RCC Honors History Project

Visitor’s Manual by NY Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (1845)

Posted by nrohr on March 8, 2009

Visitor’s Manual (excerpts) (1845)

New York Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor

With a view to promote uniformity of action, and to aid Visitors in the discharge of their responsible duties, the following series of Rules and Instructions, supplementary to those prescribed in the By-Laws, have been adopted by the Association, and are hereby earnestly recommended to the careful attention of all who may engage in carrying out its principles.

Article I
The first principle of this Association is founded in the admission, that the Alms of Benevolent Societies, and of private liberality, are often misapplied, and as often abused by those who receive them. As a visitor of this Association, therefore, be especially careful to do all that a cautious and discriminating judgment may suggest, to prevent every abuse of the charity you may dispense. But if, after suitable precaution on your part, to guard against the misapplication of charity, it should appear, that it has been bestowed on objects of pretended distress, or upon those who may be receiving adequate relief from other sources, it will be your immediate duty to report all such cases. . ., that the names of the undeserving applicants may be placed upon record at the General Office, and become known to every Visitor and member of the Association.

Article II
The persons who will address themselves to your sympathies, though differing in many particulars, may here be divided into three classes. First, those who have been reduced to indigence by infirmity, sickness, old age, and unavoidable misfortune; Second, those who have brought themselves to want and suffering by their improvidence and vices; and, Third, persons who are able but unwilling to labour, and are beggars and vagrants by profession. The well-being of these different classes evidently requires a mode of treatment adapted to each. And as this cannot be applied without a knowledge of their character and circumstances, your first duty is, to withhold all relief from unknown persons. Let this rule be imperative and unalterable.

Article III
In all cases referred to you for aid, if the applicants reside in your section, remember they have claims upon your sympathies and kind offices which belong to no other Visitor of this Association, and if neglected by you, they may suffer unrelieved. Without delay, therefore, visit them at their homes; personally examine every case; ascertain their character and condition; and carefully inquire into the causes which have brought them into a state of destitution. You will become an important instrument of good to your suffering fellow-creatures, when you aid them to obtain this good from resources within themselves. To effect this, show them the true origin of their sufferings, when these sufferings are the result of imprudence, extravagance, idleness, intemperance, or other moral causes which are within their own control; and endeavour, by all appropriate means, to awaken their self-respect, to direct their exertions, and to strengthen their capacities for self-support. In your intercourse with them, avoid all appearance of harshness, and every manifestation of an obtrusive and a censorious spirit. Study to carry into your work a mind as discriminating and judicious as it is kindly disposed, and a heart ready to sympathize with the sick and the infirm, the widow and the orphan, the tempted and the vicious.—In short, if you would confer great and permanent good upon the needy, you first must distinctly understand in what that good consists; and as this knowledge can only be acquired by personal intercourse with them at their dwellings, the second rule becomes as absolute as the first, viz.—Always to visit those for whom your benevolent services are required, before granting relief. Having given these general instructions in relation to visitorial duties, it may be useful to present a few practical directions concerning each of the classes of the poor before named.

First. Those who have been reduced to indigence by unavoidable causes.

In your intercourse with this class, if you meet with industry, frugality, and self-respect, and a preference for self-denial to dependence upon alms, let not your charities become the means of undermining one right principle, or of enfeebling one well-directed impulse. Alms in such cases must often be given, and the temptation is to bestow freely; but let them be administered with great delicacy and caution. The most effectual encouragement for such persons is not alms chiefly, or any other form of charity as a substitute for alms, but that sympathizing counsel which re-enkindles hope, and that expression of respect for character which such individuals never fail to appreciate. A wise distribution of charity, connected with a deportment of this kind towards the deserving poor, will often save them from pauperism, when the absence of these may degrade them to habitual dependence on alms for subsistence.

Second. Individuals who have become mendicants through their own improvidence and vices.

The evils of improvidence can never be diminished, except by removing the cause; and this can only be done by elevating the moral character of the poor, and by teaching them to depend upon themselves. Many able-bodied persons apply for alms who earn enough for their own maintenance, but expend their earnings in improper indulgences, with the calculation of subsisting on charity when their own resources fail them, who might have obviated this necessity by proper self-denial and economy. In respect to these cases, if relief must be given,—and it sometimes must be,—it should never be of a kind, or to a degree, that will make this dependence preferable to a life of labour. And it should not be forgotten, that many would be economical and saving if they knew how to be. Let it be your endeavour, therefore, to instruct them; to encourage deposits in savings banks for rent, fuel, and winter supplies; and by all the motives which you can present, stimulate them to habits of thriftiness, industry, and foresight. The rule is, that the willingly dependent upon alms should not live so comfortably with them as the humblest labourer without them.

In this class is also included those who have been reduced to want by their vices. Among these, the vice of Intemperance is the most prolific source of pauperism and abject poverty. How to act wisely in reference to this class of applicants, is a most perplexing question, yet, as it will frequently occur, it must be met. As a general rule, alms should, as far as possible, be withheld from the drunkard. But here, perhaps, is the inebriate’s family in actual want of the absolute necessaries of life. Still the rule is, that relief should never be given to the families of the intemperate, beyond the demands of urgent necessity. You should, if possible, become the instruments of their rescue; but any alms you can bestow may only perpetuate their misery. They may minister to the drunkard’s recklessness, and induce him to feel he is relieved from the necessity, perhaps from the moral obligation of providing for his wife and children. Much must here be left to your discretion. Seek, however, by all the means of which you can avail yourself, to save the intemperate from ruin. Depraved though he be, shut not your heart against him. Though apparently lost, he is not beyond hope. Act on this principle, and you may be the instrument of his recovery. But whatever may be your success with the guilty, and perhaps incorrigible parent, never abandon your interest in the welfare of his children.

Third. To the third general class specified, viz., those who are able but unwilling to labour, and professional paupers, the Scriptural rule applies without qualification: “This we command you, that if any will not work, neither should he eat.” If the entire community were to act on this principle, some of this class might be exposed to the risk of starvation. But as such unanimity is not likely to occur, this Association cannot, by bestowing alms on objects so undeserving, become a willing accessory in perpetuating the evils of vagrancy and pauperism.

Article IV
Another rule is, where there are relatives of the indigent who are able to provide for them, alms should never be so given as to interfere with the duties of such relatives. If those alms are evil which become substitutes for industry and economy, in a still higher sense are they evil because they offend against a higher law, when their tendency or result is to cancel just claims on kindred or consanguinity. Let it therefore be your endeavour so to awaken and strengthen the natural sympathy of relatives, that those who have the means of aiding their dependent connexions, may never suffer them to be cast upon the charity of the world.

Article V
Endeavour by a systematic attention to the education and religious instruction of the children of the poor, through the aid of the Public and Sunday Schools, to fit them for the proper pursuits of life; and as they arrive at suitable age, to assist those parents who of themselves are unable, to provide eligible situations for their children, in such useful occupations or trades as will qualify them in after life to obtain their own support, and to be introduced into society as industrious and useful citizens.

Article VI
In all your intercourse with the poor, endeavour to gain their respect and confidence. Be careful to encourage habits of cleanliness, both of houses and persons. Show them the absolute necessity of employment, and, as far as in your power, aid them in obtaining it. Be particularly attentive to the infirm, the sick, and the aged. Sympathize with the widow, have compassion on the fatherless, and endeavour to promote the good of all, by pointing out the advantages of education, the duty of religiously observing the Sabbath, the importance of attending a place of worship, and the value of the Sacred Scriptures.

Article VII
You will observe, that it is not the design of this Association to extend relief to the poor indiscriminately. Those who are accustomed to avail themselves of the public provision made them at the Alms House, and who leave it in summer to pass a few months in idleness, and return to it again when other means fail, are considered as undeserving our aid; but even persons of this class should not be wholly disregarded. You must advise and encourage them to change their habits of life; but until they manifest by their exertions to assist themselves a disposition to reform their course of conduct, they have no claims for relief on this Association. To the needy, however, who have no other resource, it will be your duty to extend a friendly hand in providing food, fuel, clothing, and shelter; and in your visits to the abodes of suffering and sorrow to provide, for the sick, medical aid, by means of the public dispensaries or otherwise, and such necessary comforts as their condition may require. And ever endeavour to evince a deep and permanent interest in the social and moral welfare of the persons whom your charities relieve.

Article VIII
As there are certain fundamental rules to be observed in the distribution of charity which cannot be too familiar to your minds. They will here be summarily stated. It is best, as far as possible,

First. To give the necessary articles, and what is immediately necessary.

Second. To give what is least susceptible of abuse.

Third. To give even necessary articles only in small quantities, in proportion to immediate need.

Fourth. To give assistance, both in quantity and in quality, inferior, except in cases of sickness, to what might be procured by labor.

Fifth. To give assistance at the right moment; and not to prolong it beyond the duration of the necessity which calls for it; but to extend, restrict and modify it with that necessity. . . .

Article X
Bear in mind that two prominent and serious evils exist in this city, in relation to pauperism. The one is, that the worst class among the poor stands the best chance of obtaining, and do in fact obtain, the greatest amount of charity. The other is, that of the best class of poor, including all who are more or less in want, and who are not vicious, some obtain much less, and others far more than they deserve. These evils are chiefly attributable to the injudicious mode of bestowing alms, which has too generally prevailed in this city. The benevolent, by acting independently of each other, have necessarily been ignorant of each other’s doings, and the artful and designing have turned this ignorance to their own advantage, and to the injury of the deserving. Now, it is one object of this Association, by establishing a comprehensive, uniform, and systematic mode of distributing charity, and by an intelligent co-operation on the part of all who engage in the work, greatly to facilitate the detection of imposture. To this important reform, therefore, let your attention be vigilantly directed.

Article XI
Use every exertion in your power to advance the cause of temperance, by imparting judicious advice, and the circulation of tracts and other useful publications on the subject.


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