John Spargo.

The Bitter Cry of the Children online

. (page 5 of 22)
Online LibraryJohn SpargoThe Bitter Cry of the Children → online text (page 5 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

the Messrs. Fox Brothers, of Wellington, Somerset, England.

M. Dolphus found that in his factory at Mülhausen, where a large number
of married women were employed, the mothers lost over 40 per cent of
their babies in the first year, though the average at that age for the
whole district was only 18 per cent. He noticed, moreover, that the
mortality was greatest in the first three months of life, and that set
him thinking of a remedy. He decided therefore to require all mothers to
remain away from their work for a period of six weeks after childbirth,
during which time he undertook to pay them their wages in full. The
results were astonishing, the decrease in infantile mortality in the
first year being from more than 40 to less than 18 per cent.[35] Other
employers followed with similarly beneficent results, among these being
the firm of Fox Brothers, who employed considerably over one thousand
persons, more than half of whom were women. They paid wages for three
weeks only, but provided excellent _crèches_ with competent matrons in
charge for the care of the infants whose mothers were at work. There,
also, the infantile death-rate was very materially reduced, though,
owing to the fact that no statistics showing the rate among children
whose mothers were employed by the firm prior to the introduction of the
plan exist, it cannot be statistically represented. Mr. Charles H. Fox,
head of the firm, is authority for the statement that the reduction was
extensive.[36] The importance of these experiments, especially in
conjunction with the experiences of Paris in the great siege and
Lancashire in the cotton famine, cannot easily be overestimated. They
clearly show that not only hunger, but that other aspect of poverty
hardly less important, the neglect of infants through industrial
conditions which force the mothers to neglect them, are responsible for
an alarming sacrifice of life year by year, and that it is possible to
reduce materially the rate of infant mortality by improving the economic
circumstances of the parents.


No study of this problem can be regarded as satisfactory which ignores
the question of poverty and its relation to the number of still-births,
yet we can only touch briefly upon it. No brutal Malthusian cynicism,
but a calm view of such facts as those cited, leaves the impression
that, however it might be under other and more humane social conditions,
still-birth means very often a child’s escape from a life of suffering
and misery. It is surely better that a babe should be strangled in the
process of delivery from its mother’s womb, never to utter a cry, than
that it should live to cry of hunger which its mother cannot appease, or
from the torture of food unsuited to its little stomach! When a mother
suffers all the pain and anxiety caused by the struggling life within
her, and in her travail goes down to the brink of the grave, only to be
mocked at last by a lifeless thing, she suffers the supreme anguish of
her kind. Last year there were more than 6000 such tragedies in the city
of New York alone, and the number in the whole country was probably not
less than 80,000.

Some of the best authorities upon the subject of vital statistics insist
that still-births should be included in the death-rates, and in many
foreign cities, notably Berlin,[37] they are so included. If such a
method were adopted in this country, it is easy to see how important the
effects would be upon the tables of mortality. Whatever opinions they
may hold upon the moot question of regarding still-births as deaths in
all enumerations, all authorities appear to agree that the circumstances
of the mothers influence the numbers of the still-born as surely as they
do the actual infantile death-rates. Six physicians of large obstetrical
experience were asked to estimate what percentage of the still-born
should be ascribed to the influence of poverty, and the average of their
replies was 60 per cent.



That may be an overestimate, or it may be, and probably is, an
underestimate. If we assume it to be fairly correct, it means that in
one city something like 3700 mothers needlessly endured the supreme
agony, and as many lives were sacrificed to poverty. It means that to
the 80,000 babies annually devoured by the wolf of poverty must be added
another 45,000 killed by the same cruel foe in the passage of the race
from the womb of dependence to a separate existence. Whatever the number
may be, it is certain that many are still-born because of the fatigue
and overexertion of the mothers in the critical periods of pregnancy and
that many more are suffocated in the passage from the womb because of
the employment of untrained and unskilled midwives—especially, as often
is the case, when the “midwife” is only a kindly neighbor called in
because of the poverty of the family to which the child comes. And it
may be added, incidentally, that still-birth is not by any means the
only danger from this source, nor the most lamentable. Many accidents of
a non-fatal character occur at birth which seriously affect the whole of
life. Carelessness, inexperience, and ignorance may cause the
suffocation of the child, or by pressure upon some delicate nerve centre
irreparable injury may be caused to it, such as paralysis for life or
hopeless imbecility.[38]


It is a strange fact of social psychology that people in the mass,
whether nations or smaller communities, or crowds, have much less
feeling and conscience than the same people have as individuals. People
whose souls would cry out against such conditions as we have described
coming under their notice in a specific case, _en masse_ are unmoved. As
individuals we fully recognize that charity can never take the place of
justice, but collectively, as citizens, we are prone to solace ourselves
with the thought that charity, organized and unorganized, somehow meets
the problem, and we blind ourselves to the contrary evidences which
everywhere confront us. But it is only too true that charity—“that
damnably cold thing called charity”—fails utterly to meet the problem of
poverty in general and childhood’s poverty in particular. Nothing could
be more pathetic than the method employed by so many charitable persons
and societies of attempting to solve the latter problem by finding
employment for the mother, as if that were not the worst phase of all
from any sane view of the child’s interest. Charity degrades and
demoralizes, and there is little or no compensating effective help. In
the vast majority of cases it fails to reach the suffering in time to
save them from becoming chronic dependents. More and more the heart and
brain of the world are coming to a recognition of the fact that charity,
however well organized, cannot solve the problems which the gigantic and
blind forces inhering in the laws of social development have called into

While the causes of poverty remain active in the forces which govern
their lives, it is impossible to reclaim the victims. Were nothing but
charity possible, consideration of this and other phases of our growing
social misery might well plunge us into the deepest and blackest
pessimism. But surely we may see in those experiments in the work of
social reconstruction, which wise and enlightened municipalities have
undertaken, a widening sense of social responsibility and the rays of
the hope-light for which men have waited through the years. Such social
efforts as the municipal milk depots of Europe and this country, based
upon the _Gouttes de Lait_ of France;[39] the provision of free,
well-regulated _crèches_[40] and the extension of free medical service
at the public cost, have been attended with important beneficial results
and point the way to further efforts in the same direction. Experience
points clearly to the need of some provision to enable the mother to
remain with her infant child instead of leaving it to the care of others
while she joins the great machine, and becomes part of it, in the
interests of that world-supremacy in commerce and industry which is our
boast and dream, and for which we are paying too terrible a price.

It is, of course, true that even these measures will not banish poverty
from the world. They can only palliate the evils, not eradicate them.
Eradication can only be accomplished by greater, foundational changes
which will make it possible for every child to flourish as befits the
inheritors of the ages of strife and suffering which the world is slowly
coming to regard as so many experiences and lessons in the art of life.
Between the present wrong and that ideal there must come golden years of
opportunity for enlightened social statesmanship consecrated to the
rescue of the nation’s children from the curse and thrall of cruel and
relentless poverty, which otherwise must be bequeathed again to the
generations yet unborn to damn their lives. In the child’s cry of to-day
wisdom will hear the nation of to-morrow pleading that it may be saved
from the blight and decay of a poverty which our vast resources and
treasuries of wealth declare to be as needless as it is shameful and

- - -

Footnote B:

For a contrary view of this question, see Dr. Paton’s article on “The
Influence of Diet in Pregnancy on the Weight of the Offspring,”
_Lancet_, July 4, 1903; and Dr. Ballantyne’s “Antenatal Pathology and

Footnote C:

Drs. Baillestre and Gillette have estimated that three-fourths of the
infantile death-rate of France are due to avoidable causes. Five years
of ignorance, they say, has cost France 220,000 lives—equal to the
loss of an army corps of 45,000 men annually.—_Lancet_, February 2,


“‘It is good when it happens,’ say the children,
‘That we die before our time.’”


In a New York kindergarten one winter’s morning a frail, dark-eyed girl
stood by the radiator warming her tiny blue and benumbed hands. She was
poorly and scantily clad, and her wan, pinched face was unutterably sad
with the sadness that shadows the children of poverty and comes from
cares which only maturer years should know. When she had warmed her
little hands back to life again, the child looked wistfully up into the
teacher’s face and asked:—

“Teacher, do you love God?”

“Why, yes, dearie, of course I love God,” answered the wondering

“Well, I don’t—I hate Him!” was the fierce rejoinder. “He makes the wind
blow, and I haven’t any warm clothes—He makes it snow, and my shoes have
holes in them—He makes it cold, and we haven’t any fire at home—He makes
us hungry, and mamma hadn’t any bread for our breakfast—Oh, I hate

This story, widely published in the newspapers two or three years ago
and vouched for by the teacher, is remarkable no less for its graphic
description of the thing called poverty than for the child’s passionate
revolt against the supposed author of her misery. Poor, scanty clothing,
cheerless homes, hunger day by day,—these are the main characteristics
of that heritage of poverty to which so many thousands of children are
born. Tens of thousands of baby lives are extinguished by its blasts
every year as though they were so many candles swept by angry winds. But
their fate is far more merciful and enviable than the fate of those who

For the children who survive the struggle with poverty in their infant
years, and those who do not encounter that struggle until they have
reached school age, not only feel the anguish and shame which comes with
developed consciousness, but society imposes upon them the added burden
of mental effort. Regarding education as the only safe anchorage for a
Democracy, we make it compulsory and boast that it is one of the
fundamental principles of our economy that every child shall be given a
certain amount of elementary instruction. This is our safeguard against
those evils which other generations regarded as being inherent in
popular, representative government. The modern public school, with its
splendid equipment devised to promote the mental and physical
development of our future citizens, is based upon motives and instincts
of self-preservation as distinct and clearly defined as those underlying
our systems of naval and military defences against armed invasion, or
the systems of public sanitation and hygiene through which we seek to
protect ourselves from devastating plagues within.

The past fifty or sixty years have been attended with a wonderful
development of the science of education, as remarkable and important in
its way as anything of which we may boast. We are proud, and justly so,
of the admirable machinery of instruction which we have created, the
fine buildings, laboratories, curricula, highly trained teachers, and so
on, but there is a growing conviction that all this represents only so
much mechanical, rather than human, progress. We have created a vast
network of means, there is no lack of equipment, but we have largely
neglected the human and most important factor, the child.[42] The
futility of expecting efficient education when the teacher is
handicapped by poor and inadequate means is generally recognized, but
not so as yet the futility of expecting it when the teacher has poor
material to work upon in the form of chronically underfed children, too
weak in mind and body to do the work required of them. We are forever
seeking the explanation of the large percentage of educational failures
in the machinery of instruction rather than in the human material, the
children themselves.

The nervous, irritable, half-ill children to be found in such large
numbers in our public schools represent poor material. They are largely
drawn from the homes of poverty, and constitute an overwhelming majority
of those children for whom we have found it necessary to make special
provision,—the backward, dull pupils found year after year in the same
grades with much younger children. In a measure the relation of a
child’s educability to its physical health and comfort has been
recognized by the correlation of physical and mental exercises in most
up-to-date schools, but its larger social and economic significance has
been almost wholly ignored. And yet it is quite certain that poverty
exercises the same retarding influences upon the physical training as
upon mental education. There are certain conditions precedent to
successful education, whether physical or mental. Chief of these are a
reasonable amount of good, nourishing food and a healthy home. Deprived
of these, physical or mental development must necessarily be hindered.
And poverty means just that to the child. It denies its victim these
very necessities with the inevitable result, physical and mental
weakness and inefficiency.




In a careful analysis of the principal data available, Mr. Robert Hunter
has attempted the difficult task of estimating the measure of privation,
and his conclusion is that in normal times there are at least 10,000,000
persons in the United States in poverty.[43] That is to say, there are
so many persons underfed, poorly housed, underclad, and having no
security in the means of life. As an incidental condition he has
observed that poverty’s misery falls most heavily upon the children, and
that there are probably not less than from 60,000 to 70,000 children in
New York city alone “who often arrive at school hungry and unfitted to
do well the work required.”[44] By a section of the press that statement
was garbled into something very different, that 70,000 children in New
York city go “breakfastless” to school every day. In that form the
statement was naturally and very justly criticised, for, of course,
nothing like that number of children go absolutely without breakfast. It
is not, however, a question of children going without breakfast, but of
children who are _underfed_, and the latter word would have been better
fitted to express the real meaning of the original statement than the
word “hungry.” Many thousands of little children go breakfastless to
school at times, but the real problem is much more extensive than that
and embraces that much more numerous class of children who are
chronically underfed, either because their food is insufficient in
quantity, or, what is the same thing in the end, poor in quality and
lacking in nutriment.

It is noteworthy that no serious criticism of the estimate that there
are 10,000,000 in poverty has been attempted. Some of the most
experienced philanthropic workers in the country have indeed urged that
it is altogether too low. I am myself convinced that the estimate is a
most conservative one. It would be warranted alone by the figures of
unemployment, which show that in 1900, a year of fairly normal
industrial conditions, 2,000,000 male wage-earners were unemployed for
from four to six months. But to these figures Mr. Hunter adds a mass of
corroborative facts which suggest that the only just criticism which can
be made of his estimate is that it is an understatement. And, if there
are 10,000,000 persons in poverty in the United States, there must be at
least 3,300,000 of that number under fourteen years of age.

To test the accuracy of the statistics of unemployment, low wages,
sickness, charitable relief, etc., by detailed investigation would be an
impossible task for any private investigator. No such test could be
effectively carried out in a single great city by private agencies. But,
while they are open to the criticisms which all such statistics are
subject to, those given by Mr. Hunter represent the most reliable data
available. They justify, I believe, the conclusion that in normal times
there are not less than 3,300,000 children under fourteen years of age
in poverty, and a considerably greater number in periods of unusual
depression. If we divide this number into two age groups, those under
five and those from five to fourteen, we shall find that there are
1,455,000 in the former group and 1,845,000 in the latter. It is a
well-known fact, however, that poverty is far more prevalent among
children over five years of age than among younger children, and it is
safe to assume that of the total number of children estimated to be in
poverty, there are fully 2,000,000 between the ages of five and fourteen
years, nearly 12 per cent of the total number of children living in that
age period. The importance of this from an educational point of view is
apparent when it is remembered that from five to fourteen years is the
principal period of school attendance.


This problem of poverty in its relation to childhood and education is,
to us in America, quite new. We have not studied it as it has been
studied in England and other European countries where, for many years,
it has been the subject of much investigation and experiment. When it
was suggested that 60,000 or 70,000 children go to school in our
greatest city in an underfed condition, and when Dr. W. H. Maxwell,
superintendent of the Board of Education of New York City, declared in a
public address that there are hundreds of thousands of children in the
public schools of the nation unable to study or learn because of their
hunger,[45] something of a sensation was caused from one end of the land
to the other. But in England, where for more than twenty years
investigators have been studying the problem and experimenting, and have
built up a considerable literature upon the subject, which has become
one of the most pressing political problems of the time, they have
become so conversant with the facts that no fresh recital, however
eloquent, can create anything like a sensation. And what is true of
England is true of almost every other country in Europe. Only we in the
United States have ignored this terrible problem of child hunger. We
have so long been used to express our commiseration with the Old World
on account of the heavy burden of pauperism beneath which it groans, and
to boast of our greater prosperity and happiness, that we have hardly
observed the ominous signs that similar causes at work among us are fast
producing similar results. Now we have awakened to the fact that here,
too, are two nations within the nation,—the nation of the rich and the
nation of the poor,—and that Fourier’s terrible prophecy of “poverty
through plethora,” has found fulfilment in the land where he fondly
dreamed that his Utopia might be realized. The poverty problem is to-day
the supreme challenge to our national conscience and instincts of
self-preservation, and its saddest and most alarming feature is the
suffering and doom it imposes upon the children.

Such investigations as have been made by Mr. Hunter, myself, and others
in New York and other large cities, meagre as they have been, tend to
the conclusion that the extent of the evil of underfeeding has not been
exaggerated. It is true that the Board of Education of New York City
appointed a special committee to investigate the subject and that their
report, based upon the testimony of a number of school principals and
teachers, would indicate that only a very small number of children in
our public schools suffer from underfeeding. Many persons who regarded
that report as the conclusive answer of the expert were at once
satisfied. In order that the reader may better understand the
investigations herein summarized and view them without prejudice, it may
be well to digress somewhat to discuss that very optimistic report.

At a very early period of the agitation upon the subject, and before the
Board of Education had discussed it, I undertook a series of
investigations with a view to testing as far as possible Mr. Hunter’s
estimate. My investigations included personal observation and inquiry in
a number of public schools in various parts of the city having a total
attendance of something more than 28,000 children. When the Board of
Education took action upon the matter and appointed its special
committee, I was already far advanced in that work. Realizing that the
value of such an inquiry as the Board of Education had decided upon must
depend entirely upon the methods adopted, I turned my attention to the
task of watching carefully the “investigation.” It was a case of
investigating an investigation. When the special committee met I laid
before the members certain evidence of the utter worthlessness of the
reports they had received from the schools, as well as some of the
information I had gathered concerning the extent of the evil of
underfeeding, in the hope that the committee might be induced to
undertake a careful and extensive investigation of the whole subject by
a body of experts.

In the first place, the official inquiry had been confined to the number
of “breakfastless” children, and, secondly, the principals had no
instructions as to the manner in which their inquiries should be
conducted. The various District Superintendents merely requested the
principals to “carefully investigate” and report the number of children
attending school without breakfast, in some cases forty-eight hours
being allowed and in many others only twenty-four hours. The result of
this lack of method and system was most deplorable, many of the
principals adopting methods of investigation which not only proved quite
futile, but, what is more important, effectually destroyed all chances
of proper investigation for the time being. From the statements
submitted to the committee, I quote two examples as showing the
character of the “evidence” upon which its report was based.


The principal of a large school on the West Side reported that “after
careful inquiries” he had found only one little girl who came to school
without breakfast, and she did so from choice, saying, “Because I never
used to have any breakfast in Germany, sir, and didn’t want any.” There
were also two boys, Syrians, who said that they had three meals each day
but could never get enough to eat. The little girl insisted that she

1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryJohn SpargoThe Bitter Cry of the Children → online text (page 5 of 22)