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

By Robert H. Bremner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
Shifting Attitudes

I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is, not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, On the Price of Corn, and Management of the Poor.

Write a sermon on Blessed Poverty. Who have done all the good in the world? Poor men. "Poverty is a good hated by all men."

RALPH WALDO EMERSON, Journals, entry for May 12, 1832.

IN the latter half of the nineteenth century the American attitude toward poverty was a somewhat incongruous composite of two sharply contrasting points of view. Mindful of Christ's dictum, "The poor always ye have with you," traditional religion taught that poverty was a visitation upon men of God's incomprehensible but beneficent will. Although inescapable, poverty was a blessing in disguise, for it inspired the rich to acts of loving charity and led the poor into the paths of meekness, patience, and gratitude. In contradiction to these teachings American experience indicated that poverty was unnecessary. When there was work for all, no man who was willing to do his share need want. Indigence was simply the punishment meted out to the improvident by their own lack of industry and efficiency. Far from being a blessed state, poverty was the obvious consequence of sloth and sinfulness.

More or less unconsciously the nineteenth-century American combined these divergent views into a creed that ran approximately as follows: Poverty is unnecessary (for Americans), but the varying ability and virtue of men make its presence inevitable; this is a

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