The history of the United States of America has been full of events, both victorious and tragic, it has its rises and downfalls. The public image of the US is primarily associated with the mythology of success, with the concept of the American Dream and the idea of a self-made man being its primary subjects of idolizing. Indeed, the United States is a country of possibilities, and the idea that a single person can achieve literally anything, getting from the bottom to the top, has a real foundation to inspire. Nonetheless, people usually seem to ignore that it has its problems as well, and these problems are significant enough, such as an issue with US poverty, which peaked in the nineteenth century. The witnessing of the contemporaries of the era of how the poverty in New York affected the lives of those people who were the less fortunate than the rich and prosperous Americans, is showing that the history of American success has its dark side, and there are reasons for such disparity.
More specifically, the documentary work of the epoch, where the journalist Jacob Riis shared his experience in studying the most inhabited and worst conditioned parts of the nineteenth-century New York City. One of his primary notifications was the shock from how children there are in the working-class families. His collection of evidence and his personal experience genuinely impresses with the fact that there were so many children in the poor families, and that these children could not receive the care, possibilities, and education that their more successful peers were considering taken for granted. In particular, Riis was expressing his surprise not only of the number of people living there in the slums but of the fact that they had so very little place to live in and its conditions were far away from acceptable from the point of view of the modern person. Recalling one of his first trips, Riis remembers that in his quest to establish the average amount of children in such city districts, he “counted the other day the little ones, up to ten years or so, in a Bayard Street tenement that for a yard has a triangular space in the center with sides fourteen or fifteen feet long, just room enough for a row of ill-smelling closets at the base of the triangle and the hydrant at the apex,” with him noticing that “there was about as much light in this “yard” as in the average cellar” (Riis 179). That description may appear ridiculous and fictional if it was not known for a fact that this is a memoir of the eye witness of that era, the conditions people were living, and the absence of basic domestic advantages. Moreover, in that place he described, Riis counted about “one hundred and twenty-eight” children “in forty families,” with the suspicion that he did not even manage to find all the children; according to the calculations, “the house contained one hundred and seventy children,” and it was not an exclusion, rather an average case in his research (Riis 179-180). This information is evident enough to state that there were an insanely huge amount of people living in New York City by the end of the nineteenth century, and the biggest part of them had to live in the conditions that the people today are not even giving to the animals on the farms.
Furthermore, it is essential to remember that the US is a country created, founded, and inhabited primarily by the ex-immigrants, and the on the edge of the nineteenth centuries the flow of immigrants on the American soil, especially in New York, had probably the highest rates in the history of the country. There were thousands of people coming to the US, having no prospects, no money, to unique skills or professions, with the enormous families, looking for a better life. The livelihood of these immigrant families was harsh and lacking a lot, but, according to a contemporary Jane Addams, the conditions and experiences of these families were most cruel to their offsprings. The absence of decent jobs and constant need turned a lot of them to hard work, instead of trying to find a better place in society. These young people were often forced to deal with the prejudices and ignorance of the members of the families, which pushed them to stay where they were, at the bottom of the New York City: “there are many examples of touching fidelity to immigrant parents on the part of their grown children; a young man, who day after day, attends ceremonies which no longer express his religious convictions and who makes his vain effort to interest his Russian Jewish father in social problems; a daughter who might earn much more money as a stenographer could she work from Monday morning till Saturday night, but who quietly and docilely makes neckties for low wages because she can thus abstain from work Saturdays to please her father; these young people, like poor Maggie Tulliver, through many painful experiences have reached the conclusion that pity, memory, and faithfulness are natural ties with paramount claims” (Addams 1). The growing up in supposedly the greatest city in the world, as New York is often referred to even today, turned out not so well for a lot of young people, the hopes and dreams of the nation, as it has been established by Addams, were overwhelmed and dragged down by the unbearable poverty and social interpretation of the family responsibility: “this faithfulness, however, is sometimes ruthlessly imposed upon by immigrant parents who, eager for money and accustomed to the patriarchal authority of peasant households, hold their children in a stern bondage which requires a surrender of all their wages and concedes no time or money for pleasures” (Adams 1). More specifically, it was a growing tendency, common in the whole US of that time, not only New York.
Moreover, both Addams and Riis are sharing their different, yet similar experiences, since they are entirely in agreement over the one fundamental thing, and that is that the terrible situation the poor youth of the New York City was in should have been the primary concern of the authorities regarding the problem of the city poverty. According to their suggestions, living in the slums, in poor families with a lot of children and no jobs with no money, served as a direct catalyst for these children to grow up to contribute to the expansion of the criminal element of the city, that would cause tremendous problems in the future, let alone that a lot of young people are wasting their future lives while the government remains indifferent: “nothing is better understood than that the rescue of the children is the key to the problem of the city poverty, as presented for our solution today; that character may be formed where to reform it would be a hopeless task” (Riis 185). Addams, in turn, stood with the strong judgmental attitude against the politics of the city authorities, stating that the problem with the children is the result of their internal family disorders caused by the complex livelihood situation in New York: “with all of the efforts made by modern society to nurture and educate the young, how stupid it is to permit the mothers of young children to spend themselves in the coarser work of the world … it is curiously inconsistent that with the emphasis which this generation has placed upon the mother and upon the prolongation of infancy, we constantly allow the waste of this most precious material” (Addams 6). The experiences of both contemporaries are listing different reasons for the poverty in New York City, even though they did offer the same solution.
According to the secondary source, as in the reviewed material of the book Poverty in New York, 1783-1825 by Raymond A. Moth, there were numerous reasons for the growth of poverty in New York. Nonetheless, while the rise of this problem was growing exponentially and has reached an enormous scale, the efforts have been made to deal with it, specifically noting that the dealings with the poverty and the poverty relief used to take the most prominent part of the city budget (Rothman 182-183). Amidst the numerous reasons, the author lists economic depression following the Revolution as been the primary cause of the rise of the poverty and inability of the authorities to deal with it properly, let alone the growing amount of immigrants (Rothman 182). Although a lot of causes connected with the political and social changes were listed as well, they all are considered from the paradigm of being the result of the original problem.
In conclusion, the poverty in New York City in nineteenth-century, as it has been seen in the primary sources, took indeed quite monstrous forms. The reasons provided in the secondary sources appear quite compelling. The Revolution, gaining independence, the war that has drained resources, the financial despair considering the breaking of all ties with England at the moment, all of these factors brought the nation to the point of rebirth, which has gone through the vast economic crises and financial hardships, which, in addition with the rising levels of immigrants, caused the growth of poverty.
Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House, 1910.
Riis, Jacob A. How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890.
Rothman, David J. “Reviewed Work: Poverty in New York, 1783-1825 by Raymond A. Moth.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 29, no. 1, Jan. 1972, pp. 182–184.