What causes poverty?:
Talk of ‘shirkers’ echoes Victorian past, by Tristram Hunt: ...the
debate about how to cut back Britain’s spiraling social security system is
... replete with echoes of the past. The language of “workers” versus
“shirkers” is a straight lift from the mid-Victorian moralism of deserving
and undeserving poor. Yet the most unfortunate rhetoric involves the return
of “character” as the critical determinant of poverty. ...
This was the prejudice that first spurred Charles Booth, the Liverpool
shipping magnate, to investigate the causes of poverty in 1880s London.
Dismissive of socialist claims of mass unemployment, he established a
network of researchers to pick over the lives of the poor.
It was a pioneering sociological investigation designed to prove Booth
right: that poverty was limited and the poor were poor because of their
alcoholism, lust or dislike of work. ... In fact, Booth’s study revealed
that circumstance not character dictated poverty. ...
Booth’s study formed an important part of that New Liberal moment when
Victorian laisser faire was exchanged for an interventionist state. In its
wake came national insurance and the old-age pension. ...
post in November, 2007 on this topic:
...During 1817 ... a group of prominent New York merchants and
professionals (many of them having formerly been the principle supports of
such institutions as the New York Hospital and a variety of other worthy
causes) officially and quite publicly began to rethink their habit of
giving. Such previously generous philanthropists as DeWitt Clinton, Thomas
Eddy, and John Griscom took their cue in this from British reactionaries. In
so doing, they succumbed to the rhetoric of several hard-nosed British
social thinkers, most notably Thomas Robert Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, and the
Scottish conservative Patrick Colquhoun.
Twenty years earlier, all three of those gentleman had been instrumental
in the founding of the London Society for Bettering the Condition and
Increasing the Comforts of the Poor. Despite the burden of its long-winded
name, the London Society specialized in the cutting off of funds for social
welfare rather than the distribution of charity. Men like Malthus, Bentham
and Colquhoun believed that a distinct line must be drawn between the
"deserving poor" (those hit with hard times resulting from unfortunate
histories) and "undeserving paupers," the latter being the drunk, lazy and
whorish of society, to whom the provision of any form of aid was a
reprehensible act of facilitation.
Another key concept underpinning the logic of the London Society was the
presumption (for lack of a more accurate term) that paupers outnumbered the
deserving poor by a factor of about 9 to 1. In reform meetings and from
church pulpits, politicians and clerics again and again cited this
astonishing though unverifiable statistic, which soon became accepted as
fact. In time, the public mind became convinced that a mere ten percent of
London's poor were the crippled and the orphaned, while 90 percent were
degenerates. For every one individual in London's slums who genuinely needed
aid, popular wisdom held that there were nine who required something else
entirely: intolerance, punishment and correction. As a corollary to this
line of thinking, logic dictated that 90% of the charitable aid previously
offered was superfluous. In turn, wallets closed, and checks stopped being
The London Society remained a venerable body and dominant force in
British life for decades: influential in the development of such
institutions as workhouses and debtors prisons. It was likewise influential,
through its example, in New York and other American cities. By the end of
1817, Clinton, Eddy, and Griscom, joined by hundreds of other New Yorkers,
had formed a clone organization on the banks of the Hudson: the Society for
the Prevention of Pauperism (SPP).
Several months before the founding of the SPP, New York's Humane Society
(which at that time specialized in helping humans rather than dogs and cats)
announced rather forlornly the result of recent research revealing a
startling fact: no less than 15,000 men, women and children - the equivalent
of one-seventh of the city's total population - had been "supported by
public or private bounty and munificence" the previous winter.
In their book Gotham, historians Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace have
eloquently described the SPP's point of view, expressed in response to the
above data. In the grand tradition of the London Society, the SPP said it
believed that "willy-nilly benevolence" only made things worse. "Giving alms
to the undeserving poor not only undermined their independence but also
drove up taxes and sapped the prosperity of the entire community." Thus,
"for their good as well as everyone else's … the SPP recommended that all
paupers in the city be cut off from all public assistance forthwith." Soon
the Humane Society itself announced its intention to disband, in the wake of
its realization that the very act of giving charity had "a direct tendency
to beget, among [the citizenry] habits of imprudence, indolence, dissipation
and consequent pauperism."
"Tough love" was in. Cruelty equaled kindness. Frugality equality
generosity. And all three were not only cheap, but easy. A few ministers
sang out against the reverse-logic of the SPP, but far more praised the
organization than damned it. God himself, it seemed was on the side of
self-reliance. A generation later, Social Darwinists would express a similar
point of view: that the strong must be allowed to flourish, and not be
hamstrung by the needs of the clawing weak. Charles Darwin's The Origin of
Species would not see print until 1859. Indeed, Darwin himself was but eight
years old in 1817, and would not depart on the voyage of HMS Beagle until
1831. Nevertheless, the seeds of what was to become the philosophy of
Herbert Spencer (born 1820), not to mention the nearly identical philosophy
of the 20th century's Objectivist saint of selfishness, Ayn Rand, were quite
evident in the grand pronouncements of the London Society and its New York
equivalent, the SPP. ...
I'm always amazed at how little the debate, generated in large part by ideology and the belief
in false facts about the poor, has changed since the 1800s.
This is from a
post in June, 2007. It's an earlier history the deserving/undeserving
... In the early mercantilist period there was an ideological continuity
between the intellectual defenses of mercantilist policies and the earlier
ideologies that supported the medieval economic order. The latter relied on
a Christian paternalist ethic that justified extreme inequalities of wealth
on the assumption that God had selected the wealthy to be the benevolent
stewards of the material welfare of the masses. The Catholic church had
been the institution through which this paternalism was effectuated. As
capitalism developed, the church grew weaker and the governments of the
emerging nation-states grew stronger. In the early mercantilist period,
economic writers increasingly came to substitute the state for the medieval
church as the institution that should oversee the public welfare. ...
The people could no longer look to the Catholic church for relief from
widespread unemployment and poverty. Destruction of the power of the church
had eliminated the organized system of charity, and the state attempted to
assume responsibility for the general welfare of society. ...
Poor laws passed in 1531 and 1536 attempted to deal with the problems of
unemployment, poverty, and misery then widespread in England. The first
sought to distinguish between "deserving" and "undeserving" poor; only the
deserving poor were allowed to beg. The second decreed that each individual
parish throughout England was responsible for its poor and that the parish
should, through voluntary contributions, maintain a poor fund. This proved
completely inadequate, and the pauper problem grew increasingly severe.
Finally, in 1572 the state accepted the principle that the poor would
have to be supported by tax funds and enacted a compulsory "poor rate." And
in 1576 "houses of correction" for "incorrigible vagrants" were authorized
and provisions made for the parish to purchase raw materials to be processed
by the more tractable paupers and vagrants. Between that time and the close
of the sixteenth century, several other poor-law statutes were passed.
The Poor Law of 1601 was the Tudor attempt to integrate these laws into
one consistent framework. Its main provisions included formal recognition of
the right of the poor to receive relief, imposition of compulsory poor rates
at the parish level, and provision for differential treatment for various
classes of the poor. The aged and the sick could receive help in their
homes; pauper children who were too young to be apprenticed in a trade were
to be boarded out; the deserving poor and unemployed were to be given work
as provided for in the act of 1576; and incorrigible vagrants were to be
sent to houses of correction and prisons.
From the preceding discussion it is possible to conclude that the period
of English mercantilism was characterized by acceptance, in the spirit of
the Christian paternalist ethic, of the idea that "the state had an
obligation to serve society by accepting and discharging the responsibility
for the general welfare.” The various statutes passed during this period
"were predicated upon the idea that poverty, instead of being a personal
sin, was a function of the economic system. They acknowledged that those
who were the victims of the deficiencies of the economic system should be
cared for by those who benefited from it. ...
However, as noted above, the view that the poor "were the victims of the
deficiencies of the economic system" died out, and was replaced by the idea the
character problems are the main reason people are poor. This variation in
attitudes about the poor -- it's the system, it's the individual -- goes back
and forth over time, and we are currently seeing an attempt from the right to
re-impose older Victorian attitudes -- and with some success (I recently wrote about the
blame the individual versus blame the system distinction and how it has changed during the recession, see the end of this post).