Poverty is something no one really wants to experience and living most of one’s life under those conditions is definitely not a dream fulfilled! In our day poverty is still around and much energy and planning and actions have been expended trying to eliminate it. Not easy to do! First of all the basic definition of poverty is not easy to agree upon. What may be considered poor in one area may not be somewhere else, hence one-size fits-all approaches are doomed to fail and are subject to deception and abuse. Having said all that, the realm of the theoretical is one thing, but the actual experience is another. When true poverty is exampled and seen, it should be obvious, no matter one’s one theoretical judgments on the matter.
A case in point is the book written by Jacob Riis in 1890 chronicling the tenement/slums area of New York City. It is called “How the Other Half Lives”. Filled with photographs along with explanatory info, there isn’t much doubt that those areas, while allowing survival in one sense, were also miserable places to live in! Causes of poverty are something we shouldn’t neglect and a definition of poverty may never really be possible, but that is really not a major defect. If we indeed saw a replication of those 1890 tenement/slum conditions today I would hope the word “poverty” would be an obvious conclusion about those living there, as well as a desire to make some obvious improvements. A problematical view would be one that considered those conditions to be acceptable and part of the evolution of society in some sense and hence, to be left to their own devices. I don’t know how one could counter that!
Approaching these social scenarios and possible remedies, a question that has to be reckoned with is the question of whether poverty can ever be totally eliminated? I don’t know—theoretically on paper it can, but human nature also plays a role and there are some who just want to barely exist and live on handouts or whatever they can scrounge for—so given that aspect, I don’t think so. Plus, given circumstances outside our control, namely, acts of God, disasters, etc., totally eliminating poverty would be a tall order! But efforts to improve some living conditions in some circumstances is not too much to strive for and much improvements can and have been made in society over time. It is in society’s interest to pay continual attention to poverty-stricken areas for many reasons and this book illustrated one particular state of affairs which was a bit shocking, but after a bit of reflection, not all that surprising given the fact that extreme conditions can cause extreme reactions! In other words, poverty can lead people to react in ways they normally wouldn’t under favorable conditions (we hope) and also morality can break down in many ways as people try to survive—doesn’t make it right but those actions are still troubling in many ways—and need to be attended to.
In this particular tenement area the children were the hardest hit. There seemed to be a great amount of children, why so many is another question, but they were there and suffered the most, especially those 5 years and younger. Not surprising when tenement buildings would be partitioned in such a way that scores of families would be crammed into these structures, many families living in one small room, just existing, and often no air circulation or even open windows to bring relief. The young often died from a form of suffocation because of the “closed conditions”. And that brings up the one “particular state of affairs” I mentioned which was very inhuman—“baby farms”! Though agreeing with, but not justifying it, that extreme poverty can create conditions for extreme reactions, nevertheless, when babies are involved, it really strains the understanding how things can take a certain course that it does!
“Baby farms” were popular during this time period and consisted of children being turned over to “caretakers” who would see to the child’s needs. The arrangements may have included temporary care, such as a modern Daycare setup, or adoption, but regardless, the intent was that the child would be cared for. Based on the financial arrangements, and because childcare was expensive, it became evident in many situations that it was cheaper if the children were allowed to die. It was a bit of a moral “jolt” to come across this among all the other descriptive aspects the book offered. The description of method– feeding the child sour milk and giving a “panegoric” (an opium related compound) to keep them calm until they died, makes one wonder how anyone can be so “cold” towards human life, especially innocent children—but they can! Of course not everyone who took care of children for a living did these kinds of things but there were enough who did which gave “baby farming” a bad name at the time.
To further layer these atrocious behaviors and to connect it with “similar” behavior of our modern society, another aspect was exploited by those who sought to make money off of the death of babies—insurance policies. The book mentions in that time period, three companies had issued about a million policies insuring children’s lives! Temptation abounded under those circumstances and it is not hard to see that a baby which died was a financially lucrative result!
Most of the people and leaders in these areas though, did try to help and find solutions to poverty and really cared for children but it only takes a small amount of evil to detract from all the good which was being expended on behalf of the poor—but the evil that resides still has to be addressed!
Poverty-stricken areas like those found in New York City at this time may be far removed now. And many laws have been passed which ensures that the abuses of children seen in this book should be rare! But history has a way of being constant in some things and human nature is definitely something we can’t “progress” away from, it must be constantly challenged and held in check. One of the things that got me about this particular issue of “baby farms” was the connection of a baby’s death and the financial attachment to that! Do baby farms exist today? If so I would hope it would be extremely rare. But a deeper question for today—do we still have an association with a baby’s death and financial gain? Yes we do in some ways !
We as a society better start taking a new and longer look at our practices of abortion and its financial entanglements. It seems we have allowed the Planned Parenthood videos of last year to pass from memory somewhat, but if there were ever any clearer indication of the lucrative financial gains from the death of babies, I don’t know what it could be! And along with that, what does it really say about us as a society when we allow research to be done on these baby parts, in the name of making medical breakthroughs which can make our lives healthier? There is a contradiction there! So the folks back in those “baby farms” made their life better by making more money when they allow those poverty-stricken children in their care to die—we, on the other hand, are using the death of babies to make our lives healthier? There’s is definitely something wrong with that scenario!!