Waifs of the City Slums

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Waifs of the City Slums

Book excerpt

By: Jacob A. Riis

Date: 1890

Source: Riis, Jacob A. "Waifs of the City Slums." In How the Other Half Lives. New York: Belknap, 1890.

About the Author: Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914), born in Denmark, worked in the heart of New York City's immigrant district as a police reporter for a newspaper. With the publication of How the Other Half Lives, he became recognized as an authority on urban poverty.


Historically, family and child welfare policy in the United States was defined by a balance between private and public responsibility. Poor relief officials possessed the power to remove children whose parents could not or would not support them. By the 1870s, organized philanthropists and child welfare reformers had begun a national child-saving movement. Part of the Progressive Era, the child-saving movement reflected growing concerns about rising urban poverty, urbanization, immigration, and crime.

In 1874, the discovery of a young girl who had apparently been abused by her foster mother led to the formation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) in New York City. This organization was authorized by city and state statutes to investigate reports of child cruelty and neglect and, if necessary, to remove children from their parents or guardians. Removing children from parents or guardians posed the problem of how to care for them. Until the twentieth century, the SPCC typically placed children in asylums.

Jacob Riis, a crusading newspaper reporter, helped publicize the conditions faced by poor immigrant children. Riis's experience with poverty as a young man made him generally sympathetic toward the lot of the poor. Yet his sympathy had its limits and was influenced by his success in rising to the top. In general, Riis accepted the environmental cause of poverty, a theory just beginning to win acceptance in 1890, and rejected the notion that the poor owed their condition to sinfulness, laziness, or general unfitness. However, in discussing certain ethnic groups, Riis displayed stereotypical views. He believed that Germans were most able to advance, that Italians and Jews rose only when forced to do so, and that the Chinese were unsuited for advancement. Riis's 1890 report on child welfare in New York City reflected his biases.

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Riis offered no overall plan for helping the poor achieve better lives. His greatest contribution lay in exposing and publicizing the intolerable conditions that existed in the tenements of New York City. With his writing and his photographs, he educated a generation of Americans about the dangers of life in the poor part of the city. Riis's belief in environmental causes of poverty led him to pursue environmental changes. He joined settlement workers, journalists, and other public-spirited citizens in efforts to improve the schools and to build neighborhood parks and playgrounds. His legacy is making life more pleasant for those who live in the city.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, public policy had begun to reflect the growing conviction that families, not institutions, were the best place for children. Moreover, reformers and policymakers had begun to worry that overzealous child savers removed children from their parents too quickly. As a result, both paid foster care and adoption placement increased. However, institutions, rather than private homes, continued to play a dominant role in the care of dependent children until the 1920s. Subsequently, orphanages became increasingly rare. They vanished from the landscape by the 1970s. At that time, welfare programs such as Medicaid and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children were regarded as the best means of aiding poor children. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974 provided states with financial incentives for child abuse prevention programs. The act was renewed in 1978 to include newly recognized offenses against children, such as abduction and sexual exploitation.



Ashby, LeRoy. Saving the Waif: Reformers and Dependent Children, 1890–1917. Philadelphia, Penn.: Temple University Press, 1984.

Ladd-Taylor, Molly. Mother-Work: Women, Child Welfare, and the State, 1890–1930. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Lane, James B. Jacob A. Riis and the American City. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1974.