The idea that poor people are inherently morally deficient is of fairly recent origin,* having arisen as an explanation for increasing poverty in England around the time of the Enclosure Movement. The Enclosure Movement (circa early 1600s) was perpetrated by big landowners, the elite of England, who boldly confiscated common lands for their own profits; a glaring example of privatization of what had been public resources-namely, the commons.
Poorer farmers (which was almost everyone) could graze a cow or a few pigs on the commons and thus supplement their food supply. This was a custom stretching back “time out of mind” as the peasants tried to remind the authorities-to no avail. The commons was enclosed and the landowners pastured sheep there to make profits from the wool. “Sheep eating men,” was the way Thomas Moore described it.
The peasants, no longer able to live on the land, moved to the cities to work for wages or wandered about seeking day jobs. The response of the elite to the poor attempting to stay alive in this way was to declare the practice of wandering about seeking day jobs illegal; they were now vagabonds and subject to arrest.
Count on this-the elite will NEVER admit that people might be poor because of choices the elite them selves have made.
The new city wage workers lived in overcrowded and filthy conditions; half of their children died before age five and disease claimed the lives of the adults at an alarming rate. The elite disliked the smells emanating from the slums and they disliked the street children dying in public. The Poor offended the delicate sensibilities of the elite and now they were in plain view, having failed to die quietly in the countryside as many had done during periodic famines.
As I mentioned in “Meet Sir Lord Chauncey Twitass” you can always count on a Sir Chauncey arising with the elitist solution de jeur. Not the solution to poverty; God forbid-but the solution to the “social unrest” that threatened the proper order; the proper order being in the shape of a pyramid; with those on top remaining firmly on top, lest the world dissolve in chaos.
The Sir Lord Chauncey Twitass who arose to deal with disease in the English slums in the 1830s-40s was Sir (funny how their names almost always start with “Sir”) Edwin Chadwick. He was a lawyer, not a medical man, and his aim was to deal with the ‘miasma’ and ‘noxious eflluvia’ of the slums; bad air was thought to cause disease in those days and you could tell it was bad by the smell. Offal from butcher shops and human waste was thrown into the streets daily and the noxious effluvia must have been pretty darn overwhelming.
Sir Edwin did some good in spite of himself by promoting the building of sewers to carry away the waste and offal. His logic was this:
With a life expectancy of only 30 years, most of the residents in the slums were young people.
1. Young people were the usual suspects in social unrest.
2. Older people, men with families and more to lose, were more obedient.
3. To change the population to more older men than younger, you have to keep more men alive beyond 30 years.
Sir Edwin went on to “reform” the Poor Laws to minimize payments for poor relief, “He wanted to make the experience of receiving payments more painful than the experience of the stress itself…The workhouse, in other words, was to be a place of punishment, of pain and suffering.”
Disdain, disgust, even the criminalization of poverty is alive and well and being pushed by certain groups in the U.S. of A as I speak. Do not encourage them.
What can we do? At least call a spade a spade-or in this case, call our domestic Sir Chaunceys what they really are: pitiless, elitist Twitasses.
*previously, and through most of history, poor people were considered to be poor because Stuff Happened-widows, orphans, famines-and Stuff could Happen to anyone. The proper response to the poor, according to Jesus, was to help them.