The United States has had a social welfare system for over 70 years, but each Christmas the New York Times continues to print heartbreaking stories intended to inspire contributions to its Neediest Cases Fund.
In 1912, when Times publisher Arthur Ochs established this tradition,
no food stamps, no social security for the elderly and people with
no school breakfast or lunch programs, no Medicaid or Medicare, and no
housing. Federal income taxes would not begin until the next year. New
had a public-private system of poorhouses, outdoor relief, settlement
sanatoria, insane asylums, and orphanages, yet many of the poor lived in
conditions so pitiable, Ochs thought they would no longer be tolerated if
Times made them known.
The first Hundred Neediest Cases were peopled by widows, orphans, and sick
disabled fathers. Mothers were often invalids, too delicate or devitalized
hold jobs or do housework. Hunger, cold, and the death of family members
dreaded not only for their direct effects, but because they could bring on
More than a third of the cases arose from a father's death; today widows
children can receive Social Security survivors' benefits. Another quarter
cases, in which the father was sick or disabled, might now be prevented by
disability payments and better medical care. Public assistance or child
payments could now support the 13 cases where the father was in jail, had
deserted, or was not mentioned. The few cases of impoverished old people
be resolved by Social Security. The remaining 17 cases involved children,
orphans, who had no adult to care for them. These would now be steered
the still-controversial child welfare system.
By 1921, the annual collection for the Hundred Neediest Cases had become
institution. The Times pledged to make the nature of poverty "clearly
to drive it home," because New Yorkers were "cut off by the conditions of
from channels of information as to the conditions of neighbors, channels
information which bring help and sympathy immediately." The Neediest cases
still dominated by sick, absent, and dead fathers. Mothers might work, but
earned too little to live on, or collapsed from overwork. A system had
to deal with such families by taking children away from their mothers. The
Hundred Neediest Cases Fund provided an alternative: enough money to keep
The New York Times was careful to distinguish its 1931 collection for the
Neediest Cases Fund from the "Emergency Unemployment Relief Fund,"
that the donations for the Neediest helped "those who cannot be helped by
employment because they are too old, too young, or too sick to work."
difference was that the Emergency Unemployment Relief Fund had collected
million, while the Neediest Cases Fund was unsure it would reach its 1930
of less than $348,000.
Pearl Harbor was bombed on the opening day of the 1941appeal. During the
week, enough money was donated to take care of the Hundred Neediest Cases,
December 14, a collection was launched for a second 100 cases. The nation
been in the Depression for over a decade; no explanations were needed for
fathers being out of work. The Times promised its readers their donations
"mean the turning of the tide toward health and self-reliance."
Some cases were receiving "public aid," but had additional needs, while
were not eligible because a family member worked part-time or at a low
There was cash assistance for dependent children, the elderly, the blind,
those needing "home relief." There were WPA jobs that could be held for
18 months, after which workers had to go back on public assistance, in a
some tried to break through training for higher-paid, permanent jobs.
Medical care now offered answers to many physical and mental problems, if
Neediest Cases Fund could pay for it. Donations began to buy "guidance"
"counseling," as well as rent and food. When a mother was dead, absent, or
weak to take care of her children, a housekeeper might be provided to
separating children from their families and homes.
The Hundred Neediest Cases of 1951 and 1961 show the success of the social
safety net then in place. Hunger and absence of income were no longer
Stories gave detailed explanations of why their subjects were in need. The
cases required counseling to lead them to solutions that they would
not know about or accept, such as living with a disability, or moving to a
nursing home. Parents and children who were "nervous" or "near breakdown"
needed care to return to mental health. Delinquency had become an issue,
living in crime-ridden slums.
By 1971, the "Hundred" part of the fund's name was dropped, and cases no
were given numbers. Counseling was still the prescription for many, and
emerged as a problem.
The landscape of need looked much like today's by 1991, with homelessness,
and substance abuse becoming familiar elements in cases. The 2001 campaign
the Neediest features lengthy stories about outstanding cases. Aaron
written these stories for three years, but is "still surprised at the wide
of things that cause people to be needy."
Some cases fall through the cracks between social service programs: he
child living in a homeless shelter who needed cabfare to and from
treatments. Other people need emergency support while applications for
benefits are being processed. "Charities have an advantage over
Donovan says. "They can get money to people right away."
According to David Jones, President and CEO of the Community Service
"government has abdicated substantially from case management." Instead of
social work, employees at the city's public assistance agency are now
with weeding out clients who fail to comply with convoluted application
The Community Service Society still gives cash grants to needy families,
has done since 1912. However, Jones finds the agency has shifted its focus
blend of the welfare poor and the working poor, as well as immigrants no
eligible for Medicaid and public assistance. More time is spent, for
helping welfare recipients to regain benefits after inappropriate
Aaron Donovan's story of Jasmine Tolentino, published on November
2001, illustrates both the value of existing social programs and their
One of her sons has lupus, a chronic illness for which he was recently
hospitalized. Tolentino lives with five children and a grandchild in a
apartment. Thanks to the social safety net, her son received the medical
needed, and the family survives on public assistance, food from a local
and food stamps. Because of the limits of public assistance, they cannot
to move to a larger apartment, and were sleeping without sheets, blankets
pillows until the Children's Aid Society bought them with money from the
Neediest Cases fund.
In "Behind the Hundred Neediest Cases," published in the City Journal in
Heather MacDonald argued that their history illustrates a change in the
view of charity. It was once reserved for the deserving poor; now the
recipient's moral character is "all but irrelevant."
However, the same history can be interpreted as the opening chapters of a
still-unfinished success story. In this reading, the early years of the
Case Fund showed government the necessity of meeting basic material needs.
the charity tackled those needs that remained unfilled. As our collective
knowledge evolves, private donations support the application of new
both old and new problems. And where bureaucracy fails, there is no
for direct compassion.
CITY-WIDE TASK FORCE ON HOUSING COURT SURVIVES BUDGET CUTS
Last month I incorrectly reported (See "A Rocky Season,")
that the City-Wide Task Force on Housing Court was planning to
its entire staff and close down in December, due to state and city budget
reductions. According to Larry Wood, President of the Board of Directors, the 21-year-old coalition is still very much alive. "We are
to stay together even if we were to lose all our government contracts," he says. State cuts of close to 45 percent of their income
the task force to lay off eight of 18 staff members, with the remaining
agreeing to take a pay cut. The agency's information tables at housing
courts are open fewer days each week, with only one paid employee
of two. Volunteers and employees of other housing-related organizations
still help to staff the tables.
The task force's cash flow is threatened by city cutbacks stemming from the World
Center disaster. Fortunately, late in November, it received
for a grant of $100,000 from the Nonprofit Finance Fund,
its Nonprofit Recovery Fund. While this amount does not return the
the level of funding originally expected for the current year, it ensures
ability to provide uninterrupted services at a time when they are seeing
escalating demand for housing court assistance.
Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits. She is currently on the staff of Bronx Independent Living Services.
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