John Spargo.

The Bitter Cry of the Children online

. (page 18 of 22)
Online LibraryJohn SpargoThe Bitter Cry of the Children → online text (page 18 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


and complex problems of health, education, and morality has long been
the subject of careful study and experiment on the part of the most
progressive municipalities of several European countries.

At the present time it is one of the most vital issues in English
politics. When, in the early eighties, Mr. H. M. Hyndman and his few
Social-Democratic colleagues advocated the enactment of legislation
compelling the municipal authorities to undertake the feeding of the
many thousands of children in the public schools, the proposal was
derided as “visionary.” To-day, however, it has the earnest support of
some of the ablest and most influential members of the House of Commons.
Men like Sir John Gorst, ex-cabinet minister, on the Conservative side,
and Mr. Herbert Gladstone, on the Liberal side, are united in the
advocacy of the Socialistic proposal.

Inquiries made by a Royal Commission, a Special Inter-Departmental
Committee, and several local investigating committees in cities like
London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Dundee, and Aberdeen, have revealed a most
alarming state of affairs. In London, it has been estimated by the
leading authority, Dr. Eichholz, there are over 100,000 children of
school age who are chronically underfed. The reports from the other
cities named are equally serious. Public sentiment has been aroused to
such an extent that there seems to be little room for doubting that in
the very near future, Parliament will be compelled to enact some measure
providing for the feeding of children in the public schools. In the
meantime, many thousands of children are being fed by charitable
organizations, working in conjunction with the school authorities. In
most cases the meals are sold to the children at one cent per meal, with
the understanding that if they are too poor to pay, the meals will be
given free of charge. It is astonishing to learn that many thousands of
the children are found, after careful investigation, to be too poor to
raise even one cent.

The experiment which has for some time been tried in Birmingham has
attracted widespread attention in sociological circles, not only in
England, but throughout Europe. This charity makes no effort whatever to
deal with any but the most destitute children, those that, in the words
of the Committee, are “practically starving.” The meals are kept scanty
and unattractive in order that no child will accept them unless
compelled to by sheer hunger. In addition to this safeguard, careful
investigations of the circumstances of the children are from time to
time made. The meals are given free of charge to the children, and the
cost to the committee is less than one cent per meal,—including the
manager’s salary of $500 a year. Yet, despite all the restrictions by
which it is surrounded, his charity is to-day feeding 2½ per cent of the
total child population of the city.

The results of this feeding, poor and insufficient as it is, have been
most beneficial, both from a physical and mental point of view.
Educationally, I am informed by experienced teachers, the results have
been most inspiring. The children both learn and remember better than
before. But it is felt upon all sides, that this charity, admirable as
it is in many ways, only touches the fringe of the problem, and the
demand is made for definite municipal action, upon a much more generous
basis, to take the place of private philanthropy. It is difficult, in
fact, practically impossible, to form any idea of the extent of such
private philanthropy throughout the country. Almost every industrial
centre has its “Free Dinner Association,” and in almost every case the
authorities find that private effort is inadequate, and that there are
many children who cannot afford to pay even one cent for a meal. If the
cent is insisted upon, they must go hungry. This is important to us in
America, because it has been the experience wherever similar experiments
have been tried here. In Chicago, for instance, at the Oliver Goldsmith
School, free dinners have been provided for a large number of children
for some time past. Here, as in England, it was found that a number of
children could no more afford a penny for a meal than they could afford
to dine at the Auditorium Hotel.

In Berlin, and several other German cities, children are fed in the
public schools upon a plan which provides that those must pay who can,
while those who cannot are given their meals free of charge at the
public expense. As a rule, however, these German experiments are
confined to schools situated in the poorest districts. As yet, the
German authorities have not gone so far as to provide meals for all
children, irrespective of their circumstances.

Much the same plan is followed in Reggia Emilia, San Remo, and some
other Italian cities, though the movement is more widespread in Italy
than in Germany. There is one Italian city, however, which has for some
time past gone very much farther than any other city that I know of,
though his Excellency, the Italian Ambassador at Washington, informs me
that there are other Italian cities which have adopted the same plan.
Vercelli is a city of about 25,000 inhabitants in the province of
Novara, Piedmont. Its fame chiefly rests upon its fine library, which
contains a wonderful collection of ancient manuscripts, some of them of
fabulous value. In this little municipality, then, the city fathers have
for a long time provided free meals for every child attending the public
schools, _and made attendance at the meals absolutely compulsory as to
the school itself_! Every child must attend school and partake of the
meals, unless provided with a doctor’s certificate to the effect that to
attend the classes, or to partake of the school meals, would be
injurious to its health. Further, medical inspection is also compulsory,
and is accompanied by free medical attendance. The results appear to
have been most beneficial physically, and the educational gains
resulting from this intelligent, ordered, and regular feeding have been
enormous. It is unlikely, however, that such a system will be adopted in
the United States for many years to come, notwithstanding its many
undoubted advantages.

In Christiania, Trondhjem, and a number of other Norwegian cities, the
municipality provides all children who desire to avail themselves of it
with a nutritious midday meal, irrespective of their ability to pay. The
entire cost of the system is met by taxation. This has been felt by the
Norwegian authorities to be the simplest and best method of dealing with
a grave problem. It avoids the difficulties which inevitably arise when
there is a distinct class of beneficiaries created. “Where all are
equally welcome none are paupers,” they say. With its simple,
homogeneous population, this direct method is admirably adapted to
Norway, however little suited it might be to the needs of a cosmopolitan
nation like ours. The free dinner is a part of Norway’s admirable
educational system, which abounds with features well worthy of being
copied. One of these is an arrangement whereby the school children from
the cities are taken, twice a month in winter, and three or four times a
month in the summer, on excursions into the country. The children from
the country districts are, in the same manner, taken into the cities.
The railroads have to carry the children at a purely nominal cost, which
is also met out of the public funds.

When I applied to one of the members of the Municipal Council of
Trondhjem for information as to the working of the school-meals system,
he replied: “You can best judge that, perhaps, from the fact that
although the scheme was bitterly opposed when first it was proposed by a
small group of radicals and Socialists, it is now unanimously supported
by all sections. There is now no demand whatever for its curtailment or
abandonment. Educationally, we have found that it pays. It is possible
now to educate children who before could not be educated because they
were undernourished. The percentage of ‘backward children’ has been
greatly reduced, notwithstanding that the test is more severe and
searching. Economically, we believe that we can see in the system the
gradual conquest of pauperism made possible.”

In Brussels, and other Belgian cities, good midday meals are provided
for all children who care to partake of them. A small fee, equal to
about two cents, is charged for each meal, but those children who cannot
afford to pay are given their meals just the same. There is also an
excellent system of medical inspection in connection with the schools.
Every child is medically examined at least once every ten days. Its
eyes, ears, and general physical condition are overhauled. If it looks
weak and puny, they give it doses of cod-liver oil, or some suitable
tonic. The greatest care is taken to see that no child goes ill shod,
ill clad, or ill fed. There is also a regular dental examination in
connection with every school at regular periods.

In several Swiss towns the authorities for a long time granted
substantial subsidies to private philanthropic bodies, leaving to them
the organization of systems for providing school meals and the whole
administration of the funds. But this method proved to be very
unsatisfactory. It led to abuses of various kinds, and sectarian
jealousies were aroused. Moreover, it proved to be a most extravagant
method, the cost being disproportionate to the results. Consequently,
the practice has been very generally abandoned, and most of the
municipalities have adopted the direct management of the school meals as
a distinct part of the school system. The plan generally followed is
that of Germany. Those who can must pay, but those who cannot pay must
be fed.

But it is to France that we must turn for the most extensive and
successful system of school meals. Those who, particularly since the
publication of Mr. Robert Hunter’s book, _Poverty_, have advocated the
introduction of some system of school dinners in this country, have with
practical unanimity pointed to the French _Cantines Scolaires_ as the
model to be copied. For that reason, and not less for its own interest,
it may be worth while giving a somewhat fuller account of the French
system and its history.

The school-canteen idea is a development of an old and interesting
custom, borrowed by the French from Switzerland, the little land of so
many valuable experiments and ideals. The custom still obtains in
Switzerland to some extent, though not so extensively as formerly, of
newly married couples giving a small gift of money, immediately after
the wedding ceremony, to the school funds as a sort of thanksgiving for
their education. These funds are used to provide shoes and clothing for
poor scholars who would otherwise be unable to attend school.

In 1849, the time of the Second Republic, the mayor of the second
_Arrondissement_ of Paris conceived the idea of introducing this Swiss
custom into Paris. Accordingly a fund was created, called the Swiss
Benevolent Fund. Before long the name fell into disuse, and we find the
_caisse des écoles_, or school funds, spoken of with no reference to
their Swiss origin or to their benevolent purpose. In the latter days of
the Second Empire, in April, 1867, the Chamber of Deputies passed a
Primary Instruction Law, which was drafted by M. Duruy, the Minister of
Public Instruction, providing that any municipal council might, subject
to the approval of the Prefect, create in the school districts under its
jurisdiction a “school fund.” The object of these school funds was to be
the encouragement of regular attendance at school, either by a system of
rewards to successful students, or material help in the shape of food,
clothing, or shoes to necessitous ones. These funds were to be raised by
(1) voluntary contributions; (2) subventions by the school authorities,
the city, or the state. Where deemed advisable, several school districts
might unite in the creation of a joint fund for their common benefit.

But the law of 1867, so far at least as the school funds were concerned,
was little more than a pious expression of opinion in favor of an idea.
Three years later the Franco-Prussian war broke out with its fury and
devastation, and, as war always does, set back all reforms. Not till
1874, three years after the terrible bloodshed of the Paris Commune, was
anything done. Then the district of Montmartre and one or two others
raised funds. Montmartre is a district of some 200,000 inhabitants,
which has always been characterized by a strong radical or socialistic
sentiment. From a pamphlet issued by the managers of the school fund in
that district, soon after its establishment in 1874, it appears that
they paid little attention to the subject of giving prizes, deeming it
of more importance to provide good strong shoes and warm clothing for
the poorer children. Next, it seems, they undertook to provide outfits
for some girls who had won scholarships at the _École Normale_ (Normal
School), but were too poor to dress themselves well enough to attend
that institution. So, from the very first, the idea of using the school
funds to provide children with the necessities of life prevailed. As a
result there was soon developed a nucleus of bodies dealing with poverty
as it presented itself in the area of educational effort, and, what is
equally important, public opinion was being educated and accustomed to
the idea. It was, therefore, an easy transition to compulsory provision
for the feeding of children. In 1882 a law was passed _compelling_ the
establishment of school funds in all parts of France, but leaving the
application of such funds still at the discretion of the authorities. So
it happens that the _caisse des écoles_ are universal in France, but the
_cantines scolaires_ are by no means so. The latter are, however, quite
common throughout France, and by no means confined to Paris. There is no
official record of the number of districts in which canteens have been
established, because the districts are not obliged to make returns
showing how their school funds are expended.

Since the state now makes education compulsory, and itself provides the
means of enforcing the law, the managers of the school funds do not have
to devise schemes to induce a regular attendance at school. They are
therefore free to use their funds in such manner as seems to them best
calculated to promote the health of the children. This they do mainly by
the following means: (1) Free meals, or meals provided at cost; (2)
provision of shoes and clothing where necessary; (3) free medical
attendance; (4) sending weak, debilitated, and sick children to the
sea-side or the country, homes being maintained, or in some cases
subsidized for the purpose.

This last-mentioned feature of the French plan is most interesting. It
appears to have been adopted as a result of favorable reports upon the
working of a similar plan in Switzerland. The managers of the Montmartre
fund, for instance, purchased a great mansion with a magnificent park,
and to this delightful spot, not many miles from Paris, the children are
sent in batches and kept for two or three weeks at a time, much to their
physical betterment. There are several of these “school colonies”
maintained by the various school funds of Paris, and the City Government
subsidizes them to the extent of about $40,000 a year. The custom of
providing a special grant, or subsidy, in aid of these colonies is quite
common throughout the whole of France. The importance of these
health-building institutions and the provisions made for the medical
care of sick children cannot be overestimated. To give an idea of what
is meant by medical care alone, it is only necessary to refer to a
recent inspection in the New York public schools. Out of 7000 children
examined, fully one-third were found to be suffering from defective
eyesight, while more than 17 per cent suffered from defects so serious
as to interfere with their chances of ever earning a living, as well as
with their general health. A similar investigation in the public schools
of Minnesota recently showed that there were 70,000 children with
defective vision of the most serious nature, less than 10 per cent of
whom were provided with glasses. In a very large number of cases the
parents are simply too poor to buy glasses. Such children would, in
Paris, be provided with the necessary glasses and oculist’s care out of
the school funds. And there would be no suggestion of pauperism about
it, no humiliation; it is the child’s right. Medical inspection is
thorough, and the American witnessing it is very apt to feel ashamed of
the farcical “inspections” so common in his great and wealthy country.

For a long time, whenever food was given the managers of the school
funds simply issued coupons, or orders upon some restaurant, entitling
the holder to so many meals at a given cost. Usually some teacher or
charitable worker was deputed to accompany the child to see that it
actually got what it was intended to get. There was no system. But in
1877 the Prefect of the Seine appointed a commission to study the
question, raised by some Socialists, of how good a warm meal might be
provided in the schools at a low cost. Most of the managers of the
school funds treated the matter in a very lukewarm, indifferent sort of
way, and the commissioners reported that all they had been able to
ascertain was that good meals could be provided at an average cost of
twenty-five centimes (five cents) each. So the matter dropped and was
not again heard of until the trying winter of 1881. Then it was
suggested that, purely as an experiment, the children of school age
whose parents were receiving poor relief should be fed. The managers of
the Montmartre school fund at once volunteered to undertake the
experiment, and their example was soon followed by others. They did not
long confine the meals to the children of pauper parents, but at an
early stage of the experiment extended it so as to include all children.
The example of Montmartre was very soon followed, and within a year
there were fifteen canteens which had served between them 1,110,827
“portions.” One-third of these “portions” were meat, each weighing
twenty grammes, one-third were bowls of soup, and the other third
portions of vegetables, these varying with the season. The number of
portions paid for by the children was 736,526, and the number given to
children too poor to pay, 374,301. It should be said, perhaps, that a
most searching investigation was made to make sure of the inability of
children’s parents to pay. The total cost of the meals was 59,264
francs, of which amount the children paid 36,776 francs. After a while,
when they had gathered experience in the management of the canteens, the
managers found that it was possible to increase the size of the portions
of meat and, at the same time, to cut down expenses by nearly 50 per
cent.

Nowadays the cost of a meal, consisting of a bowl of good soup, a plate
of meat, two kinds of vegetables, and bread _ad libitum_, is fifteen
centimes (three cents). That is the sum paid by the children, and I have
been assured over and over again by those in charge of various canteens
that it is more than sufficient to pay the cost. There would be a not
inconsiderable profit if all children paid for their meals, but that is
not by any means the case. When a child’s parents are too poor to pay
the full price, and that fact has been ascertained by the investigators,
they are permitted to pay less, even as little as two and a half
centimes, or half a cent. The policy is to encourage as many as possible
to pay the full price, or such sums as they can muster. But the very
poor are never turned away, and in the poorer quarters thousands of
children are fed gratuitously, especially in winter, when in Paris, as
elsewhere, there is more distress due to sickness and interrupted
employment. In the poor quarter of Eppinette the children’s fees amount
to only about 20 per cent of the cost, while in the wealthier quarters
they amount to 75 or even 85 per cent. In an ordinary industrial
district, like Batignolles, the children pay about 45 per cent on a
yearly average.

The Municipal Council of Paris makes an annual subsidy to cover the
natural deficit of the canteens. These deficits vary from year to year,
but the total subsidies required for the three years, 1901–1903,
amounted to $200,000. In connection with this question of financial
management there are two items worth noticing. One is the fact that
private subscriptions to the school funds show a great falling off now
that in practice they have become incorporated in the municipal
government. It has not been found that citizens are willing to
contribute to the funds now that the city has assumed responsibility for
them. The other fact is that the expenditure in poor relief on account
of children is very much less. Children have always served as the best
of all reasons why poor relief should be given. Now, when that plea is
made by an applicant for relief, he or she is referred to the school
canteens, where the children are sure of being fed.

I fancy that I can hear some good reader’s mocking sneer at the idea of
being fed at a “common, socialistic trough.” Well, I can only say that,
having eaten meals in two or three of the schools, I much preferred them
to an average American restaurant “Regular Dinner” at twenty-five cents.
Everything is as neat and clean as it could possibly be, and the
cooking—well, it bears out the reputation of the French as the
master-cooks of the world. There is, apparently, no “graft,” and that is
probably due in large part to the fact that the meals are not confined
to pauper children, who might, alas! be badly served with impunity. From
the first it has been one of the chief aims of the authorities to keep
the canteens free from the taint of pauperism. The children of the
well-to-do are encouraged to attend—not, indeed, by direct solicitation,
but by making the meals and the surroundings as attractive as possible.
And the plan succeeds very well. No child knows whether the child next
it has paid for its dinner or not. Small tickets are issued, each child
going through a little box-office, which only permits of one being in at
a time. If a little boy or girl claims to be too poor to pay for a meal
ticket, no questions are asked, the ticket is issued, and the child’s
name and address noted. By next day, or at most in two days, inquiries
have been made. If it is found that the parents can afford it, they are
compelled to pay the full price and to refund whatever sum may be due to
the canteen for the meals their child has had. If they are found to be
really too poor to pay, tickets are issued to the child for as long as
it may be necessary. In such cases the account is not charged against
the parents. No distinction is made between the tickets of those who pay
and those who do not, and it is thus practically impossible for the
child who has paid for its meal to jeer at its less fortunate, dependent
comrade. Thus the self-respect of the poorest children is preserved,—a
most important fact, as every one who has studied the problems of
charitable relief knows.

Another highly important factor is the presence of the teachers at the
meals. Fully 90 per cent of the teachers use the canteens more or less
regularly, though there is absolutely no compulsion in the matter. They
prefer to do so on account of the cheapness and wholesome character of
the meals. I have myself sat down to a three-cent dinner in the company
of a well-known member of the Chamber of Deputies, a Professor of
Languages, and several teachers, each one of us having gone through the
little box-office and bought his ticket in exactly the same manner as
the most ragged urchin. All the children are provided with cheap paper
napkins, and the presence of the teachers is a sort of practical
education in table manners. The canteen serves, therefore, as a great
educational and ethical force as well as a remedy for one of the worst
evils arising out of the national poverty problem. The _cantine
scolaire_ is a great institution, well worthy of careful study.

If, as the evidence gathered by Mr. Hunter seems to show, we have at
least two million underfed children in the public schools of the United
States, victims of physical and mental deterioration, the time must
come, and the sooner the better, when we must deal with the problem.
Some of the Utopians among us would doubtless like to see the


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 18 20 21 22

Online LibraryJohn SpargoThe Bitter Cry of the Children → online text (page 18 of 22)