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Our Brothers’ Keepers
In a society grown steadily more affluent over two centuries, the existence of the poor has raised some baffling questions and surprising answers
December 1972 | Volume 24, Issue 1
From the opening decades of the nineteenthcentury toourownday, Americans’ persistent efforts to understand the causes and conditions of poverty have fixed upon the word “paradox.” Writing in 1822, the managers of one early reform organization, the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, puzzled over the existence of poverty in the new Republic. “Our territory is so expansive, its soil so prolific,” they exclaimed, our institutions so “free and equal, “and our citizens so blessed with “ample scope for industry and enterprise,” that surely “pauperism would be foreign to our country.” Instead, to their dismay and wonderment they confronted the “strange paradox that pauperism, as a practical evil, should be known among us. ” A century and a half later a Presidential commission appointed to study essentially the same problem expressed equal wonderment. Its report, aptly entitled Poverty amid Plenty: The American Paradox , tried to explain why, in a nation as prosperous as ours, twenty-five million people had to “eke out a bare existence under deplorable conditions.” Thus, for most of our national history a mood of genuine perplexity has characterized our view of poverty. And not surprisingly, this perspective has almost always led commentators to mix charges and countercharges, to censure some and exonerate others for the problem. From the Jacksonian period to the present a number of critics have faulted the poor themselves, citing their supposed immorality and recklessness. Others have blamed the economy, pointing to its failure to sustain high wages and full employment. Still others have focussed on the charities and state programs that attempt to alleviate need, insisting that they have so amply rewarded the poor as to trap them in their poverty. But despite the variety of responses, all these observers share the premise that poverty amid plenty ought not to exist, that the paradox must be solved.
Yet, this notion is a comparatively modern one. Americans in the colonial period adopted a very different stance toward dependency. They were calm and complacent, not prone to allocate blame for poverty or to design programs for its eradication. From their perspective, need was a natural and inevitable part of social organization. This was the lesson that they learned in their churches. Poverty, according to eighteenth-century Protestant clergymen, was even a blessing. The poor were always to be with us, in America as elsewhere; but rather than lament a tragic fact of human existence, they praised it as a God-given opportunity for men to do good. Relieving the needy, explained the Boston clergyman Samuel Cooper in 1753, was the highest Christian virtue: “It ennobles our nature, charity conforms us to the Son of God himself. “Benevolencejustified the pursuit of wealth, for without benevolence men would grow “sensual, profane, and insolent, unjust and unrighteous.” It was senseless to expect that poverty would disappear, given its essential place in God’s order. Most clerics, it is true, conceded that a few unworthy beggars might be scattered here and there among the needy. But they advised parishioners not to devote much energy to this distinction. It would be foolhardy, said Samuel Seabury in 1788. to let the “idle and even intemperate… suffer before our eyes. … [For] what if God were to refuse his mercy to those of us who do not deserve it?”
The secular definitions of society also encouraged a broad acceptance of the poor. Eighteenth-century Americans conceived of a well-ordered society as hierarchical, with each level enjoying its special privileges and obligations: some men would be rich and powerful; others low, mean, and in subjection. This interpretation made the poor a permanent fixture, integral to the community. They were to respect those above them, pay all due deference, and, in return, receive assistance in time of need. If townsmen made no effort to eliminate poverty, at least they did not ignore, harshly punish, or isolate the poor.
Another element that encouraged the colonists’ tolerance for poverty and yet set limits to this sentiment was a sharp differentiation between the town resident and nonresident, between the insider and the outsider. Townsmen relieved a neighbor’s need without suspicion but showed little compassion for the plight of the stranger. Whether the outsider was an honest and poor man or a petty thief, the response was to move him beyond the town limits as quickly as possible. In part, the insularity of eighteenth-century settlements reflected English traditions; Elizabethan poor laws, for example, made relief the exclusive responsibility of each parish. But more important, localism suited New World conditions. Colonists were necessarily bound together by strong ties, and among other things they relied on each other to safeguard the community. In an era when the few constables who patrolled the streets at night were old men incapable of apprehending a criminal, insularity was a major element in keeping order. A townsman who committed an offense could be whipped or fined or, worse, shamed before his neighbors by being displayed in the stocks. But outsiders were much less easy to control, especially when they were penniless and away from people who knew them. Propertyless strangers not only would increase poor-relief expenditures but also would threaten public security.