Fw: BOOK REVIEW: (_Splendid Poverty_)

ICAN! America (icanamerica@email.msn.com)
Wed, 29 Dec 1999 11:05:09 -0500


Cross-posted from HABSBURG@h-net.msu.edu (December,  1999)

Susan Zimmermann. _Praechtige Armut: Fuersorge, Kinderschutz und
Sozialreform in Budapest; Das 'sozialpolitische Laboratorium' der
Doppelmonarchie im Vergleich zu Wien 1873-1914_.  Sigmaringen: Thorbecke,
1997. 475 pp.  Tables, bibliography, and index.  108 DM (paper), ISBN
3-7995-0470-2.

Reviewed for HABSBURG by Robert Nemes <rnemes@mail.colgate.edu>, Colgate
University

Book Name:  * SPLENDID POVERTY *
--------------------------------------------------------
In its broadest terms, this monograph examines the origins in Budapest of
the "modern welfare state." While the study encompasses more than four
decades, emphasis is placed on the reform impulses of the years
immediately before the First World War.  During the mayoralty of Istvan
Barczy (1906-18), Budapest was widely hailed as a "laboratory of social
policy" for its innovative housing and unemployment policies.  Through a
close study of these reforms, Susan Zimmermann aims to challenge normative
models of welfare development and to banish the notion that social
modernization in Budapest was somehow "deviant" or "delayed." In this
regard, her work can be seen as part of a larger process of the revision
of the late Habsburg Monarchy, as well as an important contribution to
recent debates on the welfare state.  Here Zimmermann leaves little doubt
about her own position:

        All those, in the West as in the East, who still pay homage to
        the idols of modernization, and those to whom study of the causes
        of social needs under capitalist relations seems anachronistic
        today, should perhaps be a little disturbed from their supposed
        peace by this look at "splendid poverty." (p. 12)

Readers will undoubtedly draw their own conclusions concerning the lessons
of this volume, yet all will welcome its careful research, compelling
evidence, and enviable organization.

The first half of the book describes, in fascinating and depressing
detail, late-nineteenth-century forms of poor relief and child protection.
These measures reflected a liberal faith in laissez-faire policies, in
individual responsibility, and in the primacy of private initiatives over
public sources of assistance.  Four interlocking practices in turn assured
that assistance would be available only to a small proportion of the poor.
First, relief was strictly limited to people who had established legal
residency, and in Budapest this could be a long, difficult process.
Second, begging and vagrancy were treated as criminal activities,
punishable by arrest, detention, and the forcible return to the village of
origin.  This practice of expulsion (_der Schub_) was the third pillar of
the system, and every year the authorities transported thousands of poor
men and women back to their home villages.  Ineffective and heartless
(expellees were given two slices of bread, but only for journeys of more
than 12 hours), mass expulsions continued through 1914.  Last, poor relief
was firmly linked to the idea that all able-bodied adults should be able
to fend for themselves, and that only those unable to work (the elderly,
infirm and children) would be considered for aid.  Thus one 47 year-old
widow with seven children was denied assistance.  Taken together, these
practices created a system built not just on paternalism or philanthropy,
but on exclusion and repression as well.

One of the many strengths of this book is the connection it makes between
poverty and gender.  This link was apparent in all areas of social policy
and particularly in debates and regulations surrounding prostitution,
which was not explicitly forbidden, but regulated by the "moral police."
The goal was not to remove all prostitutes from the streets, but to make
sure that they were registered, were restricted to certain quarters of the
city, and carried health certificates (to protect their middle-class
clients).  Though contemporaries usually justified these regulations in
terms of hygiene or morals, Zimmermann demonstrates that in many respects
prostitution was policed in the same way as begging and vagrancy.  In this
repressive environment, poor, single women were almost invariably
suspected of prostitution.

Inadequate even in the best of times, traditional forms of poor relief
were overwhelmed by the social problems accompanying Budapest's rapid
industrialization and urbanization from the 1890s onward.  The municipal
authorities at first responded slowly, showing a marked preference for
endless politicking, minimal social expenditures, and established methods.
Though budgets would grow and reformers would set the tone in the
following years, traditional thinking about poverty proved resilient.  In
1913 the Hungarian Parliament passed an act which imposed a "labor
obligation" on the "work shy"; with this, Zimmermann tells us, "the
repressive control of the lower classes and the repressive validation of
compulsive wage labor reached a high point." (p. 25) Many people, it was
clear, continued to see unemployment as a moral issue best solved by
police intervention.

This makes the emergence of the municipal reform movement, the subject of
the second half of the book, all the more striking.  Under Istvan Barczy,
the Lord Mayor of Budapest, budgets soared as the city took over gas and
advertising companies, installed sewers and electrical lines, launched a
number of profitable enterprises, and built dozens of new schools.  Barczy
reorganized the municipal administration and proved adept at finding
support in an often recalcitrant city council (the complexity of municipal
authority -- and Zimmermann's mastery of it -- is graphically demonstrated
in a labyrinthine chart on page 426).  Barczy also worked to
professionalize the city administration; this not only translated into
more sophisticated statistics and social descriptions of the population,
but also helped create "islands of reform" within the bureaucracy.

Zimmermann details the genesis, possibilities, and limits of Barczy's
reforms in three fields: unemployment, housing, and the protection of
children.  In the face of widespread hostility and indifference, the
municipal reformers achieved symbolic and often substantive breakthroughs
in all three areas. In 1913, the municipal government promised assistance
to those who were without work, and though outlays were barely enough to
carry the estimated 40,000 unemployed through the hardest winter months,
this measure represented an important shift in policy and discourse.
Increasingly, "unemployed" was viewed as a legal category, and one that
could be handled by social insurance.  The city's achievement in housing
was even more remarkable: between 1909 and 1913 the city built more than
4,000 units of low-income housing in Budapest.[1] This was hardly a
solution to the endemic housing shortage and these cramped apartments were
not palaces, yet rents were low and they were far better than the slums
and "rental barracks" that often housed the working poor.  Equally
important, the municipal government secured greater rights for renters
against their landlords.  In the area of child protection, the city was
somewhat overshadowed by the state, which had taken the lead with laws in
1898-99 promising assistance to all needy children.  To Zimmermann, the
state's programs, no matter how well-funded, were more paternalistic than
progressive, and showed a notable readiness to involve the police and the
courts.  The city was not inactive in the protection of children, but here
it had to settle for less visible gains.

An important voice in the debate over children belonged to the National
League for the Protection of Children (_Orszagos Gyermekvedo Liga_).
Founded in 1906 and concerned with the potential "ruin" of children in the
proletarian quarters of the city, the League endorsed harsh measures in
the name of "protecting" poor children.  While Zimmermann's criticism of
the League is on the mark, we hear little in this book about the many
other charitable, self-help, and philanthropic societies that flourished
in turn-of-the-century Budapest.  While voluntary associations were no
substitute for municipal or state activity, they undoubtedly played a role
in shaping local attitudes and policies towards the poor.  The motives of
these societies may also have been more complex than Zimmermann would
allow, reflecting not simply an impulse towards "social disciplining," but
also perhaps anxiety among the middle and upper classes, a new social
conscience, or simply a heightened interest in how the other half lived.

In its richness, this book suggests many avenues for future research.[2]
The connection between criminality and poverty, and the impact of prisons
and similar institutions, need to be explored, as does the role of
hospitals and the medical professions in the lives of poor people.  The
same is true of churches and religious organizations.  More work could be
done on the relationship between city and countryside, and on the many
poor laborers who retained close ties to their home villages.  Attention
could also be paid to the two very different social groups, Jews and
Gypsies, that always loomed large in discussions of urban poverty.  There
may be more to be said about the reformers themselves.  Zimmermann tells
us about several -- Barczy, Imre Ferenczi, Mor Szalardi in particular --
but on the whole they remain a rather faceless lot.  Finally, the poor
themselves are noticeably absent from this book; an anthropological study
of poverty (and one that eschews nostalgia or ennoblement)[3] would make
an interesting complement to the present volume.

Was Budapest a "laboratory of social policy" in the years before 1914?
How can Budapest be usefully compared to other cities?  And what does
Budapest's experience tell us about social modernization more generally?
These are the questions addressed by Zimmermann in her concluding section,
in which she highlights the similarities and differences between Vienna
and Budapest. Though brief (Zimmermann and Gerhard Melinz have compared
the two cities in depth elsewhere) this section raises important
theoretical questions about comparative history.[4] Ultimately, Budapest
was unusual in that progressive, and at times radical, reforms were
enacted "from above" by a narrowly-elected and often conservative city
government, rather than, as was often the case elsewhere, by an active
state.  It may be, as Zimmermann suggests, that reform in Budapest at
times resembled a "Trojan horse" brought into an unsuspecting and
unfriendly city.


Notes

[1]. For more on housing, see the work of Gabor Gyani, _Berkaszarnya es
nyomortelep_ (Budapest: Magveto, 1992) and "Budapest" in M. J. Daunton,
_Housing the Workers, 1850-1914_ (London and New York: Leicester
University Press, 1990), 149-82.

[2]. Some of the points raised here echo Zoltan Toth's excellent review of
Zimmermann's earlier work.  See his "The Boundaries of Comparison,"
_Budapest Review of Books_ 3/4 (Winter 1993), 153-57.

[3]. Such is the case with Miklos Letay, _Az Utca Nepe Pest-Budan
(1848-1914)_ (Budapest: [s.n.], 1993).

[4]. See Melinz and Zimmermann, _Ueber die Grenzen der Armenhilfe:
Kommunale und staatliche Sozialpolitik in Wien und Budapest in der
Doppelmonarchie_ (Vienna and Zurich: Europaverlag, 1991) and _Wien - Prag
- Budapest: Bluetezeit der Habsburgmetropolen_ (Vienna, 1996), reviewed on
HABSBURG:
http://www.h-net.msu.edu/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=19881864332388.

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