Scientific Charity Movement

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The Scientific Charity Movement was a movement that arose in the early 1870s in the United States to stop poverty. It sought to move the role of supporting the impoverished away from government and religious organizations and into the hands of Charity Organization Societies (COS).[1] These Societies claimed the altruistic goals of lifting the poor out of poverty through the means of education and employment, and did make some strides to help young children involved in immoral underaged labor practices. However when it came to the COS's treatment of the "defective class" as they were labeled (insane, feeble-minded, blind, crippled, maimed, deaf and dumb, epileptic, criminal types, prostitutes, drug addicts, and alcoholics), the Scientific Charity Movement's other goals based in the popular post civil war social scientific theories of eugenics and social Darwinism came to light. Many of these "defective classes" were moved from the streets and into insane asylums where they were often experimented on by scientists of the time.[2]



The Scientific Charity Movement was born after the Panic of 1873, which was a collapse of the postwar economic boom from the American Civil War as well as the Franco-Prussian War that concluded in 1871. This led to the failure of American banks and financial panic that ultimately began an economic depression.[3]: 20–21  The response from the white economic elites at the time, as agitation grew within the poor and working classes, resulted in a new social reform that attacked welfare and promoted rigorous, data-driven systems to acknowledge the “deserving” poor from the “undeserving”. [3]: 22 

Two of the biggest advocates for moving Charity Organization Societies to the United States were Josephine Lowell and S. Humphreys Gurteen. Lowell had been raised by a radical abolitionist family and firmly believed that idleness was one of the largest causes of poverty. She believed that before someone should be allowed to receive aid they should first be required to complete a labor test of some basic task like cutting wood. She was opposed to local governments giving relief as well as almsgiving and stated that the best way to help the poor was to "help them help themselves".[4][5]

Gurteen, an English-born son of an Anglican preacher, is often attributed to bringing Charity Organization Societies to the United States. He was in support of consolidating already-existing groups who were providing aid and inspections in which COS agents would investigate those seeking aid to determine if they were faking or if they actually needed the aid.[4]

The movement's role in ending poorhouses[edit]

Poorhouses and workhouses were tax-supported residential institutions where those who could not support themselves were sent to work as an alternative to welfare systems then known as "outdoor relief." Poorhouses arose before the Scientific Charity Movement arrived in the US. While some members of the movement were in favor of the poorhouses, the Scientific Charity Movement had an instrumental role in the ending of the poorhouses. They were also responsible for the banning of children being allowed in the poorhouses. As time went on the safety net provided by progressive era reforms (many of which were supported by the Charity organization societies), helped to keep more people out of the poorhouses and eventually they were phased out or converted into nursing homes for the elderly or disabled. Many of the poorhouses laid the groundwork for orphanages general hospitals, and mental hospitals later on and while many of those in the poorhouses were able to reenter society, however those deemed unfit were moved to the asylums.[6][7]

The Invention of Casework

The idea and procedure of impoverished family “cases” and “casework” was established under the Scientific Charity Movement. Using the ideas of eugenics and the new technique of in-depth investigation and interviews as a means of social control, caseworkers were tasked with sorting through and categorizing impoverished people into two separate classes.[3]: 21–22  This idea of the “deserving” versus the “undeserving” was treated as a hereditary division and often was racially biased, treating African American poverty as a separate issue from white poverty and proving to be more willing to offer resources to white impoverished people than to African American impoverished people.[3]: 21–23 


The asylums created by the Charity Organization Societies are the source of much of the criticism of the Scientific Charity Movement. Their purpose was to remove the "defective classes" from society. Members of society who were classified as the "defective class" were placed in asylums most of which were made of the remnants of the poorhouses. These asylums had been founded as a means to remove the defective classes, based on the idea of social Darwinism, from the genepool. Some of these asylums allowed their residents to be experimented on by scientists of the time. Many of these asylums would continue on long after the Scientific Charity Movement was over and into the late 1960s.[2]


The Scientific Charity Movement is often seen as a dark spot in the history of American welfare reform due to their creation of asylums, classification of defectives, and social Darwinist views. On the other hand, the Scientific Charity Movement improved on many of the previous welfare systems in place, including their work against the poorhouses which were eventually abolished in 1935, and their involvement in rights of workers and removing young children from the workforce. They also are responsible for laying the groundwork for many of the reforms which came about during the Great Depression.[8]

In July 2016, Jeff Kaufman wrote a blog post comparing elements of the Scientific Charity Movement to those of effective altruism, a more recent movement that also applies a scientific mindset to charity.[1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Kaufman, Jeff (July 23, 2016). "Scientific Charity Movement". Effective Altruism Forum. Effective Altruism Forum. Retrieved 15 September 2016.
  2. ^ a b Stuhler, Linda. "Scientific Charity Movement and Charity Organization Societies". Virginia Commonwealth University. VCU. Retrieved 20 September 2016.
  3. ^ a b c d Eubanks, Virginia (2018). Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press.
  4. ^ a b Myers-Lipton, Scott. "Scientific Charity (Charity Organization Societies)". Social Solutions to Poverty. Retrieved 20 September 2016.
  5. ^ Hasan, John. "Josephine Shaw Lowell (1843-1905) — Social Reformer, Founder of the New York City Charity Organization Society and Advocate of the Doctrine That Charity Should Not Merely Relieve Suffering But That It Should Also Rehabilitate the Recipient". Virginia commonwealth University. VCU. Retrieved 20 September 2016.
  6. ^ "Historical overview of the American poorhouse system". Poorhousestory. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
  7. ^ Katz, Michel (1996-12-11). In the Shadow Of the Poorhouse: A Social History Of Welfare In America. ISBN 0-465-03210-9. Retrieved 28 September 2016.
  8. ^ Tannenbaum, Nili; Reisch, Michael. "From Charitable Volunteers to Architects of Social Welfare: A Brief History of Social Work". School of Social Work University of Michigan. University of Michigan. Retrieved 28 September 2016.