This section is from the "The Science Of Wealth" book, by Amasa Walker.
But should government provide nothing for those who, having wantonly wasted their means and gifts of labor, find themselves, and those dependent on them, suffering for the necessaries of life? We answer, that the liberty of the subject is not a privilege to become a pauper; that government has the right to protect itself; that it may, by stringent enactments concerning vagrancy and indolence, anticipate the operation of such causes; that it may encourage industry by rewards, or compel it by pains and penalties; that it may apply to vicious pauperism the same severity as to crime. Yet, when all this is granted, and all this done, there will still remain a certain degree of physical want, the result of sinful and slothful habits. Of this the state must have charge. No man may be allowed to starve, however clearly his destitution may be the effect of his own folly or wickedness. "It is better," said the Roman law, "that vagabonds should die of hunger, than that they should be supported in their beggary." In the light of Christianity, we have a wider view of political duties. The sharpest incitement to labor, the sternest punishment of vice, is equally just to society and kind to the subject; but that the vilest outcast should perish of hunger by the actual permission of government, would eclipse the brightest glories of conquest or commerce which a Christian nation can acquire.
Here we have an important practical precept concerning governmental or individual charity; viz., the frequent and careful revision of claims to assistance. There should be no prescription in beggary, nor any thing taken for granted. The inability of self-support should be distinctly proved, or the applicant forced to work.
2d, Who should administer charity?
An argument might be made from the principle of benevolence and the sensibility to another's distress found in the constitution of our nature, that charity was not alone designed for government, but that the relief of the poor is appropriate to private hands. And there is a plain, economical reason, in that such contributions can be made more timely, more judiciously, and more cheaply, by the offices of individuals than by public agencies. There is a further reason, not less economical than moral, that assistance rendered in this form does less hurt to the feelings of the recipient. The interests of production, not less than the law of kindness, object to the unnecessary lowering of the self-respect of any class or person. To accept charity from a neighbor, under the pressure of extraordinary misfortune, could impeach the honor of no one; but to take bread from government carries with it a sort of taint of beggary through life.
But this does not in the least excuse mendicancy, whose principle is directly opposed to that of intelligent, equable charity. It is prohibited, under severe penalties, in almost all communities, though the sympathy of the solicited and the condition of the solicitor take much from the terrors of the law.
Here, then, in individual contributions, we have one of the main instruments by which the relief of the poor should be effected.
There is another class of voluntary agencies, standing between individual charity and that of the state, consisting of mutual-relief societies and trade associations, established for the purpose of assisting their members over the rough places of life. When honestly formed, and held to their legitimate work, they have, economically, all the advantages of division of labor. With this they unite a considerable share of intelligence, as to the special deserts of applicants. There is also, and principally, the consideration that relief from this source is thought to have nothing degrading, and so preserves the self-respect of those who receive the aid.
This agency is very extensive in all the countries of Europe, and in all the States of America. By the most recent statistics available, the voluntary associated charities of London alone include the efforts of four hundred and eighty-six institutions, with the annual expenditure of £1,222,529, while the mutual-relief societies of France number 4,125, with a membership of 535,233, which, with four persons to a family, would give a sphere of activity embracing more than two millions of people.
Prominent, too, in this view, we see the noble, economical, and Christian scheme by which the great body of Quakers, or Friends, throughout the world, assume the care and support of all the infirm or helpless of their order; so that no one can come upon the colder charities and harsher discipline of public maintenance.
Yet all these methods cannot be relied on, by themselves, for all times and at all places. The state should assume the responsibility and control of the poor everywhere. It is a part of the national concerns that no subject shall suffer from want. After all that individual and associated charity can do, there will be an immense amount of the most repulsive and unromantic want and misery awaiting remedy by government.
3d, By what branches of the government should public charity be administered?
We answer, that, in the mere relief of poverty, local authorities be charged with the dispensation, though the state may, and indeed should, compel them to do it, and perhaps regulate the degree and manner of it. Wherever a pauper has his residence, there he should receive whatever assistance he is to have. More work can be got out of him, his character and claims will be better understood, he will be nearer to returning into the condition of self-support, and each community will have an active interest to diminish its pauperage. All this is additional to the greater expense of monster workhouses, and the corruption they are sure to breed.