History Today Christmas Subscription offer.

The Idea of Poverty

Gertrude Himmelfarb considers why and when poverty ceased to be a 'natural' condition and become a 'social' problem in the Early Industrial Age.

'The mischievous ambiguity of the word poor' – if there was a single theme dominating the discussion of poverty in the early nineteenth century, it was this. The phrase appeared in the Poor Law Report of 1834. But it had been anticipated almost forty years earlier by Edmund Burke when he objected to the 'political canting language,' the 'puling jargon' of the expression, 'labouring poor.' The issue was not semantic; it went to the heart of the conception of poverty and the image of the poor, of the 'social problem' as it was called, and of the social policies deemed appropriate to that problem.

Burke's objection was to the confusion of genres implied in 'labouring poor,' the confusion between those who worked for their subsistence and were properly known as 'labouring people,' and those who could not work and were dependent on charity or relief. It was for the latter, he insisted, that the word 'poor' should be reserved – 'for the sick and infirm, for orphan infancy, for languishing and decrepit old age.' The poor law reformers used other language to make the same point. By rigorously distinguishing, in theory and policy, between the 'independent poor' and the 'dependent,' between 'labourers' and 'indigents' or 'paupers,' they hoped to eliminate the ambiguity that had done so much mischief.

Both of them appealed to tradition to support their distinctions. But tradition told against them. What they took to be an unfortunate ambiguity had been the accepted and perfectly acceptable reality for centuries. It had not been an ambiguity for medieval churchmen who made the giving of alms to the poor – labouring or otherwise, 'holy' or 'unholy' – a sacred Christian duty. Nor for the Elizabethan statesmen who devised the system of public, compulsory relief known as the 'poor laws,' which were meant to provide for all the poor, including, in certain situations and under certain conditions, the 'able-bodied poor.' Nor for the justices of peace who administered the 'laws of settlement,' which gave every legal resident of a parish a claim upon that parish for relief in case of need. Nor for the mercantilists who devised ingenious means by which to convert the 'idle poor' into the 'industrious poor' for the greater benefit of the nation. Nor for the early Methodists who based their social gospel on the dictum, 'The poor are the Christians.' Nor for the philanthropists who founded scores of societies and institutions to minister to every kind of misfortune that could befall the poor. Nor for the poor themselves who assumed that they had a right to 'fair wages' when they worked and to parish relief when they did not.

Nor was it an ambiguity for the political economist Adam Smith. Indeed, least of all was it an ambiguity for him. For Smith's 'system of natural liberty' derived from his 'moral philosophy,' and that philosophy posited a continuum within the entire body of the poor and within the nation as a whole. He opposed the laws of settlement as a violation of liberty, a hindrance to mobility, and hence a grave impediment to the well-being of the poor. But he did not oppose the poor laws, and he favoured state-subsidised education for the very poor. If he did not make an issue of pauperism it was because it was not a problem for him, the paupers being part of that large body of the poor who would benefit from a free, expanding, progressive economy, an economy that would generate a 'universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.' Everyone was capable of functioning in that economy and everyone would profit from it, since nothing more was required than the simple common, human attribute, 'the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange.' This was a 'low' view of human nature, but a democratic one, for it endowed everyone, from the lowest ranks to the highest, with the same 'natural talents' and gave them the same stake in that 'natural' system.

It was Malthus who made the idea of poverty 'ambiguous' – fatally ambiguous, one might say – by raising the spectre of a population constantly at the mercy of the food supply, and by condemning the poor to an eternal recurrence of 'misery and vice.' Smith's error, he said, was in assuming that an expanding industrial economy would create a direct correlation between the 'wealth of nations' and the 'happiness and comfort of the lower orders of society,' whereas the 'principle of population' established an inverse relationship between the two. The growth of industry would indeed promote the wealth of the nation, but only at the expense of the welfare of the poor, for it would lead to an increase of population without a concomitant increase of food, thus aggravating the condition of those hardest pressed for subsistence. There was no way of ameliorating that condition since any relief given to paupers would lead to an increase of their numbers, a decrease of the food available for the entire body of the poor, and thus a greater degree of misery and vice. Unlike Smith, then, Malthus opposed the poor laws. He also opposed, again unlike Smith, high wages, since they too would encourage the poor to have large families. The idea of 'moral restraint,' introduced in the revised edition of the Essay, would have broken the cycle of a geometrically increasing population, an arithmetically increasing food supply, and a series of checks, all conducive to misery and vice, keeping the two in balance. But it could have done so only if Malthus repudiated the 'principle of population,' and this he was not prepared to do. The spectre of Malthusianism, in its original, stark, unqualified, ineluctably tragic form, gripped the imagination of contemporaries for half a. century, making even more fearful a period fraught with anxiety and insecurity.

With or without Malthus, it could be argued, the movement for the repeal or reform of the poor law would have come to a head. There is no doubt, however, that Malthusianism provided the 'one thing needful,' as Carlyle said, to undermine the old law: a theory which made that law not the solution to the problem of pauperism but a large part of the problem itself, a major cause in the pauperisation and demoralisation of the poor. Instead of abolishing the law, as Malthus advocated, the reformers decided to amend it. By separating pauper and poor, by giving relief to able-bodied paupers only in the workhouse and on the condition of 'less-eligibility' – by creating, in effect, a pauper law rather than a poor law – they hoped to eliminate the 'mischievous ambiguity' that had such unfortunate economic, social, and moral consequences.

The popular perception of the New Poor Law turned out to be quite the opposite. The 'stigma' of pauperism, which was meant to differentiate the pauper from the poor, had the perverse effect of stigmatising the entire body of the poor, thus reinforcing the very ambiguity the reformers had so strenuously tried to remove. The new ambiguity, however, was different from the old in one important respect. Where the old had assimilated the pauper into the body of the poor, the new unwittingly assimilated the poor into the class of the pauper. Ultimately, the new law may have had some of the salutary results the reformers had hoped for. By helping to break the cycle of dependency, by reducing the number of paupers and alleviating the burden on the economy, it may have improved the conditions of the labouring poor. More immediately, it seemed to pauperise the labouring poor, in spirit if not in fact. Perhaps it could not have been otherwise; at a time when pauper and poor were in the closest relationship, any stigma attaching to the one inevitably tainted the other as well.

That, at any rate, was how it appeared to a great many people who agreed on little else than this. The new law, Disraeli declared, announced to the world that in England 'poverty is a crime.' The reformers had not, in fact, said or meant that; it was pauperism, not poverty, that they saw as the problem, and they saw it as a disease rather than a crime. To Disraeli, as to many traditional Tories, the cure for the disease was worse than the disease itself, for the new law jeopardised not only the paternalistic structure of society but also the legitimacy of the social order, the ethos that bound rich and poor together in a 'chain of connections.' Carlyle denounced the old and the new alike, the old for putting a 'bounty on unthrift, idleness, bastardy and beer-drinking,' the new as the epitome of the 'pig philosophy' that reduced morality to utility and social relations to the 'cash nexus.' Cobbett, on the other hand, defended the old law as an essential part of the 'social contract' established at the time of the Reformation, and attacked the new law as a violation of that sacred undertaking, hence a subversion of the very foundations of society.

From the beginning the agitation against the New Poor Law merged with a variety of other issues: universal suffrage, child labour, female labour, safety conditions in factories and mines, sanitary conditions in the towns, the newspaper tax, the corn laws, the currency, national debt, temperance, taxation, education, emigration, machinery, private property, even the private family. Thus the controversies of the thirties and forties went beyond the issue of poverty or the condition-of-England question narrowly conceived, and raised the largest questions about property and equality, natural law and the social contract, the rights and duties of individuals, the obligations of society and the state. If there is any temptation to think of the early Victorians as complacent and insensitive, rigidly and predictably ideological, obsessed with material gain and private interest, the social and intellectual history of this period should put that misapprehension to rest.

What gave the question of poverty its urgency was not, as Engels thought, the fear of social revolution, of hordes of 'dangerous classes' storming the citadels of property and power, but a profound sense of moral and social disarray. However poverty was viewed – as an inexorable fact of physical and human nature, as an unfortunate by-product of a particular law or institution, or as the fatal flaw of the entire system – it was seen as primarily, fundamentally, a moral problem. It was a moral problem for the poor and for society – for the poor as responsible moral agents, and for society as a legitimate moral order. Carlyle inveighed against the materialistic, mechanistic spirit of the age which sought simple solutions for complicated problems, a 'Morrison's pill' to cure all social ills. But all of those pills were intended to solve the moral and social as well as the material and economic ills of the poor. In their different ways they sought to fill the moral vacuum created by Malthusianism, to 're-moralise' the poor by one or another means: a New Poor Law which wou1d remove the poor from the temptations and degradations of pauperism; or the restoration of the old Poor Law, which would legitimise relief and return the pauper to the community of the poor; or laissez-faire -ism, which would enhance the moral responsibility of the poor by making them free individuals in a free economy; or factory acts which would protect the most vulnerable of the poor, women and children, from the moral and physical debilitation of factory work; or sanitation acts which would shield the poor from the indignities and ravages of urban life; or a 'new radicalism' which claimed for the poor the right to the full produce of their labour; or Chartism, which claimed for them the right to full membership in the polity.

A more dramatic challenge to the moral imagination came from those of the poor who were not so much a distinctive class as a distinctive 'race,' as Mayhew put it – a 'culture,' we would say today. Such were the street-folk, whose occupations and ways of life were so alien that they appeared to inhabit a 'foreign,' 'unknown' country; or the 'residuum,' the refuse of humanity, who constituted a social problem in the same sense in which the refuse of the sewers (also called 'residuum') was a sanitary problem; or the 'ragged classes,' whose 'raggedness' infected their homes and lives as well as their attire; or the 'dangerous classes,' the criminals and outcasts, who were, as one commentator put it, 'in the community, but neither of it, nor from it' – in the community of the poor physically, geographically, but not of it socially and morally, nor, some suspected, from it biologically.

There had always been such marginal and 'outcast' groups, but the growth of the large towns, and of the metropolis especially, had made them not more numerous but more conspicuous. It is interesting that they became the centre of attention at a time when their numbers were decreasing and the conditions of the working classes as a whole were improving. Perhaps it was for just this reason that Mayhew's 'revelations' came as such a shock. When the ordinary poverty of the labouring poor became less problematic, the extraordinary, peculiar poverty of the street-folk and ragged classes, and the habitual, incurable criminality of the dangerous classes, became more problematic. To the mid-century Englishman basking in the glories of the Crystal Palace, the persistence of these types of poverty was a disquieting reminder of the limits of civilisation. For they seemed to be caused not by the niggardliness of nature (famines or the disproportion of people and food), or the cyclical movements and maladjustments of the economy, or the technological revolution that threatened to create a 'surplus population,' but rather by the sheer recalcitrance of some human beings, the willful, perverse refusal to abide by the ethos that had stood so many other Englishmen in good stead. The street-folk were not simply poorer than other poor people; they were 'peculiarly' poor, as Mayhew repeatedly said – peculiar in their habits and values, their attitudes toward work, play, family, sex, property, law, authority, religion. Mayhew spoke of their distinctive 'moral physiognomy.' Today we might invoke the idea of a distinctive 'culture of poverty,' or, in the case of the dangerous classes, a 'culture of criminality.'

The moral imagination that was kindled by works like Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor , by Royal Commission reports and journalistic exposes, by the debates over the Reform Act, New Poor Law, and Ten Hours Bill, was powerfully reinforced by the literary imagination. Indeed the two were intimately related, Carlyle inspiring Dickens and Dickens Mayhew (or vice versa , as some think), Disraeli drawing upon the Blue Books and G.W.M. Reynolds punctuating his Gothic novels with Chartist sermons. If the fiction, 'low' and 'high' alike, sensationalised the lowest types of poor (the Jack Sheppard and Fagin types), it also dramatised the 'two nations' theme, the gulf between rich and poor that was said to be tearing society apart.

The problem of the two nations, for social critics as well as social novelists, was not so much a problem of poverty as such, not even of the gross inequality between rich and poor, but rather of the lack of 'connection' between rich and poor, the 'feeling of alienation.' This was the recurrent complaint: the sense that individuals and classes no longer felt responsible for each other, that human relations had been reduced to calculations of interest, that the only social reality was the 'cash nexus.' The problem, it was generally agreed, had been exacerbated by industrialism and urbanism, by conditions of work in the factories and life in the towns. But the novelties (like many of the radicals) were careful to dissociate themselves from anything resembling Luddism or socialism. Their quarrel was not with industrialism or capitalism but with utilitarianism and political economy, with the complex of ideas, attitudes, values, and practices epitomised by the dismal philosophy that dehumanised human beings and the dismal science that demoralised social relations. They were less concerned with the condition-of-England question as we now understand it, the standard-of-living question, than with the moral and social condition of the poor. A good case was made out at the time that the standard of living of most of the working classes, during most of this period, was rising, and that this improvement was a direct consequence of the 'industrial system.' But this argument was largely irrelevant to those who thought that material conditions were less important than moral dispositions and social relations, and that in the se respects the situation of the poor – and, indeed, of society as a whole – had deteriorated.

After the middle of the century, the sense of urgency began to abate, in part because the poor were visibly sharing in the moral as well as material progress of the nation, in part because the attitudes and ideologies that had seemed so threatening to them proved to be more humane and conciliatory in practice than in theory. Political economy, it was discovered, was less dogmatic than the first generation of Malthusians and Ricardians made it seem; Parliament was more amenable to social reforms and responsive to an aroused social conscience; and the economy was beginning to bear out the sanguine predictions of Adam Smith. As poverty - the normal poverty of the normal working classes – became less onerous and less problematic, the idea of poverty became normalised and 'moralised'. The stigma that had attached to poverty in the aftermath of the New Poor Law and in the turmoil of the thirties and forties gradually disappeared; whatever stigma remained was reserved for the dependent and the unrespectable poor, those who existed on the margins of society or were outcasts from society. The bulk of the poor, the 'working classes' as they were increasingly called, were seen as respectable, deserving, worthy, endowed with the puritan virtues that had served the middle classes so well, and that were shortly to earn them that coveted badge of respectability, the suffrage.

'When "poverty" was rediscovered in the 1880s,' E.P. Thompson has written, 'few remembered that Mayhew had been there before.' The quotation marks around "poverty" suggest that what was 'discovered' in the 1880s was very different from what Mayhew had discovered – that if few remembered he had been there before, it was for the good reason that he had not, in fact, been there.

The 1880s stand in dramatic contrast to the 1840s, a contrast all the more striking because on the surface the two decades seem so similar. In both cases economic depressions created social unrest among the working classes and a heightened social consciousness among the middle classes. In the forties that consciousness was largely channelled into legislative reforms, in the eighties into private philanthropies, institutions, and charities. One might have expected the reverse, that with the relaxation of laissez-faire and the growth of the administrative agencies of the state, later generations would have been inclined to look to Parliament and the State for the solution of social problems. Perhaps it was the intensity of their zeal; a desire for personal commitment and sacrifice, which prompted so many high-minded men and women in the eighties to devote not only their money but their lives to good works. Or perhaps the appeal to Parliament had to wait until the 'new' social problem was defined in such a way as to make it amenable to legislative action.

If any single event can be associated with the redefinition of that problem, it is the publication of Charles Booth's Life and Labour of the People in London , the first volume of which appeared in 1889 and subsequent volumes (seventeen in all) in the following fourteen years. In 1886 (the year, as it happened, when Booth started his research), Sidney Webb wrote to the secretary of the Fabian Society: 'Nothing in England is done without the consent of a small intellectual yet practical class in London not two thousand in number.' Charles Booth was a distinguished member of that class; the Booths were a prominent Liverpool shipping and trading family, and Mrs Booth was a Macaulay and a cousin of Beatrice Potter (later Mrs Sidney Webb). A Unitarian by birth and a Positivist by conviction, Booth was a perfect exemplar of what Beatrice Webb called the 'Time-Spirit': the combination of public service and scientific faith which inspired that 'small intellectual yet practical class.'

The most highly publicised discovery of Booth's work was that 30.7 per cent of the population of London was poor. The precision of that figure was as impressive as its magnitude; indeed, the precision seemed to authenticate the magnitude. Altogether, the study appeared to be a model of scientific objectivity. On the basis of a massive, meticulous, house-to-house survey, it established a 'line of poverty' and differentiated various classes above and below that line. Contemporaries (and some historians) may be forgiven for thinking that the ambiguity which had so long befuddled the subject of poverty had finally been resolved. In fact a good deal of ambiguity remained. The income figures were often based on estimates rather than actual earnings, and the classes were described and even defined as much in moral as in economic terms. Booth made no secret of the fact that the 'poor' were his 'clients'; it was for their sake that he proposed to locate the 'very poor' in industrial camps where they would be out of the way of the poor, not competing with them for jobs and not threatening their status. This was an extraordinary proposal for a laissez-faire -ist like Booth to make; he himself thought it tantamount to 'state slavery.' In fact, it was an effort to do what the poor law reformers had tried to do half a century earlier, to remove the able-bodied paupers from the society of the poor by confining them in workhouses.

If Booth's study was ambiguous in the sense that it was not as objective or precise as it professed to be, it was unambiguous in identifying the 'poor' as his, and society's, 'clients'. These poor were distinguished on the one hand from the 'very poor' (paupers, street-folk, the residuum), and on the other from the 'comfortable' working classes who were above the 'line of poverty.' That line did not, contrary to most accounts, define poverty in purely economic terms. But it did make poverty problematic by defining everyone falling below that line – for whatever reason, moral or economic – as 'poor.'

The effect of this redefinition of poverty was profoundly moral. If earlier in the century the Malthusians and poor law reformers had unwittingly demoralised the poor by tainting them with the stigma of pauperism, toward the end of the century Booth (and a host of other philanthropists, reformers, socialists, and 'social scientists,' as they were beginning to be called) remoralised the poor by focusing attention on a class that was poor but not pauperised, psychologically, morally, or culturally. This was very much like the old class of the deserving poor. But whereas earlier it had been assumed that the deserving poor were deserving because they were not a social problem and therefore did not require the assistance of society, now it was assumed that the deserving poor were a social problem requiring assistance precisely because they were deserving – and they did not become any the less worthy or respectable for receiving such assistance. This was the class that was the chief beneficiary of the major measures of social legislation of the early twentieth century, the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908 and the National Insurance Act of 1911.

The subsequent history of the idea of poverty has involved both a redefinition of poverty and a reformulation of the social problem. As a young Member of Parliament in 1920, Clement Attlee said that 'Booth had dispelled forever the complacent assumption that the bulk of the people were able to keep themselves in tolerable comfort.' In fact Booth had confirmed just that assumption: if less than one-third of the people were below the line of poverty, more than two-thirds (including a large majority of the working classes) were above it – were, as Booth said, 'in comfort.' Attlee's misreading of Booth was prophetic, for it anticipated the welfare state he himself helped establish a quarter of a century later. The principle of the welfare state was to provide not relief but services; and not to the poor or even the working classes but to everyone 'across the board', and not in accord with a 'line of poverty' (not even the much elevated line of poverty devised by Seebohm Rowntree in his survey published in 1941), but of a standard of welfare; and not the minimum standard earlier proposed by the Webbs, but what the Labour Party manifesto of 1945 called an 'optimum' standard.

The concept of welfare might have displaced the idea of poverty, had it not been for the 'rediscovery' of two older species of poverty: 'pockets of poverty' among groups whose special needs were not satisfied by 'across the board' services and who required 'supplementary benefits' (a euphemism for relief), and a 'culture of poverty' among those who proved to be as resistant to the ministrations of the welfare state as to any other kind of state. (It is perhaps no accident that Mayhew was reprinted at this time.) These, however, were peripheral groups and secondary problems. To restore the primacy and centrality of the idea of poverty, another redefinition was called for: poverty as 'relative deprivation.' By that definition one-third, two-thirds, or any proportion of the people could fall into the category of the poor and be regarded as the social problem.

That poverty is a relative concept is hardly a new discovery. Two centuries ago Adam Smith gave it its classic formulation: 'By necessaries I understand, not only the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life, but whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without.' In a society like Smith's, which candidly recognised the existence and the legitimacy of different ranks, degrees, and orders, that relative concept had natural limits, limits established by the 'custom of the country.' Today the concept of relative deprivation has so thoroughly relativised the idea of poverty as to remove all limits, indeed to make poverty so protean as to deprive it of form and shape. It is no longer a matter of raising the standard of 'subsistence' or extending the concept of 'needs' to 'felt needs,' to 'wants' as distinct from 'needs.' 'Relative deprivation' has become whatever the social inquirer – not the 'custom of the country' or the people who are the subject of the inquiry – may regard as such. Thus the anthropologist Mary Douglas interprets poverty as 'restriction of choice,' while the sociologist Peter Townsend, in the most elaborate recent study of poverty, includes among his 'indicators of poverty' the lack of hot breakfasts, of birthday parties, of holidays, and of the habit of dining out.

The historian, contemplating this latest phase in the age-old controversy, may be tempted to review the data to find out what proportion of the people today would be judged poor by Booth's 'line of poverty,' or, conversely, what proportion of the people in Booth's time would be judged poor by Townsend's standard of deprivation. It is an interesting exercise, but not quite to the point. However striking that discrepancy may be, it does not take the full measure of the distance we have come. That distance cannot be measured quantitatively, in terms of a higher or lower standard of poverty, or the number or proportion of people designated as poor. The new measure is qualitatively, conceptually different from the old. As his critics have pointed out, Townsend's concept of relative deprivation measures not poverty but inequality. And not even inequality in the usual sense, defined by income, standard of living, or social status, but by differences of 'styles of living.' By such criteria the stigma of poverty may attach to any variation of habit, taste, preference, judgment, capacity, will, or character. It is not only a thoroughly relativistic idea; it is a thoroughly moralistic one. From the point of view of the 'objective' social scientist, it is even regressive, for it makes of poverty once again a matter of manners and morals, of individual character and social ethos. '

The mischievous ambiguity of the word "poor " – a century and a half after those words were penned, we may well find ourselves echoing that old complaint. Through all the stages of an industrial economy, from the 'takeoff' to 'mature,' 'late,' and now 'post' industrialism, through all the phrases of an industrial society – from a vestigial paternalism, to laissez-faireism, to the 'new liberalism' of social reform, to the welfare state – through all the vicissitudes of an expanding and contracting empire, of war and. peace, depression and prosperity, the poor have remained with us and poverty has continued to be a 'social problem.'

Not, to be sure, the same poor, the same problem, or the same poverty. It is not a case of Plus ca change, plus c'est la même chose . Poverty today in England (and in America, Europe, or any advanced industrial country) is most decidedly not the same thing it was in the age of Smith and. Malthus, Cobbett and Dickens. By any objective standard of income, condition, or status, the poor today in these countries are considerably better off, materially and socially, than they were then. Macaulay predicted that just as some of his own contemporaries located the Golden Age in a period which was anything but golden, when 'noblemen were destitute of comforts, the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman,' so Victorian England would appear to be a Golden Age to those who had far surpassed it:

It may well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the carpenter at Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that labouring men may be as little used to dine without meat as they now are to eat rye bread; that sanitary police and medical discoveries may have added several years to the average length of human life, that numerous comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty working man. And yet it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy, when the rich did not grind the faces of the poor, and when the poor did not envy the splendour of the rich.

Macaulay's errors are as instructive as his truths. He underestimated the rise of wages and of the standard of living, the improvement of sanitary conditions and the increase of longevity, the diffusion among the poor of comforts and luxuries once confined to the rich, and the invention of others not dreamed of by rich or poor. And he vastly overestimated the indulgence that the future would extend to the past. So far from early Victorian England being regarded as 'truly merry England,' it is more often looked upon as a time of unmitigated misery and discontent, when the classes were divided by a great gulf of alienation, when the rich did indeed 'grind the faces of the poor' and the poor envied and hated the rich. Yet there is a basic truth in his prediction. For the dissatisfaction that made his contemporaries think so ill of their own times is with us still. If it has not made us better disposed to Macaulay's age, neither has it made us better disposed to our own. Whatever progress has been charted on the graph of 'progress and poverty,' it is poverty that still strikes the eye and strikes at the heart. It is as if the modem sensibility can only register failure, not success, as if modernity has bequeathed to us a social conscience that is unappeasable and inconsolable.

If this is the bequest of modernity, it may be salutary to recall a past that was as complicated and varied as we know the present to be, when the best of intentions sometimes had the worst effects and unanticipated consequences were often more consequential than anticipated ones. Then, as now, solutions to the problem of poverty were inadequate to the problem itself, and not only for the obvious reasons – economic, technological, political, administrative – but also because the problem itself was always changing, and changing not only in response to new material conditions but also to changes of sensibility and conscience.

  • Gertrude Himmelfarb is Professor of History at the City University of New York.
Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week