There’s a column in The Economist this week reviewing a paper by an economics professor at Georgetown University on our changing attitudes toward poverty during the last four hundred years or so.
The thinking that dominated European thought between the 16th and 18th century was that poor people were an economic necessity f a society didn’t have slaves. Who else would be the workers in the factories and fields if we wanted to keep things ticking over?
Given that they were economically necessary, there was not much appetite for improving their lot. Even the Poor Laws designed in the 18th century were not really designed to help people get out of poverty, but just to help them survive shocks like failed harvests or unexpected illness.
I suppose it’s not surprising that the poor, by and large, were blamed for their own plight. The comforting rationalization gradually emerged that people were poor because of their own flaws like laziness, alcoholism, and lack of discipline. The clergyman Thomas Malthus popularized this view, which led to an adjustment of the Poor Laws making the workhouse the only option on the grounds that people shouldn’t be given money or food or even shelter if they wouldn’t work.
There are people alive today whose parents and relatives know what the workhouse was like, or who survived under exploitative factory regimes. But in the 20th century these attitudes toward the poor began to change. Researchers began to show that poverty really isn’t good for the economy at large. Henry Ford exemplified this thinking, insisting that if his workers were paid enough to buy the cars they were helping to manufacture it would be beneficial for everybody. And Karl Marx began to develop a theory whereby the workers themselves would take over ownership of the economies which depended on them – although in practice it didn’t work out that way.
For the West, the real game-changer was the Great Depression of the 1930’s. People couldn’t get work no matter how hard they tried, and platitudes blaming the poor themselves stopped working. In addition, it became increasingly apparent that high levels of poverty were a drain, not an engine, for economic growth.
Fascinatingly, though, it was not until the 1990’s that economists began to develop alternative models to Communism by which the poor could be helped to break out of poverty. Researchers began to demonstrate that low levels of education, health, and nutrition rather than laziness and drunkenness often kept people in poverty. As a result, countries now are changing their policies. Brazil, for instance, gives poor people money as long as they send their children to school, or protect their health by having them vaccinated.
For me, reading this article was like opening up a huge window to let in the fresh air. I found the analysis of poverty as an economic challenge much more liberating than the traditional schizophrenic view of Christianity in which the hierarchy live in palaces and dress up in gold and jewels to carry out religious ceremonies and in which the poor are kept in their place with charity and assurances that they are blessed.
Poverty, real poverty, is not a virtue. That is not to say that avaricious materialism is not destructive. I think it is. But its alternative isn’t poverty.
I’ve always had doubts about giving money to charitable causes for anything but short-term help in emergencies. I’d rather give to the Malala Fund or some other fund that provides education for those who otherwise could not get it.