The Causes of Poverty

Lilian Brandt Political Science Quarterly, 23 (1908):637-651
"Poverty," writes Professor Patten in his New Basis of Civilization, "is at so many removes from nature that it is omitted from the diagram." Without reference to the nature of the diagram, the reason for deliberately leaving poverty out of it is very significant. It expresses the new view of poverty--that it not only is not desirable and not inevitable, but is actually unnatural and intolerable and has no legitimate place on our diagram of social conditions.

Wherever and whenever a glimmering of the new view of poverty is found, there is found also increased interest in its causes. This interest grows with the conviction that it is not desirable that there should always be a certain number of men naked and hungered and in prison, even for the sake of giving certain other men the privilege of clothing and feeding and visiting them. The social cost of the graces of generosity and sympathy is too great if they can be had only by maintaining a poverty class. As soon as poverty is recognized to be undesirable, from the point of view of both rich and poor, the question arises whether it is necessary. Any attempt to answer this question involves logically an inquiry into the reasons for the existence of poverty, but as a matter of experience this step seems to be omitted. We are unwilling to concede that anything in the economy of the universe to which we seriously object must be helplessly endured. With the formulation of the question we jump to denial, and hurry on to discover, not whether, but how, poverty may be diminished and prevented. In order to do this, however, we are again driven to hunt for its causes. Every excursion after causes confirms our hasty intuitive conclusion, because the causes themselves are found to be controllable; and every confirmation of the belief that poverty is unnecessary sends us out again to search among causes for our points of attack.

A genuine anxiety to get at the underlying causes of poverty has been characteristic of the "new" charity of the last thirty-five years, often disparagingly designated as "scientific." Foremost in the search have been the charity organization societies, instigated by the National Conference of Charities and Correction and by university professors, and the superintendents of almshouses and other similar institutions, instigated by the United States Census Bureau.

In all these investigations the method has been the same, and it is the method employed by Charles Booth in his study of pauperism in the Stepney and St. Pancras unions. The National Conference plan, formulated in 1888, was based on one already used by the Charity Organization Society of Buffalo. This method consists in studying a large number of individual cases of poverty, indicating in each case what is considered to be the cause, then adding up the number of cases ascribed to each cause and finding what proportion they form of the entire number of cases studies. The difficulty of fixing on one cause, out of the many existing circumstances which might be regarded as causative, led to the practice of assigning "principal" and "subsidiary" causes; and some scrupulous students went so far as to grade the contributing causes on a scale of ten. This method was hailed as scientific; it was lauded at many a national conference; it was advocated and used by the most advanced and "scientific" leaders in philanthropy and social research; and only within the last few years has any objection been made to it--except by the district agents and visitors who were called upon to decide which of the circumstances in and around each poor family under their observation was responsible for its poverty. Although the objections were not based at the outset on any abstract conviction of the unsoundness of the method, it was because of the difficulties which were encountered in its application that its unscientific character became apparent. It takes courage to protest against a method established by years of use and hallowed by names of high repute, but the protest must be made; for the method is open to fatal objections, and its undisputed dominance has delayed the advance that should have been made in the study of the causes of poverty.The method rests on the assumption (1) that in very case of poverty there is one chief or principal cause, and (2) that this cause will readily be recognized by the person who is told to find it. Here, for example, is a widow with two little children. Her husband died three months ago. She has been living on the insurance, or so much of it as was left after the funeral, and on contributions made by relatives. Her husband was intemperate, and therefore there were no savings. The woman herself can do nothing to support her family, except the "day's work" that is available for even the inefficient. The children however are delicate, and one of them is sick, so that the mother can not go out. Is this family's dependence attributable to death or lack of employment or inefficiency or illness or intemperance? A good argument could be made for any one of these recognized, standard causes. The problem, however, is still comparatively simple, for the elements of environment and distant heredity have not yet been considered. It is not strange that these and similar puzzles have led investigators to select "insufficient income" as the cause of numerous cases of poverty, just as physicians enter "heart failure" on death certificates when they do not know why the heart ceased to beat. What the decision will be in any case depends not on the facts of the case, but on the more or less imperfect knowledge of the facts possessed by the investigator, plus his own bias, determined by natural temperament and education, plus his ability to recognize a cause when he sees it. In other words, the decision is merely an expression of opinion and is of no scientific value.

About four years ago the New York Charity Organization Society discontinued the practice of assigning principal and subsidiary causes of need when every a case was closed. This decision was due to the discovery that a tabulation of causes of need according to districts gave an excellent photograph, not of the needy families in the different districts, but of the mental attitude of the different district agents. The percentage of need attributed to lack of work varied, for instance, from 16 per cent in one district to 67 in another; intemperance was held accountable for only five per cent in a district where many of the families were those of Irish longshoremen, but for 23 per cent in another district which had a large proportion of Italians. An examination of the case-records failed to reveal in the different districts any such variations in the amount of sickness or of idleness or of intemperance as would account for the varying importance assigned to these factors as causes. Only one conclusion was possible: that experiments along this line were primarily of interest in relation to the psychology of visitors. Since then the study of causes of poverty has been based on the study of conditions in the families.

A demonstration of the fallacious character of the older method may be found in the returns from penal institutions obtained by the Committee of Fifty, and presented by them as showing mathematically the importance of intemperance as a cause of crime.

In view of the popularity which this method attained and the persistence with which it was employed, it is interesting to note that its drawbacks were long ago perceived by its more intelligent supporters. It is a matter of record that problems similar to those presented above were publicly discussed. At the National Conference of 1899, for example, there was such a discussion, in which Miss Richmond, Miss Birtwell and Professor Lindsay took part. The obstacle presented by incomplete information was recognized in the rule, formulated about this time, that when in doubt you were to select the cause "farthest back" of which you were sure. The variations in the personal point of view were also recognized by some who promoted this method of research. At the same conference (that of 1899) Professor Lindsay said:

The variations in the amount of poverty in different cities attributed to any one of these causes can be accounted for more rationally on the basis of differences in method and judgment of those who fill out the blanks than upon the basis of differences in the conditions of the population.
But he nevertheless presented figures for three cities and accounted for differences in percentages by differences in the sanitary conditions and racial elements in those cities. The comfortable theory was advanced that the variations in personal equation might be trusted to correct one another; so that, for example, a tendency in one person to regard intemperance as the cause of poverty in every case in which intemperance is discernible will be offset by a tendency in another person to exaggerate the effect of inequitable industrial conditions. Of course these are variations which are quite as likely to be intensifies as to be neutralized by increasing the number of investigators, for there are fashions in thinking, and one-sided views are frequently held by large numbers of like-minded persons.

It is not too much to say that this method of studying causes of poverty had a pernicious effect on the persons who were engaged in the collection of material. If the investigator felt no difficulty in assigning causes, the process tended to foster the false idea that every case of poverty is a simple result of one, or at most two circumstances; or if he felt the difficulties of his task, its mechanical execution tended to awaken in him a distrust of all social study, if such study must be based, as the wise ones said it must, on a foundation so little entitled to respect.

These figures have nevertheless served a good purpose, for they have given occasion for a vast amount of profitable discussion, which has led us on from one view of the causes of poverty to another.

The first classification of causes adopted by the National Conference had twenty-two headings: drink; immorality; shiftlessness and inefficiency; crime and dishonesty; roving disposition; imprisonment of breadwinner; orphans and abandoned children; neglect by relatives; no male support; lack of employment; insufficient employment; poorly paid employment; unhealthy and dangerous employment; ignorance of English; accident, sickness or death in family; physical defects; insanity; old age; large family; nature of abode; and other unknown.

This classification had not been in use long before its defects were felt. A case of imprisonment of breadwinner was also a case of crime or dishonesty. A case of abandonment might fall also under almost any other heading. Lack of employment might be due to drink, a roving disposition, ignorance of English, insanity, accident or old age. Old age and a large family, it was seen, do not always, or even generally, involve dependence, and therefore these should not be listed as causes. The general dissatisfaction led, in 1899, on the initiative of Dr. Philip W. Ayres, to a revision of the list. An effort was made to avoid cross-classifications and to eliminate conditions not usually productive of dependence. The discussion at this time turned largely upon the difference between a "condition" and a "cause." The following classification was adopted: (1) Causes within the family: disregard of family ties; intemperance; licentiousness, dishonesty or other moral defects; lack of thrift, industry or judgment; physical or mental defects; sickness, accident or death. (2) Causes outside the family: lack of employment not due to employee; defective sanitation; degrading surroundings; unwise philanthropy; public calamity; and other unclassified causes.

This is clearly a more logical classification; but during the nine years that have elapsed since it was made our ideas have been modified by the new knowledge we have gained of the relations between familiar phenomena, and we have arrived, almost unconsciously, at a new view of nearly all the causes in the first of these two groups. In general the change has consisted in moving the causes in the first group over into the second, placing them under the head "outside family." Behind "disregard and family ties" we see defective education of both boys and girls, instability of employment and the influence of institution life. Behind "intemperance" we see poor food, congested living, lack of opportunities for wholesome recreation and the power of the liquor trust. In the place of "licentiousness, dishonesty and other moral defects" (when these are causes of poverty and not, as is much more frequently the case, devices for escape from poverty) we are inclined to put our ineffectual penal methods and, again, defective education and, again, unwholesome conditions of modern city life. "Lack of industry, thrift or judgment" appears in many instances to be really the result of poverty, the physical and mental degeneration caused by years of privation showing itself in laziness and shiftlessness. Lack of industry in the grown man is not infrequently the result of premature employment which an earlier generation of social investigators would have commended as thrift. "Physical and mental defects" are today increasingly regarded as evidence of inadequate provision for the segregation and education of defectives, of neglect of the physical welfare of school-children, of unintelligent methods of instruction. "Sickness, accident and death" are analyzed. Preventable disease is traced to its causes--to bad sanitary conditions in dwellings and work-shops, to the ignorance of great numbers of mothers concerning the care of their babies, to the actions of commercial interests which make it a difficult matter for even the well-to-do to get pure milk and food, to governmental inefficiency exhibited in a contaminated water supply and dirty streets. For "accident" we read, in many cases, neglect of the employer to provide safe conditions for labor, and neglect of the legislature to require or neglect of the administration to enforce the establishment of such conditions. We know today that the great majority of deaths that cause dependence are preventable. This equivalent to saying that we have found causes farther back than "death," and that we have also found out how those causes may be controlled. In short, the recognized causes of poverty are in fact largely symptoms or results of poverty. They are, to be sure, potent to produce more poverty; they are evidences of a downward tendency and must be corrected; but they are not the "underlying" causes.

Our ideas about the second group in this classification, the causes outside the family, have been less disturbed, probably because at the time they represented more recent thought on this subject. The relative importance attributed to this group as compared with the causes within the family has, however, been growing rapidly, and we read into "defective sanitation" and "degrading surroundings" an infinite number of new meanings. "Unwise philanthropy" seems to have undergone a curious change of content. It used to be applied in the case of a family in which the pauper spirit had been developed by an excess of generosity. This possibility no doubt exists; but if we were now to pick out a family whose dependence is due to the unwise administration of relief, we should be apt to select a widow broken down by over-exertion in supporting her children because we had not been generous enough in our help.

An interesting tendency is noticeable, in the discussions of the last two or three years to restore to our list of causes one that had been discarded from the first classification, viz. "poorly paid employment." The conviction has been growing, among some of those who think most clearly and most carefully about these things, that there are classes of laborers whose wages, fixed by custom and not responding to the increase in the cost of living, are absolutely insufficient to maintain a normal family at the present standard of life. And we are coming, therefore, to think of "insufficient income," when it means inadequate compensation, not as a joke, but as one of the authentic causes of dependence.

A new classification, which reflects the recent change in thought, was offered at the National Conference in 1906 by Dr. Lee K. Frankel. It consists of only four divisions: ignorance, industrial inefficiency, exploitation of labor and defects in governmental supervision of the welfare of citizens. Logic seems to demand that we reduce these four causes to two, cutting our ignorance and inefficiency as results. To some form of exploitation or to some defect in governmental efficiency most of the circumstances which we commonly regard as causes may be ascribed. For practical purposes, however, these two causes must be broken up into their components, and to account for all the poverty in existence, a third heading must be used expressing the defective will those chooses unwisely in the face of knowledge and the selfishness that evades responsibility. It is our faith that human nature is so susceptible to good influences that these defects may be reduced to a minimum by improving the environment. At any rate, the experiments thus far made have given reason for such a hope, and they encourage us to concentrate effort in eliminating and securing efficient government. The irreducible minimum of "natural depravity," "moral defects," or whatever it may be called, will remain and will have to be reckoned with, but may not be large enough to constitute a serious problem.

A knowledge of the causes of poverty is of value in two ways. It is equally important in helping the individual family that needs assistance and in planning movements for the improvement of social conditions. We have learned that about one-third of all the deaths that leave women alone with little children to support are due to tuberculosis, and that the dying husband and father frequently leaves the disease as a ghastly legacy to one or more members of his family. We have also learned that this disease may be cured by a long and expensive treatment, and that its communication may be prevented. Our accurate knowledge of this cause results in a modification of our methods of treatment of families in which there is tuberculosis. Liberal relief is given to enable the husband, if he is the invalid, as he so often is, to take the long and expensive treatment; quick return to work is discouraged rather than urged; the family is moved to a better apartment where the consumptive can have a room alone, instead of being advised to reduce expenses by taking cheaper rooms; the children are examined, even if they seem well, in order that the earliest symptoms of contagion may be detected and danger averted; and, if all this is done in the right way, the family is not pauperized, but the man gets well and there is one less "widow with dependent children" than there would have been. Our knowledge of tuberculosis has led us also to organize what is called a "social movement" for dealing with this cause of dependence. This includes schemes for educating the public, through the newspapers, through special publications, through exhibitions, through lectures, through electric displays in the parks and advertisements in the street-cars; it includes also comprehensive plans for sanatoria and hospitals and dispensary systems, and all the other devices that have become so familiar that it is hard to realize that they are mainly the growth of the last six years.

We know now, to take another example, that premature employments results in a stunted maturity and a premature old age which are causes of poverty. This knowledge saves us from the folly of inculcating habits of industry when habits of play are more needed, or of finding "easy work that can't hurt him" for an under-sized, illiterate boy of thirteen, in order to provide the last three dollars a week the family needs "to get along," congratulating ourselves that we have "rendered the family self-supporting." It leads us, at the same time, to organize all over the country a systematic campaign against child labor, in order to secure laws that will guarantee to every child a chance for the physical and mental development that he needs to ensure him against being dependent on charity when he shall have become a man with a family.

Knowledge of causes is indispensable to good work in either direction, whether in helping an individual or in improving social conditions. This has been said again and again, but when it comes to applying this maxim our ideas have been rather confused. "Distress cannot be permanently relieved except by removal of the causes of distress" is the principle we have clung to. If this is as true as it sounds, then a knowledge of causes is of use only in preventing the development of poverty. It will make us improve housing conditions, prohibit child labor, provide a rational system of education, clean the streets, purify the water supply, forbid all home work in the tenements, checker the map of the city with small parks, abolish quack medicines, build hospitals of all sorts and keep in them the people who ought to be there, ensure the purity of drugs and foods, revise our entire correctional system and, perhaps, even regulate wages. In our care of individual families it will keep us alert to recognize the existence of causes that have not yet begun to show effects; it will make us urge and aid families to move from dark basements to well-ventilated rooms, to keep their children in school until they can safely go to work, to go the hospital or sanatorium when they need to do so and before it is too late, to learn how to buy and how to prepare nutritious food. But if it is true that "distress cannot be permanently relieved except by removal of the causes of distress," we must infer either that a knowledge of causes is of no help in our efforts to relive existing poverty, or that the conditions which we are trying to change, the symptoms of poverty which we are trying to remove, are in reality causes. The second alternative is the true explanation. There has hardly been a discussion of causes of poverty that has not contained a reference to Oliver Wendell Holmes's oracular statement that it is necessary to begin two hundred years ago to cure some cases of disease. This is always quoted to show that the existing conditions are not the "underlying causes," and that, in order to decide in a given case what the cause is, you must look back two hundred years. No fault can be found with this statement when it is applied to increase our understanding of present conditions or to impress us with the necessity of looking ahead two hundred years from the present in making our plans; but if it is applied to the problems of relieving existing poverty it leads to despair. The underlying causes of two hundred years ago, or even of the preceding generation, may be crystal clear to us, but we cannot affect them; the existing conditions are what we have to deal with, and our practice has been to deal with them more hopefully than our theories would warrant. The results have justified the hopefulness; and a new theory is now emerging, namely, that there is in human nature recuperative power of such strength that the removal of the existing visible effects of the "underlying causes" will do almost as well, as far as the individual case in concerned, as the removal of the causes themselves; or, in other words, that poverty is itself one of the most potent causes of poverty and one of those most responsive to treatment. This is a truth that Mr. Bernard Shaw happened upon the other day in London, when he said that the whole trouble with the poor was their poverty, and that this could be made all right by dividing among them the money contributed for charity without any intermediate waste in salaries. The newspapers of the better sort sprang to the defense of the relief methods which require salaried services, and ridiculed Mr. Shaw's pronouncement as a begging of the question. It did not beg the question; and, however naive his practical application of it was, it contained a truth which had been stated long before: "The wealth of the rich is their strong city; the destruction of the poor is their poverty."

For practical purposes, the important thing for us to know, in relation to a dependent family or in relation to a community burdened with dependents, is: What adverse conditions are present which can be corrected? In the community these adverse conditions are "underlying causes." In the single families they are the results of the previous action of these or of earlier underlying causes, but they are also certain causes of future poverty. They must be corrected and their recurrence must be provided against.

The first step, therefore, in the treatment of a family or a city is to find out what adverse conditions are present and to what extent; and this it he first step also in the rational study of the causes of poverty. These adverse conditions are facts, and they are ascertainable facts. They either do or do not exist in the family or in the city. Their prevalence can be measured.

We have already a pretty definite idea what conditions are adverse, what conditions breed poverty, in a family or in a city; but of the extent and relative importance of these conditions we have little accurate knowledge.

Our ideas as to what constitutes an adverse condition in a family are the result of a study of the characteristics of families which have become dependent. Our ideas of what constitutes an adverse condition in a city are acquired in another way: we begin, for some reason or other, generally from our observation of individual cases, to view with suspicion some feature of the city's life, and we study that feature, trying to ascertain what bad effects it produces and why it produces these effects and what can be done about it.

The basis for a statement of the adverse elements present in the circumstances of dependent individuals and families is general observation, which is really an unconscious collection of statistics. Only conscious collections, of which we have few as yet on this subject, can give accurate knowledge of the relative importance of the various elements, but the unconscious collections may be trusted to the extent of basing on them a mere enumeration. The adverse conditions tending to involve dependence which have been observed are these: absence of natural care for children; lack of provision for old age; physical disability; mental defects; certain forms of criminality and moral obliquity; and inefficiency. Dependence is the normal state of children and of the aged, but this normal dependence is on relatives. Childhood, however, may be deprived of natural care by the death of one or both parents if other relatives are lacking or are inaccessible, and also by neglect of maltreatment on the part of parents; and old age may lack the children or friends or savings that are its normal accompaniments. Both of these periods, during which dependence is the normal state, are lengthening at the expense of the working period. The tendency among well-to-do families to prolong their children's preparation for life has its counterpart in the legislation which is compulsorily prolonging that of the poorest. Simultaneously the upper limit of the working age is apparently being depressed. There is certainly a tendency to begin work at a later age. The latter tendency is one which counteracting influences may and should eventually overcome; but in many occupations it has been a conspicuous feature of modern industry. At the same time the average age at death is increasing. There are thus three factors tending to decrease, absolutely or relatively, the portion of life in which a man may work, and to increase, absolutely or relatively, the periods of dependence. Until wages have fully responded by an increase that will enable the average man not only to support his children for a longer time, but also to provide in a shorter working period has been materially lengthened, this adverse condition will persist. In it we find the reason why the problem of old-age pensions has become acute; from it comes much of the misery which gives point to radical socialistic proposals. Physical disability may either incapacitate the wage- earner or merely increase the family expenses. It may consist of permanent defects, permanent or temporary injury from accident, industrial or otherwise, or acute or chronic illness. Sickness and physical disability in its various forms give to the workers among the poor in their own homes their chief occupation, and to social workers for the improvement of general conditions their best opportunity.

Mental defects tending to involve dependence vary from insanity and feeble-mindedness down to peculiarities of temperament, such as obstinacy or a quick temper, which interfere with economic success. While this field of work is less encouraging, so far as improvement of the individual is concerned, there is here even greater need for a wise system of institutional care, and there is here an opportunity to introduce radically preventive measures. Crimes and moral defects are adverse conditions in the family from an economic standpoint when they result in imprisonment of the wage-earner or inability to keep work or evasion of family obligations. Desertion, intemperance and vagrancy are from this point of view more significant than the more startling crimes.

Inefficiency (not amounting to defects) may be physical, mental or moral; and it may be due to such varied causes as malaria, intemperance, neglected teeth, defective education or unaccustomed surroundings. It may be environmental rather than personal, and it constitutes the first point of attack for all thorough-going reforms in the educational system.

Public disasters, such as fire, flood, earthquake, volcanic eruption or tornado, produce conditions not merely adverse but wholly abnormal. Of somewhat the same nature are the abnormal industrial conditions at times of financial crisis or wide-spread strike, when men in the prime of life, of reasonable education, health, industry and capacity, find it impossible to support a normal family of the average size. But even in normal times there are adverse conditions in every American city. There are unsanitary houses, over-crowded apartments, ill-ventilated factories, germ-laden dust in the streets and germ-laden water in the mains. Little children are in glass-works or selling papers, when they should be at school or in bed. Men and women are working over-long hours in disease-breeding surroundings. The police are conniving with criminals; the courts are imposing sentences that confirm tendencies to crime. Men are exploiting, for their own profit, the weaknesses of their fellows, both as employees and as consumers. The study of causes, enlightening to the student, indispensable to the statesman, elementary to the social worker, beneficent to the poor, need not wait for hard times or times of great calamity, but may proceed at all times, under the most favorable conditions yet known in any community.

Study of the causes of poverty at this stage of our knowledge should consist of investigations into the prevalence of adverse conditions. What we need to know, for practical purposes, is not whether twenty per cent or thirty per cent or fifty per cent of the poverty in existence is due to illness, but how much illness there is, of what kinds it is, how much of it is unnecessary and by what means we may eliminate the unnecessary part. What we need to know about congestion is not what percentage of criminality and dependence is attributable to it, for that we can never find out, but where the congested districts are, how far the adverse features of life in them may be overcome, and what can be done to induce or to compel people to move elsewhere. In the language of current philosophical discussion, pragmatism affords our best working program. We are to look away from "first things, principles, categories, supposed necessities" and look towards "last things, fruits, consequences," facts. We are to look for those particular ideas and facts which will "help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience.

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