the greater part of them can be traced directly to that as a cause.” A letter from one of the newspaper’s business managers observed that “the newsboys of the present day may be said to be an entirely different class of people.”
Anticipating the data-driven techniques of social science, Brace gathered numbers that also showed his efforts’ success. “The commitments of girls and women for vagrancy fell off from 5,880 in 1860, to 2,045 in 1879,” he said in his 1881 Harvard address, “or from 1 in every 138 1/2 persons in 1860, (when the population was 864,224) to 1 in every 536 1/2 in 1879 (when the population was 1,079,563). This certainly looks like some effect from reformatory efforts.”
Did this mean that those he assisted became better off economically? Some must have—but many undoubtedly remained among the working poor. Schwartz has argued that if the goal was to make the poor less poor, structural problems in the nineteenth-century economy made Brace’s morality-based approach insufficient at the time but, ironically, relevant today. “American diagnoses of poverty have often been unsuited to the specific malady under consideration at any given time,” Schwartz writes. “Moral remedies were avidly prescribed when poverty would have been responsive to structural and environmental reforms—and moral remedies were then removed from the physician’s pharmacopoeia when they were increasingly pertinent.”
Without gainsaying this point, I suspect that Brace might disagree. Yes, he hoped that those he helped would do well. But he cared, too—perhaps foremost—about providing “something which will elevate and ennoble their nature” as an end in itself, as a way to a good and, yes, holy life. His work was not just about upward economic mobility—though it may well be, as Daniel Bell mused in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, that moral education made possible America’s creation of social order and wealth, and that our dwindling interest in it threatens their continuation.
If Brace’s approach to helping the children of the streets faded away, his organization-building method has not. At a time when it is now in vogue for idealistic Ivy Leaguers to become “social entrepreneurs”—starting their own not-for-profit organizations to take on social problems—Brace deserves notice for helping to create the organizational playbook from which today’s idealists unknowingly borrow.
In a manner now familiar, he identified and described a social problem: child homelessness and its potential to fuel “the dangerous classes.” He established a freestanding organization, not linked, for instance, to any one church; assembled a board; successfully solicited thousands of donors; and brought together volunteers and paid staff. He conceived and implemented original programs and empirically tracked their results in order to report to donors. Such steps are familiar to those who seek to start new nonprofits.
Most striking was the way he brought the reality of child homelessness to the public consciousness. He intended his language not just to inform but to persuade. “The criminal and neglected youth,” he wrote, “are the explosive material hidden under our pleasant surface of things.” Or: “The medieval system of giving alms and leaving results to Providence is more and more abandoned by the experienced in the field.” He also worked to popularize the cause through the popular culture, befriending Alger, one of the most popular writers of the day. Alger’s novels about the bootblacks and newsboys of New York, along with accounts of the Lodging House, were for Brace the nineteenth-century equivalent of a spot on Oprah. In his preface to the best-selling Ragged Dick, Alger even credited the improvement in these boys’ condition to the “Superintendent of the Newsboys’ Lodging House, in Fulton Street,” and added: “The author hopes that [the stories] may have the effect of enlisting the sympathies of his readers in behalf of the unfortunate children whose life is described and of leading them to cooperate with the praiseworthy efforts now being made by the Children’s Aid Society and other organizations to ameliorate their condition.”
Small wonder, then, that even the earliest years of the Children’s Aid Society saw a groundswell of local support. In entrepreneurial fashion, Brace had been willing to start small: “I procured subscriptions from personal friends and through public meetings and fitted up some rooms as a simple Lodging House.” But from 1854 to 1861, annual revenue grew by a factor of five, and the number of individual donors increased from 420 in 1855 to 960 in 1862. As in current television ads that urge the charitable to sponsor individual kids in developing countries, the Society offered a menu for donors, whose contributions were earmarked for specific programs.
Donations came from people with names like Stuyvesant, Astor, and Van Rensselaer, but many more arrived from those of apparently modest means: “an account carpenter” who contributed $2, for example, and a “collection in Congregational Church, Orwell, Ohio,” which sent $4.79. For Brace, assembling an organization was not simply a matter of soliciting support from the wealthy. In his 1881 speech at Harvard—delivered at the invitation of university president Charles Eliot, who wanted him, Brace said, to “show you, gentlemen, how a far-reaching and efficient Charity was organized and how it does its work”—Brace reflected on his strategy. “The Trustees of a prominent charity ought to represent various classes in the community,” he said. “They should be men of the highest character and responsibility, not from the richest class alone, but from persons of middle fortune and moderate means.”
Whether or not some residue of Brace remains in his own organization, or others like it, today, there can be no doubt that his methods have left a mark on American society. Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker has observed, in his book The Divided Welfare State, that though publicly financed social welfare programs are a smaller percentage of the economy in the U.S. than in other industrialized countries—17 percent of GDP, compared with 30 percent in Germany, for example—our private social welfare spending far outstrips other nations’. “Private social benefits in the U.S. represent more than 8.3 percent of GDP,” Hacker writes. In contrast, they are less than 2.2 percent of GDP in the ten other industrialized countries that Hacker studies.
Not all of this private charity exists completely outside government—indeed, one of Hacker’s points is that mandates and regulation draw business and nonprofits into the social-services business in the United States. Even during Brace’s time—he died in 1890, at the age of 64—the Children’s Aid Society received small amounts of support from New York City. Nonetheless, an “independent sector” undoubtedly thrives in the U.S., spotting emerging needs, raising private funds, and providing assistance. There are many reasons for this, but at least one must be the precedent established when, in the country’s youth, Charles Loring Brace was taking newsboys off the street and getting letters like this one:
“Letter from a Newsboy to the Superintendent of the Lodging House. . . . All the newsboys of New York have a bad name; but we should show . . . that we are no fools; that we can become as respectable as any of their countrymen, for some of you poor boys can do something for your country—for Franklin, Webster, Clay were poor boys once . . . even Vanderbilt and Astor. . . . So now, boys, stand up and let them see you have got the real stuff in you. Come out here and make respectable and honorable men, so they can say, there that boy was once a newsboy.”