From the Depths: The Discovery of Poverty in the United States

By Robert H. Bremner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
The Problem Emerges

Society must act on the highest principles, or its punishment incessantly comes within itself. The neglect of the poor, and tempted, and criminal, is fearfully repaid.

CHARLES LORING BRACE, The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years' Work Among Them.

L ARGE numbers of Americans first awoke to the social problem of poverty at a time when the nation was pouring forth unprecedented quantities of wealth and promising even richer harvests for the future. During the first two centuries of the country's development most Americans took it for granted that the majority of men would always be poor. Poverty was the state from which thousands of emigrants fled when they embarked, in hope or despair, on the difficult journey to the New World; in the form of hardship, privation, and suffering it was the lot, not only of the first settlers on the alien coast, but of generations of pioneers on successive inland frontiers. An increase in wealth, with a consequent improvement in general living standards, was the condition precedent to an aroused interest in poverty, for only in an era of material advance could want seem incongruous; and only in the nineteenth century when, decade by decade, the output of farm, factory, and mine climbed to higher and higher totals, did Americans begin to question the age-old assumption that poverty was the normal condition of the masses.

Unfortunately, the very economic processes that promised ultimately to free mankind from want had the immediate effect of aggravating, rather than alleviating, the distress of the working class. Mechanization and the factory system, by minimizing the value of

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