Poverty Research Paper

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1. The Concept Of Poverty

There is no universal concept of poverty which can be applied to all cultures, societies, or times. Nowadays, poverty is usually defined in relation to the mediumincome level of a society, and the poverty line is drawn where a family has less than 50 percent of this medium income available. Such seemingly ‘exact’ definitions are not possible before general income statistics were generated by statistical offices in the twentieth century (with forerunners in some of the most developed countries in the nineteenth century, and even earlier in some cities).

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Some researchers have sought to define an absolute level of poverty by drawing the borderline at the minimum input of calories which a person needs to survive. But even this definition cannot be used as a universal measure since this minimum differs with age, sex, climate, the individual body, health, and the kind of work a person does. Moreover, poverty certainly begins before a person dies of hunger. Therefore, ‘poverty can be defined objectively and applied consistently only in terms of the concept of relative deprivation’ (Townsend 1979, p. 31). But what is relative deprivation?

2. The Size Of Poverty

If we were to take present standards of living in advanced societies as a yardstick, most people, probably more than 90 percent, in all cultures and ages, would have to be defined as paupers. Only rulers, their immediate entourage, and some large landholders and merchants were free of poverty. Most people working in handicrafts or on the land whom we would term today as the middle classes lived at least at the borderline of poverty. When the harvest failed, epidemics arrived, or war devastated a region—and this occurred frequently even in Europe up to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—they could be driven into misery. In other regions of the world, where periods of drought or torrential rains recur regularly, it is even today difficult for the majority of people to work themselves out of poverty.

For Western Europe we have sporadic estimates of the size of poverty for single cities and smaller regions since the later middle ages, and by Gregory King for a whole country, England, in 1688. They vary considerably, partly because the criteria used often remained vague and depended on the prejudice and the purpose of the author or institution taking the numbers. In some relatively well-to-do cities like Toledo, Lyons, Verona, Augsburg, Amsterdam, and Norwich in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the poor numbered between 5 and 10 percent of the population in ‘normal’ times, rising to between 20 and 30 percent in times of wars, epidemics, or harvest failures. Similar figures have been found for some rural hinterlands of such cities, e.g., around Nuremberg or Zurich. (Jutte 1994, p. 53).

According to Gregory King, however, paupers constituted the majority of the population of England at the end of the seventeenth century. While half a million families (comprising about 2.7 million persons) increased the wealth of the country, about 850,000 families (comprising more than 2.8 million persons) decreased it by depending on others for their livelihood (Mathias 1983, p. 24). Other contemporaries give, however, different figures.

In eighteenth century France estimates of the size of poverty vary according to the definition between one-third and half of the population. When, during the French Revolution, the definition of poverty was sharpened by excluding beggars, vagabonds, and others, ‘unwilling to work’ the Comite de Mendicite stated that 39 percent of the working men were not able to support a family of five persons (Hufton 1974, p. 22).

One can distinguish at least three different measures used by officials in Western Europe in early modern times to count their paupers. The first was to count the recipients of welfare in one way or the other. This depended, of course, on the welfare policy applied at a particular location. Known figures vary from 2 percent for the city of Berlin in 1665 (but 7.2 percent in 1799) to 14.8 percent in Trier in 1623. But it is also known that in nearly all cities, the majority of people who applied for welfare were refuted. (In Amsterdam in 1799 37,500 received help, while 81,080 were refuted.) The second measure were censuses of the poor. These were rare, and the few available figures vary between 9.5 percent in Valladolid, Spain, in 1561 and 20–25 percent in Huddersfield, England, in 1622. The third method is to count the ‘fiscal poor’: the people (mostly heads of households) exempted from taxes because of poverty. Here we find a much higher level. The lowest available figure is 4.7 percent for Cologne in 1582 while the highest was 77 percent for Verona in 1635. Most other cities record shares of the tax-exempt households between 35 and 50 percent (Jutte 1994, pp. 46–56).

Taking into account that most of these figures stem from cities in the wealthier parts of Europe, it is easy to imagine the degree of poverty in other regions, particular the notoriously poorer mountainous regions, or the countryside in Eastern Europe, not to speak of the less developed continents.

3. Who Are The Paupers?

Certain groups of paupers can be found in all cultures and centuries, for instance, the bodily or mentally handicapped who are not able to work, and fatheror motherless children (except those who live in extended families). Very often mothers with fatherless children are being reported amongst the poor. Finally, elderly people, particularly widows, frequently fell into poverty, at least before old age pensions were introduced in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Even then they rarely received pensions high enough to support them. These people can be called ‘structural poor.’ They probably formed the 5–10 percent of paupers registered even in well-to-do cities and regions. In addition are those who have become temporarily unable to work because of sickness or injury, particularly during wars or natural disasters. One could term them ‘cyclical poor.’ Their numbers could swell easily to more than half of the population if events like epidemics, crop failure, or war devastated, a region. At such times usually all those who lived on the margin of subsistence—until very recently the majority of the population—fell into deprivation.

All these groups have been seen since the Middle Ages by both worldly and religious authorities as ‘deserving poor,’ to help whom was a task for church, local or central governments, and private charity. They are to be distinguished from the ‘undeserving poor’: able-bodied idlers, beggars, vagrants, vagabonds, and prostitutes, who had to be educated or penalized, being expelled or—since the sixteenth century in Europe—put into workhouses or prisons (often one and the same).

For modern observers the biggest group are, however, the ‘working poor’: small peasants or handicrafts-men day laborers in cities as well as in the countryside, and the unemployed. Nor should slaves be forgotten. Though not all slaves in ancient Europe or seventeenth to nineteenth century America were poor—some had learned crafts or worked as privileged servants, even as artists or managers—the great majority certainly were, and slavery existed also in other cultures and in some European countries as late as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

4. The Causes Of Poverty

For analytical purposes one can distinguish between different causes of poverty but one has to be aware that in reality they often were intertwined. Jutte (1994) distinguishes between accidental, cyclical, and structural causes. Accidental causes are, for instance, sickness, which counted according to the English Poor Law Commission in 1909 for ‘at least one-half of the total cost of pauperism’ (p. 21). In early modern Europe plague, influenza, typhus, typhoid fever, or smallpox did not only kill large segments of the population but also impoverished many of those who had survived. Warfare is another ‘accidental’ cause. Bad harvests, as well as periods of accelerated population growth and structural changes in the economy, Jutte counts as ‘cyclical,’ while he sees ‘structural’ reasons mainly in demographic patterns: persistent large families with many children and a non-secured old age. One would have to add seasonal causes to this typology. In northern countries each winter produced unemployment and poverty.

Another analytic scheme could be to distinguish between natural, demographic, sociopolitical, and economic causes of poverty. In all pre-industrial societies man was subject to natural conditions and disasters: drought or flooding, fire, unbearable heat in summer, or ice-cold storms in the winter time could stop his activities, and the natural fertility of his land limited his productivity. Richer or poorer soil, the availability of transport routes on rivers, lakes, and oceans, the availability of raw materials, like wood, copper, or iron ores determined the results of his labor. Demographic factors played an important role—as long as productivity could not be raised markedly, population growth could lead to increased poverty. Sociopolitical factors influenced the degree of and the distribution of wealth and poverty in all cultures, societies, and ages. Centralized or decentralized power, the strictness or looseness of social and political hierarchies, the degree and distribution of freedom, serfdom, or slavery amongst the population influenced also the living standards. Where geographic mobility was restricted, as in the case of slaves and serfs, people could rarely evade poverty by moving to better places. Where upward social mobility was restricted even hard work could help little to improve the lot of the lower strata of society. Here India with her caste system is probably the worst case, but Chinese and Eastern European peasants also fared worse than Western European ones, or Europeans in their new settlements overseas. Economic conditions are closely connected to the political and social order. Where market conditions could develop a growing minority at least had the chance to escape poverty. But economic development did not occur harmoniously and evenly. The rise of one sector or region could cause impoverishment in another. When Dutch and English woolen products flourished in northwestern Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Italian cities suffered from the new competition. When Indian cotton products appeared on the European markets, the European woolen and linen producers had a difficult time, and when the British and Western European textile industries mechanized their production in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Indian calico producers lost out.

Since the Industrial Revolution numerous such displacements took place and led to regional and branch or industry-wide pauperization. Most, but not all, were temporary and could be stopped by adjustments to new technologies or other activities. Social and geographical mobility helped to absorb such shocks. There was, however, no overall impoverishment connected with industrialization. On the contrary, rather, the growth of productivity connected with mechanization and rationalization improved even the lot of the poorer segments of the population in the long run. The social problems at the beginning were caused rather by the population growth, which accelerated noticeably from the later eighteenth century. Without industrialization and the growth in productivity in agriculture too, Malthus’ law that population grows faster than productivity would not have become obsolete.

There has been a long discussion amongst economic historians of Britain about whether the standard of living of the working classes during the Industrial Revolution improved or deteriorated. There is agreement that it improved from the 1830s when productivity grew recognizably and regularly and the growth of industry created more better-paid jobs. The pessimistic school maintained, however, that between about 1780 and 1830 the living standard of the workers deteriorated. This discussion suffers from a lack of adequate statistics, particularly of consumer prices and regional differences. As always when structural changes occur, there were winners and losers. The winners were skilled laborers and those who could move to better-paid jobs in growing regions; the losers were the immobile, unskilled people in areas not enjoying growth in industry, trade, and services (Fischer and Bajor 1967, and an ongoing discussion in the Economic History Review).

The discussion was first aired amongst British social reformers and Members of Parliament in the 1820s and 1830s, culminating in F. Engels’ famous book on the situation of the working classes in England (1845) in which he painted an unrealistic picture of the idyllic life of the workers in the putting-out industry and contrasted it with that of the industrial workforce. It was also influenced by the last grave subsistence crisis which occurred in parts of Western Europe during the second half of the 1840s. Ireland in particular, but also regions on the continent like Silesia, was hit by bad harvests including a nearly total loss of potatoes, the poor man’s main food. Millions died or emigrated. The not-yet-mechanized linen industry could not compete with mechanized cotton industry. Pauperism seemed on the rise again, but this was a cyclical rather than a structural phenomenon. Since the middle of the nineteenth century living standards of workers improved in most countries of Western Europe and North America without, however, erasing poverty. In many countries serious empirical work on the size and causes of poverty began only now, culminating (amongst others) in the seventeen volumes Charles Booth published between 1889 and 1897 about Life and Labour of the People of London.

5. Welfare Policies

There is agreement amongst students of poverty that (modern) welfare policy began only in the nineteenth century, with the onset of social security schemes. But to care for the poor was seen as a moral obligation in all major religions and it was institutionalized at very early stages of history. Compassion was, however, only one reason for this: the other was fear, for paupers were regarded as dangerous. This twin motivation runs right through the centuries. The second motive, fear, seems to have dominated public policy in the Roman Empire, but early Christians insisted that caritas was essential. The Early Fathers of the Church, like St. Augustine, preached that poverty was a virtue and some founders of Christian orders, as in the case of St. Francis of Assisi, obliged their brethren to adhere to it. The Church and its monasteries were thus the main bodies responding to the fate of the poor during most of the Middle Ages, though not the only ones. Self-help played a role not only amongst families and neighborhoods but also in the craftsmen’s guilds, which cared for their sick people and sometimes for the widows and elderly masters. Brotherhoods existed not only for journeymen but sometimes also for unskilled laborers, and in the later Middle Ages in some cities such as Frankfort, Strasbourg, or Zurich even for ‘the blind and the lame’ (Fischer 1982, p. 29). In other countries, such as Spain, confraternities which enrolled men and, in some cases, women from different occupations, offered mutual aid alongside spiritual welfare to their members. Christian belief convinced wealthier citizens to secure their salvation by giving alms, establishing foundations for the poor or leaving parts of their fortunes to institutions such as hospitals.

Hospital pauperum already constituted small centers of welfare in the early Middle Ages. Often they cared for twelve persons, symbolizing the twelve apostles. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries many such hospitals were founded, not only by bishops and monasteries but also by kings, princes, merchants, guilds, and cities. About 600 of such hospitals existed in England in the middle of the fourteenth century. Some of them specialized, for example, in the care of children or of old people, or of those with certain maladies like leprosy. Often they supplied only minimal help, not even food was necessarily provided, and their inhabitants received permission to beg. Medical care was an exception since very few physicians were available. Most of the hospitals in the smaller towns remained all-round institutions for helpless people, but a few housed several hundred people.

In the later Middle Ages cities took over some such hospitals or founded new ones. They installed poor relief administrators, who began investigations of individual cases of poverty and made surveys for their towns or districts. Poor relief was to be made more efficient and rational; pure almsgiving was no longer enough. The ‘deserving poor’ were to be separated from the ‘undeserving’ ones. Orderly procedures were being introduced in administering poor relief. This was particularly marked in northern and central Europe while in France, Spain, and Italy worldly authorities remained more reluctant to take poor relief out of the hands of the Church.

This rationalization and bureaucratization began well before the Reformation, and afterwards Catholic and Protestant regimes did not necessarily follow different policies—both, for instance, tried to educate the poor, particularly the children, though with meager results. But there were differences as to the centralization or decentralization of such policies. Mainly Protestant citics centralized their institutions into a ‘common chest’ to exercise better control. In the German Empire the Imperial Diet of 1497 declared that each community should take measures to care for its own poor, and this principle was enacted in the Imperial Police Ordinance of 1530 which remained in force until the end of the Empire in 1806. Switzerland, The Netherlands, Britain, and the Scandinavian countries followed similar paths, while in the Mediterranean countries the many decentralized institutions remained more or less undisturbed.

While Britain is seen as the pioneer of a general poor tax in 1572, the municipality of Paris had introduced such a tax already in 1551 after the French King had given it the authority ‘to supervise and conduct all things required for the treatment and the relief of the poor’ (Jutte 1994, p. 119). But Britain pioneered early modern poor regulations in several respects. Already in the middle of the fourteenth century Parliament ordered that the working poor should be distinguished from beggars, and in 1388 tried to restrict the mobility of beggars. From the 1530s to around 1600 numerous statutes were enacted, of which those of 1572 and 1596 became known as the ‘Old Poor Laws,’ which remained in force until 1834. The Judges of the Peace had to select four men of substance to act as overseers of the poor. These men had to raise the poor tax, distribute help, and take care of the education of orphans. They were supposed to punish beggars and vagabonds, and could establish houses for correction. As in other countries, the result of their endeavors was very uneven. The poor taxes always fell short of the needs. It has been estimated that only 7 percent of the expenditure for the poor originated from taxes—by far the greater part came from private donations and charitable trusts which were established by wealthy citizens. One rich Londoner alone set up institutions for the poor in 216 communities (Fischer 1982, p. 43f.). Such trusts also ran hospitals and schools.

In the minds of the early modern poor administrators and the wider public, education to work became more important than poor relief. Therefore, workhouses were established in the major cities and some smaller towns. The hope was that they would both accustom the poor to work and produce some profit. Usually they failed in both respects. Particularly in The Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, and in Germany they became rather a combination of workhouse and house of correction, the famous example being the Amsterdam tuchthuis founded in 1595. In smaller towns such houses often tried to perform four functions: educating orphans, getting adults to work, penalizing beggars and criminals, and taking care of handicapped or sick people.

The English Poor Law of 1834 was supposed to remedy the ages-old deficiencies in welfare policies. After a Parliamentary Commission had found that the ‘Old Poor Law,’ by prescribing assistance to every needy person, had actually provided a disincentive to work, the new law stipulated that only such paupers who were willing to live (and work) in poorhouses should get relief. It turned out that there were not enough such institutions to house everybody who did not find work on his own or did not earn enough to survive, particularly with a larger family. The new law did not remove the ancient causes of poverty, neither could it take care of the temporary unemployment of industrial workers, but it revived the discussion about social problems in the country. A whole set of measures had to be taken to improve the lot of the poorer classes: while more employment was to be created by industry, transport business, and services. Parliament regulated child and female labor, and began to enforce safety measures at the workplace, while local communities improved the housing and sanitary conditions. In 1876 about 19 percent of the population were insured by voluntary Friendly Societies, relatively more than in Germany’s obligatory health insurance in 1885, but the most needy could not afford the contributions. Private charity remained, therefore, important in Britain. In 1897 Britain introduced obligatory accident insurance, in 1908 old age pensions, and in 1911 a combined health- and unemployment insurance.

Other European countries were faster in creating obligatory accident-, health-, and old age insurance. But unemployment, one of the most important reasons for poverty, was being regarded as non-insurable even at the end of the nineteenth century. In Germany, unemployment insurance came into force only in 1927. Most of these insurances were quite inadequate at the beginning. They covered industrial workers only in some branches, not day-, farm-, and home-workers, thus excluding the poorest part of the labor force. Bismarck’s Old Age Insurance provided means only at the age of seventy when most people had died already, and widows received only 20 percent of the earning of their husbands in accident insurance. But the principles of a modern welfare state were established, and the basic institutions for it were created before or shortly after World War I.


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