How the Other Half Lives

by Jacob Riis
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What disease does the author blame for killing a lot of babies living in the tenement?

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Riis doesn't focus on a disease that kills babies—though he mentions smallpox in passing—but he does emphasize that infants often die from being abandoned by their desperate parents. Parents sometimes leave infants on the doorsteps of rich homes, hoping they will be adopted (which almost never happens), but many parents just leave the babies out in the streets. Rates of abandoned infants increase during rough economic times, showing that it is despair and desperation that cause this cruel behavior. Riis states,

Few outcast babies survive their desertion long. Murder is the true name of the mother’s crime in eight cases out of ten. Of 508 babies received at the Randall’s Island Hospital last year 333 died, 65.55 per cent. But of the 508 only 170 were picked up in the streets, and among these the mortality was much greater, probably nearer ninety per cent., if the truth were told.

Another barbaric custom that desperate tenement dwellers use to rid themselves of babies they can't care for is starvation. For a small fee, babies are sent out to board at "baby farms," where the babies are deliberately starved to death. Riis describes it as follows:

They feed them on sour milk, and give them paregoric [an opium compound] to keep them quiet, until they die, when they get some young medical man without experience to sign a certificate to the Board of Health that the child died of inanition [exhaustion], and so the matter ends.

Riis shows that parental actions—abandonment and starvation of the babies—are the "diseases" that lead to the bulk of infant deaths in the tenements.

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