Poverty and Pauperism

In a legal and technical sense, pauperism denotes the condition of persons who are supported at public expense, whether within or outside of almshouses. More commonly the term is applied to all persons whose existence is dependent for any considerable period upon charitable assistance, whether this assistance be public or private.

Not infrequently it denotes an extreme degree of poverty among a large group of persons. Thus, we speak of the pauperism of the most abject classes in the large cities. Poverty is even less definite, and more relative. In Catholic doctrinal and ascetical treatises and usage, it indicates merely renunciation of the right of private property; as in speaking of the vow of poverty, or the poverty of the poor in spirit recommended in the Sermon on the Mount. Apart from this restricted and technical signification, poverty means in general a condition of insufficient subsistence, but different persons have different conceptions of sufficiency. At one extreme poverty includes paupers, while its upper limit, at least in common language, varies with the plane of living which is assumed to be normal. As used by economists and social students, it denotes a lack of some of the requisites of physical efficiency; that is, normal health and working capacity. Like pauperism, it implies a more or less prolonged condition; for to be without sufficient food or clothing for a few days is not necessarily to be in poverty. Unlike pauperism, poverty does not always suppose the receipt of charitable assistance. As the definition just given sets up a purely material and utilitarian standard, namely, productive efficiency, we shall in this article substitute one that is more consonant with human dignity, yet which is substantially equivalent in content to the economic conception. - Poverty, then denotes that more or less prolonged condition in which a person is without some of those goods essential to normal health and strength, an elementary degree of comfort, and right moral life.

One question which at once suggests itself is: whether the amount of poverty and pauperism existing to-day is greater or less than that of former times. No general answer can be given that will not be misleading. Even the partial and particular estimates that are sometimes made are neither certain nor illuminating. Economic historians like Rogers and Gibbins declare that during the best period of the Middle Ages - say, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, inclusive - there was no such grinding and hopeless poverty, no such chronic semi-starvation in any class, as exists to-day among large classes in the great cities (cf. "Six Centuries of Work and Wages", and "Industry in England"). Probably this is true as regards the poorest of the poor at these two periods. In the Middle Ages there was no class resembling our proletariat, which has no security, no definite place, no certain claim upon any organization or institution in the socio-economic organism. Whether the whole number of persons in poverty in the earlier period was relatively larger or smaller than at present, we have no means of knowing. The proportion of medieval persons who lacked what are to-day regarded as requisites of elementary comfort was probably larger, while the proportion that had to go without adequate food and clothing for long periods of time was not improbably smaller. One of the great causes of poverty - namely, insecurity of employment, of residence, and of shelter - was certainly much less frequent in the older time. If we compare the poverty of to-day with that of one century ago, we find all authorities agreeing that it has decreased both absolutely and relatively. Against this general fact, however, we must note one or two circumstances that are less gratifying. Both the intensity and the extent of the lowest grade of poverty are probably quite as great now as they were at the beginning of the nineteenth century; and there are some indications that the improvement occurring during the last twenty-five years has been less than in the preceding half-century.

Owing to lack of statistical data, it is impossible to estimate, even approximately, the proportion of the people of any country that is in poverty. On the basis of unemployment statistics, eviction statistics, cases of charity relief, and other evidences of distress, Robert Hunter declared that the number of persons in poverty in the United States in 1904 was ten millions; that is, they were "much of the time underfed, poorly clothed, and improperly housed" ("The New Encyclopedia of Social Reform", 940; cf. also his work on Poverty). Ten millions represented at that time about one-eighth of our total population. Professor Bushnell estimated the numer of persons known to be in receipt of public or private relief at three millions (Modern Methods of Charity, 385-90). Of course the total number of persons who received charitable aid was much larger, for a large proportion of such cases do not come to the knowledge of statisticians or social students. On the other hand, not all who are charitably assisted are paupers, nor strictly speaking in poverty. Mr. Hunter's estimate is perhaps too high. After a very careful and thorough investigation of the poor in London, completed in 1902, Charles Booth found that nearly thirty-one per cent of the people of that city were in poverty (cf. "Life and Labor of the People in London"). This estimate was fully and remarkably confirmed by the studies of Seebohm Rowntree in the City of York, where the proportion of the inhabitants in poverty appeared as twenty-eight per cent (cf. "Poverty: a Study of Town Life"). There are good reasons for thinking that both these estimates are under-statements, if poverty be understood according to the definition adopted in this article. For example, Rowntree placed above the poverty line all persons who were in a condition of present physical efficiency, even though many of them were unable to make any outlay for carfare, amusement, recreation, newspapers, religion, societies, or insurance against old age. Evidently, physical efficiency in such circumstances can be maintained only for a few years. At any rate, this condition is not elementary comfort nor decent existence. Since wages and their purchasing power are quite as high in England as in any other country of Europe, the proportion of poverty is probably as great in the latter as in the former.

The causes of poverty are very numerous and very difficult to classify satisfactorily. While the division of them into social and individual causes is useful and suggestive it is not strictly logical; for each of these is often to some extent responsible for the other. Where both causes affect the same person, it is frequently impossible to say which is the more important. A better classification is that of immediate and original causes; but it is not always possible to determine which is the true original cause, nor how many of the intermediate causes have operated as mere instruments, and contributed no special influence of their own. As a rule, each case of poverty is due to more than one distinct factor, and it is not possible to measure the precise contribution of each factor to the general result. In any particular situation, the most satisfactory method is to enumerate all the chief causes and to state which seems to be the most potent. Professor Warner applied this method to more than 110,000 cases which had been investigated in London, in five American cities, and in seventy-six German cities ("American Charities", 1st ed., 22-58). He found the principal cause to be: in 21.3 per cent of the whole number of instances, misconduct, such as drink, immorality, inefficiency, and a roving disposition; in 74.4 per cent, misfortune, under which head he included such factors as lack of normal support, matters of employment, and individual incapacity as distinguished from individual fault. Misfortune was, therefore, the predominant cause in three and one-half times as many cases as misconduct. Among the particular chief factors drink was credited with 11 per cent, lack of employment with 17.4, no male support with 8, sickness or death in family with 23.6, old age with 9.6, insufficiency of employment with 6.7, poorly paid employment with 4.4, and inefficiency and shiftlessness with 8.26. In a general way these figures support the contention of Dr. E. T. Devine, that poverty "is economic, the result of maladjustment, that defective personality is only a halfway explanation, which itself results directly from conditions which society may largely control" (Misery and its Causes, 11).

It must be noted, however, that Professor Warner aims to state the immediate causes only. In a large proportion of cases these are the result of some other cause or causes. Thus, disease, accident, or unemployment might be due to immorality or intemperance in the more or less distant, past; and what is now classified as culpable inefficiency or shiftlessness might be ultimately traceable to prolonged unemployment. The important lesson conveyed by this and every other attempt to estimate the comparative influence, of the various causes of poverty is that we must never regard our estimates as more than very rough approximations. Certain factors are known to be very important everywhere. They are: intemperance, sexual immorality, crime, improvidence, inefficiency, heredity and associations, insufficient wages and employment, congenital defects, injurious occupations, sickness, accident, and old age. Every one of these is not only capable of producing poverty on its own account, but of inducing or supplementing one of the other causes. Intemperance leads to sickness, accident, inefficiency, immorality, and unemployment; on the other hand, it often appears as the effect of these. Almost all of the other factors may properly be regarded in the same light, as causes and as effects reciprocally.

Among the principal effects of poverty are physical suffering, through want of sufficient sustenance, through sickness, and other forms of disability; moral degeneration and immorality in many forms; intellectual defects and inefficiency; social injury through diminished productive efficiency, and unnecessary expenditures for poor relief; finally, more poverty though the vicious circle of many of the effects just enumerated. For example, intemperance, improvidence, sickness, and inefficiency are at once effects and causes. In a word, the effects of poverty are sufficiently numerous and sufficiently destructive to elicit the fervent wish that this condition might be totally abolished.

The relief of poverty, especially under the direction of the Church, has been discussed at length in the article CHARITY AND CHARITIES. Here we merely note the fact that the poor are now assisted by the public authorities, by churches, by religious and secular associations, and by private individuals. All these methods are subject to abuses, but all are necessary. In many countries old-age pensions and insurance, housing activities, and insurance against sickness and other forms of disability, prevent a considerable amount of poverty, and thus relieve it in the most effective fashion. At present poor-relief is to a much greater extent carried on by the State, and to a much less extent by the Church, than in the period before the Protestant Reformation. The remedies and preventives of poverty are as numerous and various as the causes. Persons who attribute it almost wholly to social influences propose social correctives, such as legislation, and frequently some simple form of social reconstructing - for example, the single tax or Socialism. Persons who believe that the individual is almost always responsible for his poverty or for the poverty of his natural dependents reject social remedies and insist upon the supreme and sufficient worth of reformation of character through education and religion. In times past the latter attitude was much more common than to-day, when the tendency is strongly and quite generally toward the social viewpoint. Both are exaggerations, and lead, therefore, to the use of one-sided and inefficient methods of dealing with poverty. While a large proportion of the individual causes of poverty are ultimately traceable to social causes, to congenital defects, or to pure misfortune, many of them nevertheless exert an original and independent influence. This is clearly seen in the case of two persons who have had precisely the same opportunities, environment, and natural endowments, only one of whom is in poverty. For such cases individual remedies are obviously indispensable. On the other hand it is only the crassly ignorant who can honestly think that all poverty is due to individual defects, whether culpable or not. Individual remedies, such as regeneration of character, cannot lift out of poverty the wage-earner who is without employment. Individual and social causes originate, produce respectively their own specific influences, and can be effectively counteracted only by measures that affect them directly.

Of the individual causes that must be prevented in whole or in part by individual regeneration, the principal are intemperance, immorality, indolence, and improvidence. All these would be responsible for many cases of poverty even if the environment and the social arrangements were ideal. Each of them is, indeed, frequently affected by social forces, and consequently is preventible to some extent by social remedies. Thus, intemperance can be diminished by a better regulation of the liquor traffic, and by every measure that makes better provision for food, clothing, housing, security, and opportunity among the poor. Immorality can be lessened by more stringent and effective methods of detection and punishment. Indolence can be discouraged and to some extent prevented by compulsory labour colonies, as well as by penalties inflicted upon persons who refuse to provide for their natural dependents. Improvidence can be greatly lessened by laws providing larger economic opportunities, insurance against disability, and better methods of saving. Yet, in every one of these cases, the remedy which aims at improvement of character will be beneficial; and in many cases it will be indispensable. The chief causes of poverty to be removed by social methods are: unemployment, low wages, sickness, accident, old age, improper woman labour and child labour, unsanitary and debilitating conditions of employment, refusal of head of family to provide for support of family, and industrial inefficiency. The necessary social remedies must be applied by individuals, by voluntary associations and by the State; and the greater part of them will fall under the general head of larger economic opportunity. If this were attained to a reasonable degree, persons who are at or below the poverty line would enjoy adequate incomes and better conditions of employment generally, and thus would be enabled to protect themselves against most of the other causes of poverty which have just been enumerated. In great part, this larger economic opportunity will have to come through legislation directed towards a better organization of production and distribution, and towards an efficient system of industrial education. Legal provision must also be made for insurance against sickness, accident, unemployment, and old age, and for the coercion and punishment of negligent husbands and fathers. Since, however, many of these social causes of poverty are frequently due, in part at least, to individual delinquencies, they are curable to a considerable extent by individual remedies. Sickness, accident, inefficiency, and unemployment are often the results of intemperance, immorality, and indolence. Whenever this is the case, the reformation of character must enter into the remedy. In a word, we may say that the correctives of some causes of poverty must be dominantly social, of others dominantly individual; but that in nearly all cases both methods will be to some extent effective.

The abolition of all poverty which is not due to individual fault, congenital defect, or unusual misfortune is one of the ideals of contemporary philanthropy and social reform. It is a noble aim, and it ought not to be impossible of realization. Against it are sometimes quoted the words of Christ: "The poor you have always with you"; but this sentence is in the present tense, and it was obviously addressed to the Disciples, not to the whole world. Until the words have been authoritatively given a universal application, the repetition of them as an explanation of current poverty, or as an argument against the abolition of poverty, will be neither convincing nor edifying. Equally irrelevant is the fact that poverty is highly honoured in ascetical life and literature. In the first place, there is question here of the abolition of the poverty that is involuntary, not that which is freely embraced. In the second place, religious poverty generally includes those things the lack of which makes the other kind of poverty so undesirable, namely, the requisites of elementary health and comfort, and decent living. Nor should we oppose the abolition of poverty on the ground that this would lessen the opportunities of the poor to practise humility, and of the rich to exercise benevolence. At present the majority of the people are not in poverty, yet no one urges that they should descend to that condition for the sake of the greater opportunity of humility. There would still be abundant room for the exercise of both these virtues after all involuntary poverty had disappeared, for there would be no lack of suffering, misfortune, and genuine need. On the other hand, those who had escaped poverty, or been lifted out of it, would be better able to practise many other virtues more beneficial than compulsory humility.

Poverty has, indeed, been a school of virtue for many persons who otherwise would not have reached such heights of moral achievement, but these are the exceptions. The vast majority of persons are better off, physically, mentally, and morally, when they are above the line which marks the lower limit of elementary health, comfort, and decency. For the great majority, the wish of the Wise Man, "neither poverty nor riches", represents the most favourable condition for right and reasonable life. If any person sees in poverty better opportunities for virtuous living, let him embrace it, but no man ought to be compelled to take this course. After all, the proposal to abolish involuntary poverty is merely the proposal to enable every person to have a decent livelihood, and enjoy that reasonable and frugal comfort which Leo XIII declared to be the natural right of every wage-earner, and which, consequently, is the normal condition of every human being. It merely seeks to lift the lowest and weakest classes of the community to that level which Father Pesch believes is both desirable and practicable: "Permanent security in living conditions which are in conformity with the contemporary state of civilization, and in this sense worthy of human beings" (op. cit. infra., II, 276).

HUNTER, Poverty (New York, 1904); DEVINE, Misery and Its Causes (New York, 1909); WARNER, American Charities (New York, 1894); BOOTH, Life and Labour of the People in London (London, 1889-1902); ROWNTREE, Poverty: A Study of Town Life (London, 1901); HOBSON, Problems of Poverty (London, 1899); ADAMS and SUMNER, Labor Problems (New York, 1905); SELIGMAN, Principles of Economics (New York, 1905); DEVAS, Political Economy (London, 1901); ANTOINE, Cours d'économie sociale (Paris, 1899); PESCH, Lehrbuch der Nationalökonomie (Freiburg, 1909).

John A. Ryan.

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