Friday, May 20, 2011

The Embarrassing Poor

Our lefty friends like to tell a story about the poor that goes like this. In the old days of the feudal era the people had their place and the lords had their responsibilities. The result was that the poor got taken care of. But then came the rise of trade and the poor fell through the cracks. Over and over, beginning with the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, the state tried to come up with a way to meet society's obligation to care for the least among us, but more and more, as capitalism developed, the poor got shunted to the margins of society. But then came the modern era of social politics, and the state finally developed compassionate and targeted programs to help the poor and to mitigate their marginalized status. What's needed to finish the job is more funding to help people in need.

The reality is that the poor have always been an embarrassment and an afterthought. That is why the poor always features in moral and religious systems. We want so much to forget about them, but the moral critics insist that we remember them.

Were the poor really looked after in the feudal era? It's hard to know, of course. But the numbers indicate that they didn't do well. Poor people had fewer surviving children than rich people, according to Gregory Clark in A Farewell to Alms. Anyway, the reality of the feudal era was periodic famines and wars. Guess who got the short end of the stick? In the early modern era, with more wealth available, society could afford to spend money on bureaucratic responses to the poverty problem. Instead of personally doing something about the poor, communities could hire it done. There were two kinds of relief: "indoor" relief where the poor were warehoused, and "outdoor" relief where the poor were helped outside of actual institutions in private homes. In the 18th century in the Anglosphere this "doing something" developed into the workhouse, the place where the poor were warehoused and supervised by masters and beadles like Dickens' Mr. Bumble. By the end of the 19th century, inspired by Dickens and a new generation of social activists, everyone was disgusted with beadles and workhouses and so the relief of the poor was changed from institutional assistance in insane asylums and workhouses to the provision of assistance with money. Now in the early 21st century the notion of "welfare" through outdoor relief is perceived as a failure, so a new approach is likely.

But really, nothing has changed. The poor are, then as now, an embarrassment--people that don't socialize in socially acceptable ways. They have damaged families, they have limited work skills, and they survive by their wits and by scams rather than through mainstream work for wages. The solution to the "poverty problem" is for each of us, individual by individual, to work with the poor and reintegrate them into socially acceptable roles within society. But that takes work. We would rather pay the government to do it, and forget about the poor. No doubt that is why we have been willing to listen to our liberal friends when they told us that it was the height of compassion to give liberals money to help the poor. We believed them because we wanted to believe them. But now the poor, though materially better off than ever before, are socially and spiritually worse off, as Robert William Fogel asserts inThe Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism. And the reason why is that the modern welfare state shovels money out to the poor but lets their culture wither away. So now, people are starting to demand that we "do something" about the rampant pathologies of the "underclass."

The question is: shall we "do something" in the old bureaucratic way, maybe forcing the poor to work, or shall we "do something" about ourselves, reawakening the old moral obligation to do something personally about the poor?

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