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In the Web of Class: Delinquents and Reformers in Boston, 1810s-1930s.

In his timely case study of social welfare and juvenile reform in Boston, Eric C. Schneider provides a nuanced and provocative interpretation of successive attempts to redeem the poor. Employing a Gramscian hegemonic analysis, he charges generations of reformer's and the institutions they created with spinning "a web of class that helped form the cultural and class identities of working-class youth. By encouraging adaptation to the values of the dominant culture, by reinforcing fear of dependency, and by institutionalizing and labeling deviants, welfare and juvenile justice institutions helped shape the working-class world" (14). When reformers assumed that individual moral or social deviance caused poverty, they only treated symptoms. Clients resisted, fighting for cultural autonomy even while succumbing to economic dependence.

Schneider tells a subtle, complex story of a panoply of attempts to uplift or heal delinquent children. It begins with early nineteenth-century urban missionaries who organized a social welfare system to prevent the "undeserving" poor from taking advantage of their charity and then turned to preventing pauperism by instructing children in bourgeois values. These early reformers invented the reformable child, while public institutions defined the deviant one. By the 1850s pauperism was defined as a moral failing and the reformatory, originally intended to save poor children from adult dependence and crime, had become a penal institution. After the Civil War, industrial capitalism, urbanization, and the new immigration led to nostalgia for rural life. This pastoral ideal found expression in the placement of juveniles in private homes or farm schools to teach them self-reliance and self-restraint in a homelike atmosphere. But farm schools soon, turned to military drill and mental training, and Protestant foster families shied away from the Catholic and African-American children who appeared on client rolls. By 1900, neighborhood settlement houses provided manual training and vocational education that promoted obedience to external commands instead of internalization middle-class values. Child-saving appealed to twentieth-century Progressive reformers. They applied specialization, social science expertise, and the positive state to urban poverty and created juvenile courts and mental health clinics. Their enlightened therapeutic approach helped some, but recidivism remained high.

Schneider's negative assessment of the reform tradition places him in the camp of academic egalitarians who point to the manifest shortcomings of America's historically dominant capitalist-individual culture. Granting the power of their critique, doubt remains that a form of collectivist cultural hegemony, further extension of the welfare state, or the chimera of multiculturalism could redeem urban youth. As Schneider shows, as individuals Boston's poor possessed sufficient agency to resist and, to a degree, manipulate the dominant culture. Perhaps, even in a mass society driven by racial, ethnic, and gender conflicts as much as economic class, individuals must ultimately take some responsibility for their actions.

Quibbles, aside, this work displays affinity for its subject, solid research, lucid, insightful prose, and moving photos of street children. The reviewer endorses Schneider's hope that future reformers will do better than their predecessors in treating troubled children.
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Author:McCormick, Charles H.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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