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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Blaming the Poor for Their Poverty

Recent news that the U.S. population has surpassed 300 million along with the discussions of welfare policy associated with the ten year anniversary of welfare reform legislation brings up thoughts of Thomas Malthus. In Malthus' famous population theory, population grows geometrically while food supply increases at the slower arithmetic rate. Because of this, the size of the population will eventually exceed the available food supply necessary to support it.

Malthus believes there are two solutions to the inevitable overpopulation problem. First, there are preventive checks on population which reduce the birth rate. Preventive checks consist of moral restraint such as abstinence which Malthus believes to be virtuous, and vice such as prostitution and birth control which is not.

Second, there are positive checks on the population that increase the death rate - famine, misery, plague, and war - which, in Malthus' view, are unavoidable natural laws. They are unfortunate, but necessary to limit population. In his view, these positive checks represent punishment for those who are unable to limit population growth through moral restraint.

Malthus does not believe that positive checks can be avoided. If they are, then people will starve for lack of food. Thus, if we abhor starvation, we are foolish to try and prevent the positive checks to population:

It is an evident truth that, whatever may be the rate of increase in the means of subsistence, the increase of population must be limited by it, at least after the food has once been divided into the smallest shares that will support life. All the children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to this level, must necessarily perish, unless room be made for them by the deaths of grown persons. ... To act consistently therefore, we should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use. Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders. If by these and similar means the annual mortality were increased ... we might probably every one of us marry at the age of puberty, and yet few be absolutely starved. [source]

Where does this thinking lead? To the idea that there must be no government relief for the poor:

A man who is born into a world already possessed, if he cannot get subsistence from his parents on whom he has a just demand, and if the society do not want his labour, has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food, and, in fact, has no business to be where he is. At nature’s mighty feast there is no vacant cover for him. She tells him to be gone, and will quickly execute her own orders, if he does not work upon the compassion of some of her guests. If these guests get up and make room for him, other intruders immediately appear demanding the same favour. ... The order and harmony of the feast is disturbed, the plenty that before reigned is changed into scarcity; and the happiness of the guests is destroyed by the spectacle of misery and dependence in every part of the hall, and by the clamorous importunity of those, who are justly enraged at not finding the provision which they had been taught to expect. The guests learn too late their error, in counter-acting those strict orders to all intruders, issued by the great mistress of the feast, who, wishing that all guests should have plenty, and knowing she could not provide for unlimited numbers, humanely refused to admit fresh comers when her table was already full. [source]

This statement was tempered in later editions of the Essay, but the message that helping the poor would only serve to increase their numbers and hence increase aggregate misery remained. The result of this was the Poor Law Amendment of 1834. From Brue:

Some of Malthus's ideas were adopted in the harsh Poor Law Amendment of 1834. The law abolished all relief for able-bodied people outside workhouses. A man applying for relief had to pawn all his possessions and then enter a workhouse before assistance was granted; his wife and children either entered a workhouse or were sent to work in the cotton mills. In either case the family was broken up and treated harshly in order to discourage it from becoming a public charge. The work house was invested with a social stigma, and entering it imposed high psychological costs. The law aimed at making public assistance so unbearable that most people would rather starve quietly than submit to its indignities. This system was to be the basis of English poor law policy until early in the twentieth century. Malthus, who died four months after the Poor Law Amendment was passed, must have regarded it as a vindication of his idea that there is not room enough at nature's feast for every one.

Ultimately, in Malthus view, the difference between the rich and the poor comes down to a difference in moral character. It is an attempt to convince us that poverty is inevitable, that it is the consequences of poor choices and the moral inferiority of the poor, and that there is little that can be done about it.

There is a long history of blaming the poor for being poor and downplaying other possible sources of inequality arising from differences in power, social position, institutional structure, and so on, followed by an argument that attempts to help the poor only serve to increase the incentive for immoral behavior. Increasingly, we appear to be heading down this road again. But before we do, we should remember where it leads.

    Posted by on Saturday, October 21, 2006 at 12:15 AM in Economics, History of Thought, Income Distribution, Policy, Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (65)

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