Helping the Poor
by Timothy Shay Arthur
"I'm on a begging expedition," said Mr. Johnson, as he came bustling into the counting-room of a fellow merchant named Prescott. "And, as you are a benevolent man, I hope to get at least five dollars here in aid of a family in extremely indigent circumstances. My wife heard of them yesterday; and the little that was learned, has strongly excited our sympathies. So I am out on a mission for supplies. I want to raise enough to buy them a ton of coal, a barrel of flour, a bag of potatoes, and a small lot of groceries."
"Do you know anything of the family for which you propose this charity?" inquired Mr. Prescott, with a slight coldness of manner.
"I only know that they are in need, and that it is the first duty of humanity to relieve them," said Mr. Johnson, quite warmly.
"I will not question your inference," said Mr. Prescott. "To relieve the needs of our suffering fellow creatures is an unquestionable duty. But there is another important consideration connected with poverty and its demands upon us."
"What is that please?" inquired Mr. Johnson, who felt considerably fretted by so unexpected a damper to his benevolent enthusiasm.
"How it shall be done," answered Mr. Prescott, calmly.
"If a man is hungry — give him bread; if he is naked — clothe him," said Mr. Johnson. "There is no room for doubt or question here. This family I learn, is suffering from the lack of all the necessities of life — and I can clearly see the duty to supply their needs."
"Of how many does the family consist?" asked Mr. Prescott.
"There is a man and his wife, and three or four children."
"Is the man sober and industrious?"
"I don't know anything about him. I've had no time to make inquiries. I only know that hunger and cold are in his dwelling, or, at least were in his dwelling yesterday."
"Then you have already furnished relief?"
"Temporary relief. I wouldn't have slept last night, after what I heard, without just sending them a bushel of coal, and a basket of provisions."
"For which I honor your kindness of heart, Mr. Johnson. So far you acted right. But, I am by no means so well assured of the wisdom and humanity of your present action in the case. The true way to help the poor, is to put in their power, the ability to help themselves. The mere bestowal of alms is, in most cases an injury — either encouraging idleness and vice, or weakening self-respect and virtuous self-dependence. There is innate strength in everyone; let us seek to develop this strength in the fallen, rather than hold them up by a temporary application of our own powers, to fall again, inevitably, when the sustaining hand is removed. This, depend upon it, is not true benevolence. Every one has ability to serve the common good — and society renders back sustenance for bodily life, as the reward of this service."
"But, suppose a man cannot get work," said Mr. Johnson. "How is he to serve society, for the sake of a reward?"
"True charity will provide employment for him, rather than bestow alms."
"But, what if there is no employment to be had?"
"You make a very extreme case. For all who are willing to work, in this country, there is employment."
"I'm by no means ready to admit this assertion."
"Well, we'll not deal in general propositions; because anything can be assumed or denied. Let us come directly to the case in point, and thus determine our duty towards the family whose needs we are considering. Which will be best for them? To help them in the way you propose — or to encourage them to help themselves?"
"All I know about them at present," replied Mr. Johnson, who was beginning to feel considerably worried, "is, that they are suffering because of the lack of common necessities of life. It is all very well to tell a man to help himself, but, if his arm is paralyzed, or he has no key to open the provision shop — he will soon starve under that system of benevolence. Feed and clothe a man first — and then set him to work to help himself. He will have life in his heart, and strength in his hands."
"This sounds all very fair, Mr. Johnson; and yet, there is not so much true charity involved there, as appears on the surface. It will avail little, however, for us to debate the matter now. Your time and mine are both of too much value during business hours, for useless discussion. I cannot give, understandingly, in the present case — and so must disappoint your expectations in this quarter."
"Good day, then," said Mr. Johnson, bowing rather coldly.
"Good day," pleasantly responded Mr. Prescott, as his visitor turned and left his store.
"All a base excuse for not donating!" said Mr. Johnson, to himself, as he walked rather hurriedly away. "I don't believe much in the benevolence of your men who are so particular about the whys and wherefores — so afraid to give a dollar to a poor, starving fellow creature — lest the act encourages vice or idleness!"
The next person upon whom Mr. Johnson called, happened to be very much of Mr. Prescott's way of thinking; and the next chanced to know something about the family for whom he was soliciting aid. "A lazy, vagabond set!" exclaimed the individual, when Mr. Johnson mentioned his errand, "who would rather starve than work. They may starve, before I give them a shilling."
"Is this true?" asked Mr. Johnson, in surprise.
"Certainly it is. I've had their case stated before. In fact, I went through the sleet and rain one bitter cold night to take them provisions, so strongly had my sympathies in regard to them been excited. Let them go to work!"
"But can the man get work?" inquired Mr. Johnson.
"Other poor men, who have families dependent on them, can get work. Where there's a will — there's a way. Downright laziness is the cause in this case, and the best cure for which, is a little wholesome starvation. So, take my advice, and leave this excellent remedy to work out a cure."
Mr. Johnson went back to his store in rather a vexed state of mind. All his fine feelings of benevolence were stifled. He was angry with the indigent family, and angry with himself for being "the fool to meddle with any business but his own."
"Catch me on such an errand again," said he, indignantly. "I'll never seek to do a good turn again, as long as I live!"
Just as he was saying this, his neighbor Prescott came into his store.
"Where does the poor family live, of whom you were speaking to me?" he inquired.
"O, don't ask me about them!" exclaimed Mr. Johnson. "I've just found them out. They're a lazy, vagabond set."
"You are certain of that?"
"Morally certain. Mr. Caddy says he knows them like a book, and they'd rather starve than work. With him — I think a little wholesome starvation will do them good."
Notwithstanding this rather discouraging testimony, Mr. Prescott made a memorandum of the street and number of the house in which the family lived, remarking as he did so:
"I have just heard where the services of an able-bodied man are needed. Perhaps Gardiner, as you call him, may be glad to obtain the situation."
"He won't work; that's the character I have received of him," replied Mr. Johnson, whose mind was very much roused against the man. The pendulum of his impulses had swung, from a light touch, to the other extreme.
"A dollar earned, is worth two received in charity," said Mr. Prescott; "because the dollar earned corresponds to service rendered, and the man feels that it is his own — that he has an undoubted right to its possession. It elevates his moral character, inspires self-respect, and prompts to new efforts. Mere alms-giving is demoralizing for the opposite reason. It blunts the moral feelings, lowers the self-respect, and fosters inactivity and idleness, opening the way for vice to come in and sweep away all the foundations of integrity! Now, true charity to the poor, is for us to help them to help themselves. Since you left me a short time ago, I have been thinking, rather hastily, over the matter; and the fact of hearing about the work for an able-bodied man, as I just mentioned, has led me to call on Mr. Gardiner. Helping him in this way, will be true benevolence."
"It's no use," replied Mr. Johnson, in a positive tone of voice. "He's an idle good-for-nothing fellow, and I'll have nothing to do with him."
Mr. Prescott urged the matter no farther, for he saw that to do so would be useless. On his way home, on leaving his store, he called to see Gardiner. He found, in two small, meagerly furnished rooms, a man, his wife, and three children. Everything about them indicated extreme poverty; and, worse than this, lack of cleanliness and industry. The woman and children had a look of health, but the man was evidently the subject of some wasting disease. His form was light, his face thin and rather pale, and his languid eyes deeply sunken. He was very far from being the able-bodied man which Mr. Prescott had expected to find. As the latter stepped into the miserable room where they were gathered, the light of expectation, mingled with the shadows of mute suffering, came into their countenances. Mr. Prescott was a close observer, and saw, at a glance, the assumed sympathy-exciting face of the mendicant in each.
"You look rather poor here," said he, as he took a chair, which the woman dusted with her dirty apron before handing it to him.
"Indeed, sir, and we are miserably off," replied the woman, in a half whining tone. "John, there, hasn't done a stroke of work now for three months; and — "
"Why not?" interrupted Mr. Prescott.
"My health is very poor," said the man. "I suffer much from pain in my side and back, and am so weak most of the time, that I can hardly creep about."
"That is bad, certainly," replied Mr. Prescott, "very bad." And as he spoke, he turned his eyes to the woman's face, and then scanned the children very closely.
"Is that boy of yours doing anything?" he inquired.
"No, sir," replied the mother. "He's too young to be of any account."
"He's thirteen, if my eyes do not deceive me."
"Just a little over thirteen."
"Does he go to school?"
"No sir. He has no clothes fit to be seen in at school."
"Bad — bad," said Mr. Prescott, "very bad. The boy might be earning two dollars a week; instead of which, he is growing up in idleness — which surely leads to vice."
Gardiner looked slightly confused at this remark, and his wife, evidently, did not feel very comfortable under the steady, observant eyes that were on her.
"You seem to be in good health," said Mr. Prescott, looking at the woman.
"Yes sir, thank God! And if it wasn't for that, I don't know what we would all have done. Everything has fallen upon me since John, there, has been ailing."
Mr. Prescott glanced around the room, and then remarked, a little pleasantly:
"I don't see that you make the best use of your health and strength."
The woman understood him, for the color came instantly to her face.
"There is no excuse for dirt and disorder," said the visitor, more seriously. "I once called to see a poor widow, in such a state of low health that she had to lie in bed nearly half of every day. She had two small children, and supported herself and them by fine embroidery, at which she worked nearly all the time. I never saw a neater room in my life than hers, and her children, though in very plain and patched clothing, were perfectly clean. How different is all here; and yet, when I entered, you all sat idly amid this disorder, and — shall I speak plainly — filth."
The woman, on whose face the color had deepened while Mr. Prescott spoke, now rose up quickly, and commenced bustling about the room, which, in a few moments, looked far less in disorder. That she felt his rebuke, the visitor regarded as a good sign.
"Now," said he, as the woman resumed her seat, "let me give you the best maxim for the poor in the English language; one that, if lived by, will soon extinguish poverty, or make it a very light thing — 'God helps those who help themselves.' To be very plain with you, it is clear to my eyes, that you do not try to help yourselves; such being the case, you need not expect gratuitous help from God. Last evening you received some coal and a basket of provisions from a kind-hearted man, who promised more efficient aid today. You have not yet heard from him, and what is more, will not hear from him. Someone, to whom he applied for a contribution, happened to know more about you than he did, and broadly pronounced you a set of idle vagabonds. Just think of bearing such a character! He dropped the matter at once, and you will get nothing from him. I am one of those upon whom he called. Now, if you are all disposed to help yourselves, I will try to stand as your friend. If not, I shall have nothing to do with you. I speak plainly; it is better; there will be less danger of misunderstanding. That oldest boy of yours must go to work and earn something. And your daughter can work about the house for you very well, while you go out to wash, or scrub, and thus earn a dollar or two, or three, every week. There will be no danger of starvation on this income, and you will then eat your own bread in independence. Mr. Gardiner can help some, I do not in the least doubt."
And Mr. Prescott looked inquiringly at the man.
"If I was only able-bodied," said Gardiner, in a half reluctant tone and manner.
"But you are not. Still, there are many things you may do. If by a little exertion you can earn the small sum of two or three dollars a week, it will be far better — even for your health — than idleness. Two dollars earned every week by your wife, two by your boy, and three by yourself, would make seven dollars a week; and if I am not very much mistaken, you don't see half that sum in a week now."
"Indeed, sir, and you speak the truth there," said the woman.
"Very well. It's plain, then, that work is better than idleness."
"But we can't get work." The woman fell back upon this strong assertion.
"I don't believe a word of it. I can tell you how to earn half a dollar a day for the next four or five days at least. So there's a beginning for you. Put yourself in the way of useful employment, and you will have no difficulty beyond."
"What kind of work, sir?" inquired the woman.
"We are about moving into a new house, and my wife commences the work of having it cleaned tomorrow morning. She needs another assistant. Will you come?"
The woman asked the number of his residence, and promised to accept the offer of work.
"Very well. So far so good," said Mr. Prescott, cheerfully, as he arose. "You shall be paid at the close of each day's work; and that will give you the pleasure of eating your own bread — a real pleasure, you may depend upon it; for a loaf of bread earned — is sweeter than the richest food bestowed by charity; and far better for the health."
"But about the boy, sir?" said Gardiner, whose mind was becoming active with more independent thoughts.
"All in good time," said Mr. Prescott smiling. "Rome was not built in a day, you know. First let us secure a beginning. If your wife goes tomorrow, I shall think her in earnest; as willing to help herself, and, therefore, worthy to be helped. All the rest will come in due order. But you may rest assured, that, if she does not come to work, it is the end of the matter as far as I am concerned. So good evening to you."
Bright and early came Mrs. Gardiner on the next morning, far tidier in appearance than when Mr. Prescott saw her before. She was a stout, strong woman, and knew how to scrub and clean paint as well as the best. When fairly in the spirit of work, she worked on with a sense of pleasure. Mrs. Prescott was well satisfied with her performance, and paid her the half dollar earned, when her day's toil was done. On the next day, and the next, she came, doing her work and receiving her wages.
On the evening of the third day, Mr. Prescott thought it time to call upon the Gardiners.
"Well this is encouraging!" said he, with an expression of real pleasure, as he gazed around the room, which scarcely seemed like the one he had visited before. All was clean, and everything in order; and, what was better still, everyone, though poorly clad — were clean and tidy. Mrs. Gardiner sat by the table mending a garment; her daughter was putting away the supper dishes; while the man sat teaching a lesson in spelling to their youngest child.
The glow of satisfaction that pervaded the bosom of each member of the family, as Mr. Prescott uttered these approving words — was a new and higher pleasure than had for a long time been experienced, and caused the flame of self-respect and self-dependence, rekindled once more, to rise upwards in a steady flame.
"I like to see this," continued Mr. Prescott. "It does me good. You have fairly entered the right road. Walk on steadily, courageously, unweariedly. There is worldly comfort and happiness for you at the end. I think I have found a very good place for your son, where he will receive a dollar and a half a week to begin with. In a few months, if all things suit — he will get two dollars. The work is easy, and the opportunities for improvement good. I think there is a chance for you, also, Mr. Gardiner. I have something in my mind that will just meet your case. Light work, and not over five or six hours application each day — the wages four dollars a week to begin with, and a prospect of soon having them raised to six or seven dollars. What do you think of that?"
"Sir!" exclaimed the poor man, in whom personal pride and a native love of independence were again awakening, "if you can do this for me, you will be indeed a benefactor."
"It shall be done," said Mr. Prescott, positively. "Did I not say to you, that God helps those who help themselves? It is even thus. No one, in our happy country who is willing to work, need be in poverty; and money earned by honest industry, buys the sweetest bread."
It required a little watching, and urging, and admonition, on the part of Mr. and Mrs. Prescott, to keep the Gardiners moving on steadily, in the right way. Old habits and lazy inclinations had gained too much power, to be easily broken; and but for this watchfulness on their part — idleness and poverty would again have entered the poor man's dwelling.
The reader will hardly feel surprise, when told, that in three or four years from the time Mr. Prescott so wisely met the case of the indigent Gardiners, they were living in a snug little house of their own, nearly paid for, out of the united industry of the family, every one of which was now well clad, cheerful, and in active employment. As for Mr. Gardiner, his health has improved, instead of being injured by light employment. Cheerful, self-approving thoughts, and useful labor — have temporarily renovated a fast sinking constitution.
Mr. Prescott's way of helping the poor is the right way. They must be taught to help themselves. Mere alms-giving is but a temporary aid — and takes away, instead of giving, that basis of self-dependence, on which all should rest. Help a man up, and teach him to use his feet — so that he can walk alone. This is true benevolence.