Sunday, January 11, 2009

Our National Poverty. July 1, 1879, Chicago Courier

Chicago Courier, Chicago,

July 1, 1870

Our National Poverty

Carlyle once wrote of the poor of England with dreary humor: “some two millions, it is now counted, sit in workhouses, poor-law prisons, er have ‘out door relief’ flung over the wall to them; the workhouse bastile being filled to bursting, and the strong poor-law broken asunder by a stronger. Twelve hundred thousand workers in England alone; they sit there pent up, as in a kind of horrid enchantment; glad to be imprisoned and enchanted, that they may not perish starved.” The state of affairs in Europe is generally the same to-day. Of England it is said concerning the general working population that at no period during the present century has there been more prevalent distress than at this moment. On the continent the proletariat increases in extent and misery. In France the condition of the poor seems never to have been worse, and the lamentable condition of the unemployed classes renders poverty a constant source of apprehension to the government. In Spain the pauperism under the government of the baton of the marshals, is even greater than under the tyranny of the dethroned Bourbons. And wherever else one turns in Europe one meets with the same stern sad fact of the “dull millions that in the workshop or furrow-field grind foredone at the wheel of labor, like haltered gin-horses, if lame so much the better.”

In our own country we are indeed told by high authority that the rich are growing richer and the poor poorer; but the supposed increase of poverty does not assume the form of pauperism. Time was when poverty might almost have been termed the natural condition of our people. In the earlier years of the colonies and of the republic the beginnings of the prosperity of peace were hardly felt before the national treasury was depleted by war. Previous to 1820 we are told that the great fortunes were extremely rare, and that the people of that day had little else to boast of than “the bigness of their woodpiles and the cheapness of their liquor.” The statistics of the last dozen years show that notwithstanding the great increase of population and the desolations of war, the evil of pauperism is diminishing. In many of the eastern states, where the density of population, and the evils that result from it, very nearly resemble the conditions of European life, this is noticeably true. In Massachusetts where the density of population is greater than in Spain and Portugal, and but little less than in Ireland, Scotland and Prussia, the number of paupers has become materially less in the last dozen years. The decrease in the number of state paupers within four years has been twelve per cent, although the population during that period has increased eight per cent; and these paupers, less than one-third are of American parentage. In Ohio the reported number of paupers is not greater than before the war. Even in New York city, which is the most grievously afflicted with the disease of pauperism, the number of persons receiving charitable relief did not exceed, last year, twenty thousand in a population of a million; while the city of London with a population scarcely three times as great supports eight times as many common paupers – or from 150,000 to 160,000.

This remarkable difference in the conditions of poverty in this country and in Europe is mainly due to two causes: to our democratic institutions and to our enlarged philanthropy. The saddest fact of pauperism in Europe is that it is hereditary. The beggar of to-day is likely to have had a beggar for a grandfather, and possibly his grandchildren may, like himself, pass round the hat, or die upon the gallows. It is one of the greatest evils of European pauperism that the children of paupers as they grow up in the jail and workhouse form a hereditary pauper and criminal class. American philanthropists have done better. They have comprehended the fact that a nation will save in prisons what it spends in schools, and have set about to withdraw this class from the influences which surrounds and corrupts it, and to cut off the principal roots of pauperism and crime. The poor have been classified, the vicious separated from the simply poor, the sane divided from the insane, and the young educated, and taught to be manly and independent. Indeed, it is characteristic of American society that the son of a millionaire may suffer dire extremely for bread, and that the wards of the poorhouse and foundling hospitals may become the barons of Wall street. In diversified education for the poor this country exceeds all others.

This is a hopeful picture, and it shows that with all charges of materialism, the general tendency of our ideas and institutions is to ameliorate the condition of the humblest classes, to preclude the possibility of the formation of a pauper caste, and to extend the permanent benefits of the highest civilization.

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