Charity Toward All

April 16, 1995|By SARA ENGRAM

Nettie, who is nine years old, is very fond of music and flowers and all things beautiful, but she says she could 'love a mother to death' if she had one. She is a ward of the Henry Watson Children's Aid Society.''

Nettie's story, summarized in a newspaper notice on June 12, 1923, could be the plight of countless other Baltimore children in the years before and since. Like many of those children, Nettie was the recipient of private charity -- the proof that while a bustling, prosperous city like Baltimore had the inevitable problems of urban life, it also had citizens who responded with generosity, compassion and hope for a better world.

This past week, friends of Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland gathered in the elegant library of Peabody Conservatory to open an exhibit chronicling the 145-year history of the agency and its predecessors. Entwined in that history is the story of organized charity in Baltimore, a city typical of urban centers in this country.

The ''urban problems'' that have become familiar themes today are nothing new. Neither is the debate about solutions.

By the mid-19th century, Baltimore and other cities were beginning to feel the social effects of industrialization. People accustomed to rural life were finding themselves adrift in the cities, far from their families and support systems.

In 1849, Mayor Elijah Stansbury called for a more efficient delivery of relief administration. The result was the Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor (AICP), the third such organization in the country and the first of the agencies that, after more than a century of mergers and consolidations, became Family and Children's Services of Central Maryland.

If the AICP shared the optimism typical of Americans -- the conviction that it could indeed improve the lives of the poor -- the culture in which it operated shared some of the darker assumptions that still suffuse national debates about social problems: Those in trouble somehow deserve their fate; poor families could pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they tried hard enough, etc.

The points of light that eased the lives of the poor were private efforts that sprang up aimed at helping orphans like Nettie, or providing a few day's relief from household chores for mothers taken ill, or aiding those addicted to drugs or drink.

Private charity in Baltimore exhibited the same vigor and entrepreneurial vitality that characterized the economies of robust American cities. But it also had drawbacks. One was the scattershot approach of a patchwork of private services.

In 1881, Daniel Coit Gilman, president of the Johns Hopkins University, sought to bring the benefits of science to the city's charitable efforts. He helped to found the Charity Organization Society to coordinate services in the city. Through Gilman, the talents of faculty, doctors and students at Johns Hopkins were brought into a number of charitable efforts.

If the early days of industrialization gave birth to modern social services, the onset of the Depression shook these organizations to their foundations.

The Depression also tested a common theme in the debate about poverty in America: the proper role of government. Even before the gloom of the 1930s, it was clear that private efforts alone couldn't provide the resources to relieve the problems of poverty.

Now, in the 1990s, that same theme pervades the national debate. But unlike the 19th century pioneers against poverty, we know a great deal about how these problems originate and what can be done to help families overcome them.

The trouble is, we simply don't put enough resources toward solving them or stick with the programs long enough. Too often, donors -- both private and public -- shun existing programs, however effective they may be, in search of innovations or new ideas. But we don't need new ideas so much as we need common-sense application of what we've already learned.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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