The Struggle of Life Above the Poverty Line, 1913 (excerpts)

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Jane Addams of Hull House, Chicago, said: No one in this audience can fail to have carried with him day after day and year after year the painful impression that almost all the people living in his immediate neighborhood have too little money with which to meet their daily needs. Various methods have been devised from time to time by the State itself to aid in this unending struggle, but in this session of our conference I have been asked to discuss but three of them, -- that which is popularly known as [page 2] the widows' pension, the establishment of the minimum wage, and trade unionism for women.

In Illinois the widows' pension, -- or as it is technically called, "The Funds to Parents Act", -- has been in operation for two years. From the beginning of the administration of the law in Cook County, it has been most carefully guarded. During the first year, a corps of six assistants, appointed and maintained by the leading philanthropic organizations of the city, Catholic, Jewish and Protestant, met in conference upon the various cases brought before the court, and after careful investigation and discussion recommended to the Court whether or not such cases should receive a pension. Their routine work was not unlike that of the Conference committee of the Charity Organization Society. At present, out of the seventy-six probation officers fourteen are in the mothers' pension division. The chief probation officer, who was formerly identified with philanthropic and reform organizations, is convinced that the work in the department compares favorably with that carried on by charitable societies. It is, of course, a matter of little consequence whether carefully trained people devoting their time to the "widow and the fatherless" are salaried from the donations of benevolent people or from the taxes which these same people and many others have paid into the public treasury, provided only that the work is well done. The first year of the operation of the Funds to Parents Act, Cook County paid in this way $75,000; the estimated budget for this year was $250,000, although the number of dependent children sent to the industrial schools was not lessened but actually increased.

When I was in Hungary several months ago, I was very much impressed with the arrangement there for taking care of the children who were not properly cared for by their parents. It is a large governmental scheme, very suggestive of the old conception of State socialism. Its drawbacks are so obvious that they need not be pointed out, but it is also possessed of great advantages. Parents themselves may bring the child to the central hospital at Budapest, and if their statement is verified that their wages are too small properly to nurture that child, he is sent to a village where he is boarded in a household under State supervision. At any time when the parents can show the officials that their resources have increased and that they are therefore able to feed and care for their child, he may be returned to them; otherwise he stays away [page 3] until he is twelve, and presumably able to help take care of himself, although one naturally speculates as to why a Hungarian child is thus prematurely self-supporting. The State thus expends a large sum of money supporting 50,000 children every year, because the Hungarians have become convinced that a child who is undernourished and uneducated and therefore makes a bad start in life, is a permanent detriment to the State itself. That, I am sure, is a supposition upon which mothers are being provided with pensions in various states. Such reasons could only have been adduced in the light of recent scientific knowledge. A friend of mine who is a biologist in a state university once made some interesting experiments. He said that if he starved a [tadpole], no matter how much he fed the frog into which it grew, he never could make it fat and vigorous. But if he overfed a [tadpole], no matter how much he later starved the frog he never could make it thin and passive; it remained fat and boisterous to the end of its days. The doctor in Hungary tells many similar tales of the children whom the state cares for in their early years, and who repay the state through a long life of useful activity.

It is unnecessary to draw attention to the fact that the administration of such a large fund as that which in Illinois is called the "Funds to Parents," affords an opportunity for political corruption. There is no doubt that it must be watched; but our experience in Chicago shows definitely that it can be properly safeguarded.

As to legislation on the minimum wage, we all know that many experiments have been tried. We were unable to create a state commission in Illinois, but the legislature appointed a commission of inquiry which held public hearings in Chicago for several weeks and brought the entire subject vividly before the people of Illinois. During these hearings, those few employers who were able to show that they were paying girls an adequate wage received great applause from the crowds of spectators who came to the hearing. It would seem to indicate that in the future the man who receives the largest measure of public approval will be the man who deals justly with his employees, rather than the man who gives large gifts to philanthropy, but who is at the same time suspected of unfair industrial dealings.

I am sure that almost every settlement represented here has had experience in trying to organize working girls into trade unions. [page 4] Most of us had a very discouraging experience until after the organization of the Women's Trade Union League, which ever since has made such work easier. The great value of the trade union among women is, -- first, the sense it gives girls that they themselves can do something to remedy industrial conditions, that they are not altogether helpless; and, secondly, the consciousness it gives them of being a part of a great moral effort. The trade union movement for women is being much modified by the latter type of strikes occurring in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, which are not so much strikes as social uprisings against conditions which have become intolerable. It is in the modification of such untoward conditions that the settlement ought to be of great value. [Everyone] in this room has doubtless asked himself what can be done for girls who not only work too long hours but in addition are so poorly paid that they cannot maintain an adequate standard of life. As a federation of settlements we have spent a year on the study of the young working girl, and we ought to be ready to consider seriously what more can be done to improve her economic condition, upon which the standard of life rests.

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