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ARTICLE II.-THE WHY OF POVERTY.
The most troublesome element of the social problem on its economic side is the element of poverty. All other questions at the present time seem to radiate towards this as their com mon centre. Every scheme for reform seems to have this for its ultimate end, to relieve poverty. Poverty makes men restless, it makes them envious, it makes them desperate. And there is poverty in our land, hard, grinding poverty, notwithstanding the fact that the nation as a whole is growing richer at the rate of more than a billion dollars annually. Periodically there sweeps over the country a wave of hard times and thousands of struggling workers are almost swallowed up in its resistless flood. Even during what we call easy times there are many who must battle night and day to keep the wolf from the door. Multitudes of families know nothing of luxury, and not a few are strangers to even the comforts and decencies of life. Children are reared amid squalor and filth unfit even for animals. Women wear out their lives toiling for a mere pittance. Hungry ones long in vain for nourishing food ; and weary ones are spurred on to their toil by the knowledge that rest means starvation.
These weary ones look across the way and see their neighbors living in plenty, who apparently toil no harder than they. The sight fills them with discontent, for they feel sure that something is wrong with the world in which they live. Wealth is certainly very unequally distributed. The fact is patent to all, and the question naturally arises, what is the cause of this inequality? Who is responsible for the fact that one man has enough and to spare while his brother man perishes with hunger? Is it the fault of our existing social system, or of wicked men, or of an unequal Providence ?
This is a vital question. It strikes at the tap root of the social problem in its broadest outlook. In the cause of an evil lies the secret of its cure. Therefore the first step towards the cure of poverty must be the discovery of the causes of poverty.
Most men are ready to lay the blame for every evil upon others whether they have any sufficient reason to do so or not. The poor are apt to say that their condition is the result of circumstances. They accuse their wealthier neighbors of extortion and dishonesty. The writings and speeches of socialists abound in denunciations of all who have succeeded in accumulating large fortunes. Without discrimination they are branded as robbers of the poor, oppressors of the weak, enemies of honest toil; and the poor are led to believe that the property of every rich man represents a certain amount of wealth stolen directly from them. On the other hand, how often we hear the wealthy and comfortable ones speaking contemptuously of the poor as the miserable and pitiable victims of their own ignorance or lack of thrift. They say that all who suffer are themselves to blame. They are idle, careless, improvident, immoral, and much more of the same sort.
Such sweeping denunciations on either side are unjust, and most frequently they are the utterance of those who know but little as to the actual truth involved. Worse than all, they do not help in the slightest degree to relieve existing difficulties or to prepare the way for a better state of things in the future. Quite the contrary. They intensify all feelings of hostility and drive men farther apart than ever, thus causing an unreasonable and useless delay in the solution of the social problem.
In all such assertions there is a shadow of truth, and it is this minute element of truth that gives them power for evil. There are undoubtedly many dishonest men among the wealthy. But there are also many
dishonest poor men. If some of the poor are thriftless, the rich are not without their idlers. Wealth is not proof positive of dishonesty any more than poverty is incontrovertible evidence of a lack of thrift and industry. Furthermore, if a man is poor because he has been wronged, it does not follow by any manner of necessity that he has been wronged by a rich man. Whenever, therefore, a tale of suffering and wrong comes to us, we cannot jump at once to a conclusion regarding the cause. We must investigate the matter carefully in all its bearings, before we can pronounce judgment that shall have any weight. We must first inquire who has been wronged. We must find out to what extent he has been
wronged. Then we must ask who has wronged him. Is he really wronged at all? Or is he simply unfortunate? Has he been wronged by others or by himself? Is his unhappy condition the result of his own ignorance, selfishness, obstinacy? Or has he been the helpless victim of a partial Providence or an unequal system of distribution? That a person is wronged implies injustice on the part of someone.
That which is wrong when suffered cannot be right when committed. It may be himself, or it may be another that has done the wrong. Whereever the wrong lies, we must trace it and remove it. Otherwise we may not hope to remove its results.
As we study the condition of American society one fact impresses itself upon us almost immediately, namely, that the poor of our land do not belong to any particular class, nor can they be said to form a distinct class of themselves. This fact should be emphasized. Many associate poverty with toil, and talk about “poor working people.” Others speak of the “poor classes ” and the “wealthy classes," as though there were some distinct line drawn between them. Now, however this may be in other lands, it is not so in our own America. Our poor are not a separate class, nor are they all working people. Many of the hardest workers in the land are among the so-called wealthy classes. The thousands of poor people in our great cities and elsewhere are so many distinct and wholly unrelated units. They are not connected by ties of class or heredity. The poor man of to-day is the son of yesterday's millionaire, and his son will probably be the capitalist of to-morrow. The rotation from shirt-sleeves to shirt-sleeves in three generations is no myth, but a common occurrence in American society. Furthermore, the man who now complains of poverty but a few years ago stood side by side with his rich neighbor in school, in the work-shop, or in the counting-house. They began life at the same point, but their paths have diverged. No candid student can justly connect poverty and labor as though there were some natural relation between the two.
To connect poverty with progress as though the latter were cause and the former effect is equally unjust. The assumption that poverty increases as a consequence of the material progress of society utterly false. The countries of the Old World have
made great material progress during the past few centuries and poverty has not increased. On the contrary the most carefully prepared statistics prove that poverty and pauperism have decreased. In England the number of paupers to-day is less than half as great in proportion to the entire population of the country as it was in the seventeenth century. Even the casual reader of history cannot be ignorant of the fact that in England and France the condition of the poorer people has been constantly improving for two hundred years. In our own land the condition of things is vastly better than in any country of Europe. We must take into account the enormous increase in our population during the present century, and it would be difficult to prove that the proportion of poverty is any greater than in the early days of our national existence. One thing is certain, the average earnings of laboring men are rapidly increasing, and every year the manual laborers are securing a larger share of the profits of production.
The writer of “Progress and Poverty” brings before us, as an illustration, the growth of a new State like California, and says that in the early days of its history, before the resources of the State began to be developed, there was no appreciable poverty within her borders; but with the building of railroads and the development of the wonderful resources of the State poverty appears. Therefore, the material progress of the State is the cause of the poverty of some of its inhabitants.
Such a conclusion, though widely accepted, is a most palpable non sequitur. To use a philosophical phrase, it is “mistaking antecedent coincidence for cause." As well might we say that because Mr. Jones died on the very day when Mr. Smith was married, therefore Mr. Smith's marriage was the cause of Mr. Jones' death. Before the resources of California were developed and railroads built, only men of energy or of some wealth could obtain a settlement in the State; but with social development and improved facilities for travel multitudes have flocked in, poor men as well as rich, the idle as well as the industrious, and they have brought with them all the causes of poverty. The gravest charge that we can make against the material progress of the State is that it has not sufficed in every case to neutralize the real causes of poverty.
The same may be said of the country at large. Poverty exists in spite of increasing wealth. No reasonable man can ask the question, Why does an increasing prosperity tend to make certain classes of the people poorer ? Such a question is stultified by facts. The question which we must ask, isWhy does not our marvelous national prosperity preclude the possibility of any individual cases of poverty?
In asking this question we take one thing for granted. The nation as a whole is growing richer. The poverty which causes so much trouble and complaint is individual. In other words, many individuals in the land do not share in the constantly increasing national wealth. These facts are universally acknowledged, although their significance is often misunderstood. Mr. George, in all his works, bears testimony to the material prosperity of our country, and the most radical socialistic writers do the same. In fact this is the chief source of their grievance. If society in general were growing poorer then there would be no carise for complaint or even for surprise that individuals were poor. But poverty is not national; nor are all men growing poorer. The charge is made that while one portion of society is daily growing poorer, others are growing proportionately richer day by day. It is asserted that the benefits of our increasing wealth are shared only by a part of the people, and that those who need it most not only fail to obtain any share of it but are actually losing that which they already possess. The truth of such a statement has been questioned, however, and the most thorough students of social economy assure us that the poor are in point of fact the greatest gainers by the country's prosperity. But which position soever is the true one, all are agreed on the one point, that poverty is individual.
In attempting to discover and to explain the causes of poverty modern socialists of the popular type ignore this fact. They attribute poverty to an imperfect system of social organization and to the unequal division of the profits of labor. Now, if these were really the chief causes of poverty, we should find the ranks of the poor recruited constantly from particular classes. The demand for reform in any national system is always based on the assertion that it militates against particular classes in the community. Those who argue in favor of the “single land