THE IDEA OF POVERTY: England in the Early Industrial Age by Gertrude Himmelfarb
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THE IDEA OF POVERTY: England in the Early Industrial Age

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The English historian Peter Laslett described the preindustrial society of village and common as ""the world we have lost."" City University of New York historian Himmelfarb (Victorian Minds) says that, by the evidence, that world ""was not wholly lost."" In this notable first of two projected volumes, Himmelfarb follows the train of thought about ""poverty"" from Bernard Mandeville's Fable of the Bees (1714)--where the author argued against any effort to ""better"" the poor, a position for which he was excoriated--to such social novels of the mid-19th-century as Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (1854), where the impoverished industrial workers appear as the repositories of communal values and intellectual vitality. The next installment will carry through to the establishment of the British welfare state; but Himmelfarb's views on that subject are previewed here. Adam Smith, she says, thought of poverty as a temporary state, worthy of relief--but also amenable, in the long run, to the beneficial effects of economic growth. As the source of wealth, labor could only gain from the increase in wealth that would result from the opportunity to work (Smith, accordingly, was an advocate of high wages). This is a perspective that Himmelfarb finds appealing--as against the views of Thomas Malthus, who maintained that poverty was the inevitable outcome of too much population and too few resources. The only solution to the cycle of vice and sexual appetite, according to Malthus, was abolition of the poor laws and lower wages, forcing the poor toward extinction. It was this dire vision, Himmelfarb says, that colored thinking about poverty in the first half of the 19th century. Reformers rejected Malthus' poison--but in revising the poor laws they made matters worse: a distinction introduced to separate ""paupers"" from the poor had the effect of tainting poverty by pauperism. To be poor was previously thought an unfortunate condition of circumstance; it now came to be seen as a permanent condition of inferiority. Poverty thus became a moral issue; and the response to the new poor laws--whether of the Chartists, who wanted to make poor workers into a politically equal group, or of Disraeli, who wished to restore the paternalistic community of the old laws--was a moral response. It was in the 1880s--to be treated in the next book--that the ""deserving poor"" were rediscovered; but rather than being released to their own ability, they were made the subjects of social legislation. . . beginning the era of the new reformers, of the philanthropists and social workers of this century. Himmelfarb succeeds masterfully in conveying the imprecision of current usage in language when it is looked at historically, and in providing a sense of complexity; and if she occasionally makes the poor a little too content with their lives (poverty aside), in order to give them back the dignity she thinks social laws deny them, she can be forgiven. From the writings of Carlyle to The Poor Man's Guardian, her evocation is colorful and rewarding.

Pub Date: Jan. 12th, 1983
Publisher: Knopf