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December 07, 2003

Targetting the Poor

Reading history is wonderful for making you feel like political rhetoric is never new-- we just return to the same themes over and over, then forget it until the next cycle.

I'm still wading through the massive Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 and hit this nugget from the 1810s about the emerging Society for the Prevention of Pauperism (SPP), made up of prominent merchants, lawyers and other elite New Yorkers. Responding partly to new "free market" ideologists like Thomas Malthus and Jeremy Benthem, along with a desire to escape taxes to pay for the customary city and state aid to the poor:

They (the SPP) now threw their collective weight behind the view that pauperism stemmed from ignorance, idleness, intemperance, extravagance, imprudent marriages, and deficient child-bearing practices...Giving alms to the undeserving poor not only undermined their independence but also drove up taxes and sapped the prosperity of the entire community. For their good as well as everyone else's, therefore, the SPP recommended that all paupers in the city be cut off from all public assistance forthwith.
Within a few years, New York state cut off all relief aid to the poor.

It's sometimes worth remembering that pre-New Deal harshness towards the poor was not eternal. Before the 19th century, it was assumed that communities had a duty to take care of the poor in their midst. It was only a specific social Darwinist ideology, backed by the self-interest of greedy emerging corporate leaders, that promoted the next century of warfare on the poor-- and revived it in recent decades.

Posted by Nathan at December 7, 2003 05:40 PM