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America’s Troubling Past with Poverty

Research & Commentary
June 02, 2014

by Sheila Kennedy

William Graham Sumner (1840 - 1910) was a prominent Social Darwinist who believed the poor deserved their condition. His thought continues to shape debates about poverty in America today.

William Graham Sumner (1840 – 1910) was a Social Darwinist who believed the poor deserve their condition. His thought continues to influence debates about poverty in America today.

Debates about poverty and social welfare in America today have been shaped by a history of troubling attitudes towards the poor.

By Sheila Suess Kennedy

One of the most time-honored adages in politics is “follow the money.” And for many issues that policymakers debate, that’s good advice. Self-interest often explains positions that are otherwise inexplicable.

But money can’t always explain everything. Sometimes culture and ideology can be just as powerful. That’s particularly true of American debates about poverty. I would argue that some of the most passionate advocates of “market-based healthcare,” “middle-class values” and “personal responsibility” are unaware of the roots of their perspectives on these issues.

Representative Paul Ryan is a handy example of what I’ve come to call “economic self-delusion.” Ryan is a favorite of self-styled “fiscal conservatives” who see him  as a hard-headed advocate of economically-responsible policies. The problem is, the anti-safety-net policies he defends as fiscally responsible tend to be more costly to taxpayers than he and his partisans are willing to admit—and often more costly than the programs he would gut.

A couple of recent studies of homelessness highlight the phenomenon. [pullquote] Some of the most passionate advocates of ‘personal responsibility’ are unaware of the roots of their perspective. [/pullquote]

Typically, liberal arguments for simply housing the homeless center on morality and compassion, allowing conservatives (like Ryan) to respond that such an approach is far too costly (and somehow un-American).

The Central Florida Commission on Homelessness reports otherwise. “The numbers are stunning,”Andrae Bailey, the organization’s CEO told the Orlando Sentinel. “Our community will spend nearly half a billion dollars [on the chronically homeless], and at the end of the decade, these people will still be homeless.”

Bailey was referring to a study by Creative Housing Solutions, which tracked public expenditures on local homeless people in the Central Florida region. That analysis calculated the costs of frequent emergency room visits, hospital admissions and repeated arrests for homeless-related crimes, and estimated that each homeless person costs taxpayers $31,065 every year. Providing the chronically homeless with permanent housing and case managers to supervise them would cost about $10,000 per person each year.

Homelessness is hardly the only area where American society is stubbornly “penny wise and pound foolish.” From early childhood education to health care, research supports the cost savings of early interventions via a strong social-safety net.

Why are so many elected officials—and the constituents who elect them—absolutely convinced that social programs are simply costly incubators of dependency? Why are they unwilling to believe credible research that dispels stereotypes like those of the “Welfare Queen” and the lazy “inner-city” social parasite? [pullquote] Why are so many elected officials convinced that social programs are simply costly incubators of dependency? [/pullquote]

If we really want to understand where these attitudes come from, we need to revisit some historic attitudes about poverty. In a very real sense, proponents and critics of social welfare programs are still arguing about policies dating to 1349, when England enacted the Statute of Laborers. That Statute prohibited people from giving alms, or charity, to “sturdy beggars,” that is, those who had the ability to work.

The Elizabethan Poor Law incorporated a distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor that would be carried to the colonies and reproduced in the laws of most states. It was the model that settlers brought to the New World; it was the approach adopted by the original thirteen colonies, and as people moved west, it was the approach incorporated in the Ordinance of 1787, which prescribed rules for governing the Northwest Territory.

To a significant extent, the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor and an emphasis on work have remained the primary framework through which Americans view poverty and social welfare.

That distinction was further reinforced by religion, especially Calvinism.

The belief that poverty is evidence of divine disapproval—that virtue is rewarded by material success—was held by a number of the early Protestants who settled the colonies, and that belief has continued to influence American law and culture. In the early 1900s, moral disapproval of the poor found an ally in science, and poverty issues were caught up in a national debate between the Social Gospel preached by Walter Rauschenbusch and others and the far more punitive approach taken by Social Darwinists like William Graham Sumner. [pullquote] The belief that poverty is evidence of divine disapproval continues to influence American law and culture. [/pullquote]

When describing the poor, Sumner minced no words: “[T]he weak who constantly arouse the pity of humanitarians and philanthropists are the shiftless, the imprudent, the negligent, the impractical, and the inefficient, or they are the idle, the intemperate, the extravagant and the vicious.”

It was not until the Great Depression that American lawmakers would widely acknowledge the need for some sort of social safety net. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the dislocations of the 1930s or the passage of New Deal legislation changed Americans’ deeply-rooted beliefs about the relationship between poverty and moral defect.

We see the influence of Social Darwinism and echoes of Sumner in today’s “makers and takers” meme, in the arguments that welfare creates “dependency” (in the poor, but evidently not among recipients of corporate welfare) and in Paul Ryan’s proposed budget.

Research dispelling the mythology is important, but it isn’t enough. Somehow, we need to change the cultural assumptions that produce punitive policies. It’s time for a re-emergence of the Social Gospel.

Sheila Suess Kennedy, J.D. is Professor of Law and Public Policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Her scholarly publications include eight books and numerous law review and journal articles. Professor Kennedy is a columnist for the Indianapolis Business Journal and a frequent lecturer, public speaker and contributor to popular periodicals. She blogs at

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