Bring Back Workhouses! They Built Character!

I saw a bent old lady begging on East 51st Street and Park Avenue the other day, when most of New York was parading around in Yankee hats. I was appalled, of course. After all, the old lady was standing on a curb and blocking pedestrian traffic, which is a very serious offense. Very, very serious. And she was standing about 100 feet from the revolving doors of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where tourists were congregating and telling each other stories about the new New York, where all manner of unpleasant things has been banished.

My first reaction upon seeing this woman, who was wearing a dirty kerchief and a soiled coat, was to summon the police, for we have laws against this kind of behavior, this kind of person. You know what we say about police officers: They’re never around when you need them. As luck would have it, there was a patrol car across the street, on the west side of Park Avenue. Filled with civic duty, I marched across the street to deliver an eyewitness account of the perp’s activities, which included but were not limited to loitering, obstruction of traffic, begging and being a public nuisance.

Alas for the cause of justice, the police were too busy checking the emergency flashers on a yellow cab. The miscreant cabdriver seemed suspicious enough, what with his foreign accent and dirty clothes and weird-smelling food, so I chose not to distract the police from their duties.

Instead, I recrossed Park Avenue to observe the suspect again. She was bent at the waist at a 90-degree angle. Her left hand holding what appeared to be a makeshift crutch. The cup was in her right hand. She never looked up at the pedestrians whose path she was blocking. Smiles turned to looks of disgust as passers-by approached. They whispered to themselves in accents that spoke of far-off lands, and thus their disapproval must be regarded as a very serious matter, very, very serious. For if they return to their native lands and tell stories about able-bodied bent women begging for change outside the Waldorf-Astoria, why, all is lost! Free-spending tourists will go elsewhere: To Disney World, where there are no able-bodied bent women in the streets begging for spare change.

I tried to talk to her, but she was in no mood to converse. I walked away muttering a variation of my favorite line from Dickens: Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

Prisons we have aplenty, and they are filled to overflowing, thanks be to God. But workhouses, well, we Americans were never much for workhouses. They were Victorian society’s contribution to social justice in Britain. And a fine contribution they were. Those who persisted in being poor were dispatched to specially built institutions, where they were put to work. Men were separated from women and children from their parents in order that there would be no distraction from character-building. And those who survived the fetid conditions and the despair emerged as better people, by God.

Thank heavens we live in a city that has rediscovered Victorian morality! Do you want a bed in a city shelter, you miserable, immoral beggars? Well, work for it! Pick yourself up by your bootstraps! Do you think we exist to help you? Well, we do, if you are a person of influence and you have displayed yourself capable of making powerful friends and manipulating the system. But if the best you can do is a bed in a city shelter, well, you’re on your own, and you’ll thank us in the end.

You know, the poor have been getting a free ride in the press ever since Dickens started serving up liberal propaganda disguised as great literature. In real life, of course, most poor children are not angelic, churchgoing cripples. Oh, no. But the left-leaning press, of course, adopted Dickens’ manipulative Tiny Tim as a poster boy of child poverty and used him to push big-government programs that did nothing but encourage the poor to live idle lives at the public’s expense. Typically, of course, Dickens even appropriated Christmas to push his agenda, and the press has played along.

They had workhouses in Dickens’ London. You’ll remember that the clearheaded businessmen (who, not surprisingly, are portrayed as hardhearted money-grubbers) in A Christmas Carol declined to give money to charity because, after all, the workhouses were still in operation. Indeed, they say they are relieved that such places existed so that the poor might learn the value of work.

Now that we’re throwing the poor out of shelters, it’s about time we built a few workhouses of our own.

With any luck, they will decrease the surplus population, and tourists on Park Avenue will no longer have to fear that bent old women will spoil their autumn in New York.

Bring Back Workhouses! They Built Character!