I have a friend who has held six life-insurance policies of from $1,000 to $3,000 each and has let them all lapse. He is industrious and capable and has a good trade, yet each one of these policies has been wrested from him by the hard fate of poverty. He also belonged to a fraternal society, but forfeited his membership in that, too, by the non-payment of dues. I should add that this man uses neither tobacco nor intoxicants, and is extravagant only when a collection basket or subscription paper for some good cause is passed around.
He has now been sick for twelve weeks. His wife and four children are without relatives that can support them and are dependent upon precarious sources of help for food, clothes, house-rent, and doctor's bills. Their plight is a desperate one. Both the sick man and his wile belong to a well-to-do church, however, and I heard yesterday that the Ladies' Sewing Society had arranged to sew for these children this very week. This is good, but I wonder how long the good ladies will do this before they will really despise the dear little children they are clothing. "There they go, playing in the dirt in the very dresses I made for them out of my Fedora's last winter's gowns." "You should have heard that biggest one muling fault with the waist we made her because it wasn't big enough across the shoidders! The impudence of it!" "Lookin' a gift horse in the mouth!" "How saucy those children are! They treat my children just like their equals." "It is so discouraging doing things for her. She has no management and don't take care of things after you give them to her."
So deep, and so sweet is charity!
If this sewing-society plot is actually carried into effect, the poor woman's fate is something terrible to contemplate. Socially she will enter upon a living death. She will get plenty of patronizing bows from all the best carriages as they drive by while she hangs out clothes, and every one of them will send a cold steel into her heart and set the death mark upon her face the harder. Of course the children will be saucy, and it will be strange if they are not worse than saucy with every circumstance calculated to destroy their self-respect. Let them become the wards of the church in every economic sense and they will be marked for social ostracism.
One of the members of this church is a deacon. He was made a deacon for the simple reason that he had money and contributed a miserable little sum each year to the minister's salary. Some of this deacon's money is invested in the Blank Life of New York. The deacon's stock in this insurance company has paid him 8% and even 10% dividends. It was in this company that my friend who is now sick and uninsured held a $3,000 policy. He paid this company altogether $173. The company paid him nothing. This poor man's money went to pay salaries and dividends. Different amounts of his money have gone also, without bringing him any return, into five other companies. The deacon puts his dividends into his pockets, smiles benignly and thinks it is all right. The man had protection while he was paying his money—that is, he had chances. He took the chances and lost them, quoth the good deacon, pinching a seam in the roll of bills and then clasping both hands warmly about them. The deacon is a warm opponent of gambling, and talks very strenuously in prayer meeting about the evil of card-playing and all games ot chance.
The American people are just now in a gambling frame of mind. Insurance is only one of a number of legal forms of gambling. The illegal forms may be worse incidentally but not essentially. For every family which receives a thousand dollars after paying less than a hundred, as was the "good luck" of one of my neighbors, there are many poor fellows who have drawn blanks and have nothing but a few worthless papers to show for their precious investments. When I heard last Sunday morning that those four children had stopped going to Sunday school because they lacked shoes, I could not help thinking hard thoughts and feeling strong feelings about this legal form of gambling.
The relationship existing between my friend the dividends-deacon and my friend the sick man, members of the same church, is not that of brotherhood. It is not the relationship that Jesus Christ tried to establish between men. It is not ecdesia, holy and blessed. There are secret societies that realize a much larger measure of real brotherhood than does the average church. I have heard the claim made that the secret societies did more for both body and soul, but I doubt that. This much too is true,that when a member is in need of any kind, sick or in prison, the societies will help him the quicker, and when they do help him or his family it does not make him feel like a dog nor humiliate or disgrace the family. The church does not yet know that a man has a right to eat, to work, and to live. The charity of a sweet and humble soul is beautiful and good in the giver and a curse to the recipient, but the charity of a self-righteous, condescending, pious pharisee is an abomination and a curse from every point of view. The cry of the poor is not a cry for more charity but a cry for justice. If life had not been such a lottery with my sick friend there would be some provision for him and his today. As it is he has put something near $500 into the hands of those who do not need it in a frantic and vain effort to make provision against this very hour of utmost need on the part of his little family.
All this means that I am up against the question as to what I am going to do about it. I can send them coal and potatoes and stand in for the doctor's bill, but what will that mean? They will feel under obligation to me, I fear, in a harmful way. The obligations of mutualism are beautiful and helpful to soul prosperity, but the crude obligations of misfortune, hunger, of an under class to an upper class, are destructive and damning. I must manage in some way for them to earn, or in some way feel that they have a right to every dollar they get. And I myself am poor and in debt. I wish I could say that no privilege shall be enjoyed by myself or my children which is not equally extended to this sick man and to all others. I could say it, but I cannot carry it out. I would do good but evil is present with us. Frankly, I blame this state of things to the competitive organization of society.
It is uncomfortable to have to live like a pagan and feel like a hypocrite.
This appeared in The American Cooperator, about 1903.
LVTfan note: A very similar article appears in another journal, Social Gospel, (1901) at page 26. The final paragraphs vary a bit.