Huffington Post: Rich Man, Poor Man: Poverty, Then And Now
Should we try to end poverty? "Yes," you reply, and wonder why we'd even ask.
People in earlier times would have been surprised, too. And for them, the answer would have been equally obvious -- "no." Well into the 19th century, poverty was widely seen as inevitable: Economists estimate that in 1820 around 84 percent of the earth's population lived in absolute poverty, or on the equivalent what we now call "a dollar a day" (it's actually $1.25). Poverty was also seen as useful: "Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor or they will never be industrious," the English writer and traveler Arthur Young wrote in 1771.
That quote comes from a fascinating paper by Martin Ravallion, which traces -- from an economist's perspective -- the great shift in attitudes towards poverty over the past three centuries. For much of that time, poverty was regarded as necessary: "True, it was miserable for the poor," as The Economist commented recently. "But it also kept the economic engine humming by ensuring the availability of plentiful cheap labour." Not just cheap, but uneducated: "To make the Society happy and People easy under the meanest Circumstances, it is requisite that great Numbers of them should be Ignorant as well as Poor," the 18th century economist Bernard de Mandeville wrote.
That's not to say that the poor didn't have their defenders. But, as Ravallion points out, efforts to help them were focused on easing suffering, not eradicating poverty. Workhouses began to appear in Europe in the early 17th century: "Welfare recipients were incarcerated, where their 'bad behaviours' could be controlled, and obliged to work for their upkeep."
When did attitudes change? ...