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The Problem of Poverty

[Chapter One of The Conquest of Poverty.]

The history of poverty is almost the history of mankind. The ancient writers have left us few specific accounts of it. They took it for granted. Poverty was the normal lot.The ancient world of Greece and Rome, as modern historians reconstruct it, was a world where houses had no chimneys, and rooms, heated in cold weather by a fire on a hearth or a fire-pan in the center of the room, were filled with smoke whenever a fire was started,and consequently walls, ceiling, and furniture were blackened and more or less covered by soot at all times; where light was supplied by smoky oil lamps which, like the houses in which they were used, had no chimneys; and where eye trouble as a result of all this smoke was general. Greek dwellings had no heat in winter, no adequate sanitary arrangements, and no washing facilities.1

Above all there was hunger and famine, so chronic that only the worst examples were recorded. We learn from the Bible how Joseph advised the pharaohs on famine relief measures in ancient Egypt. In a famine in Rome in 436 B.C., thousands of starving people threw themselves into the Tiber.

Conditions in the Middle Ages were no better:

The dwellings of medieval laborers were hovels -- the walls made of a few boards cemented with mud and leaves. Rushes and reeds or heather made the thatch for the roof. Inside the houses there was a single room, or in some cases two rooms, not plastered and without floor, ceiling, chimney, fireplace or bed, and here the owner, his family and his animals lived and died. There was no sewage for the houses, no drainage, except surface drainage for the streets, no water supply beyond that provided by the town pump, and no knowledge of the simplest forms of sanitation. ‘Rye and oats furnished the bread and drink of the great body of the people of Europe. ... Precariousness of livelihood, alternations between feasting and starvation, droughts,scarcities, famines, crime, violence, murrains, scurvy, leprosy, typhoid diseases, wars, pestilences and plagues ‘ -- made part of medieval life to a degree with which we are wholly unacquainted in the Western world of the present day.2

And, ever-recurring, there was famine:

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries famine [in England] is recorded every fourteen years, on an average, and the people suffered twenty years of famine in two hundred years. In the thirteenth century the list exhibits the same proportion of famine; the addition of high prices made the proportion greater.Upon the whole, scarcities decreased during the three following centuries; but the average from 1201 to 1600 is the same, namely, seven famines and ten years of famine in a century.3

One writer has compiled a detailed summary of twenty-two famines in the thirteenth century in the British Isles, with such typical entries as: “1235: Famine and plague in England; 20,000 persons die in London; people eat horse-flesh, bark of trees, grass, etc.”4

But recurrent starvation runs through the whole of human history. The Encyclopedia Britannica lists thirty-one major famines from ancient times down to 1960.5 Let us look first at those from the Middle Ages to the end of the eighteenth century:

1005: famine in England. 1016: famine throughout Europe. 1064-72: seven years’ famine in Egypt. 1148-59: eleven years’ famine in India. 1344-45: great famine in India. 1396-1407: the Durga Devi famine in India, lasting twelve years. 1586: famine in England giving rise to the Poor Law system. 1661: famine in India; no rain fell for two years.1769-70: great famine in Bengal; a third of the population -- 10 million persons -- perished. 1783: the Chalisa famine in India. 1790-92: the Deju Bara, or skull famine, in India, so called because the dead were too numerous to be buried.

This list is incomplete -- as probably any list would be. In the winter of 1709, for example, in France, more than a million persons, according to the figures of the time,died out of a population of 20 millions.6 In the eighteenth century, in fact, France suffered eight famines, culminating in the short crops of 1788, which were one of the causes of the Revolution.

I am sorry to be dwelling in such detail on so much human misery. I do so only because mass starvation is the most obvious and intense form of poverty, and this chronicle is needed to remind us of the appalling dimensions and persistence of the evil.

In 1798, a young English country parson, Thomas R. Malthus, delving into this sad history, anonymously published an Essay on the Principles of Population as it affects the Future Improvement of Society . His central doctrine was that there is a constant tendency for population to outgrow food supply and production. Unless checked by self-restraint, population will always expand to the limit of subsistence, and will be held there by disease, war, and ultimately famine. Malthus was an economic pessimist, viewing poverty as man’s inescapable lot. He influenced Ricardo and other classical economists of his time, and the general tone of their writings led Carlyle to denounce political economy as “the Dismal Science.”

Malthus had in fact uncovered a truth of epoch-making importance. His work first set Charles Darwin on the chain of reasoning which led to the promulgation of the theory of evolution by natural selection. But Malthus greatly overstated his case, and neglected to make essential qualifications. He failed to see that, once men in any place (it happened to be his own England) succeeded in earning and saving a little surplus, made even a moderate capital accumulation, and lived in an era of political freedom and protection for property, their liberated industry, thought, and invention could at last make it possible for them enormously and acceleratively to multiply per capita production beyond anything achieved or dreamed of in the past. Malthus announced his pessimistic conclusions just in the era when they were about to be falsified.

The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution had begun, but nobody had yet recognized or named it. One of the consequences of the increased production it led to was to make possible an unparalleled increase in population. The population of England and Wales in 1700 is estimated to have been about 5,500,000; by 1750 it had reached some 6,500,000. When the first census was taken in 1801 it was 9,000,000; by 1831 it had reached 14,000,000. In the second half of the eighteenth century population had thus increased by 40 percent, and in the first three decades of the nineteenth century by more than 50 percent. This was not the result of any marked change in the birth rate, but of an almost continuous fall in the death rate. People were now producing the food supply and other means to support a greater number of them.7

This accelerating growth in population continued. The enormous forward spurt of the world’s population in the nineteenth century was unprecedented in human experience. “In one century, humanity added much more to its total volume than it had been able to ad d during the previous million years.”8

But we are getting ahead of our story. We are here concerned with the long history of human poverty and starvation, rather than with the short history of how mankind began to emerge from it. Let us come back to the chronicle of famines, this time from the beginning of the nineteenth century:

1838: intense famine in North-Western Provinces (Uttar Pradesh), India; 800,000 perished. 1846-47 famine in Ireland, resulting from the failure of the potato crop. 1861:famine in northwest India. 1866: famine in Bengal and Orissa; 1,000,000 perished. 1869:intense famine in Raiputana; 1,500,000 perished. 1874: famine in Bihar, India. 1876-78:famine in Bombay, Madras, and Mysore; 5,000,000 perished. 1877-78: famine in north China; 9,500,000 said to have perished. 1887-89: famine in China. 1891-92: famine in Russia. 1897: famine in India; 1,000,000 perished. 1905: famine in Russia. 1916: famine in China. 1921: famine in the U.S.S.R., brought on by Communist economic policies; at least 10,000,000 persons seemed doomed to die, until the American Relief Administration, headed by Herbert Hoover, came in and reduced direct deaths to about 500,000. 1932-33: famine again in the U.S.S.R., brought on by Stalin’s farm collectivization policies; “millions of deaths.”

1943: famine in Bengal; about 1,500,000 perished. 1960-61: famine in the Congo.9

We can bring this dismal history down to date by mentioning the famines in recent years in Communist China and the war-created famine of 1968-70 in Biafra.

The record of famines since the end of the eighteenth century does, however, reveal one striking difference from the record up to that point. Mass starvation did not fall on a single country in the now industrialized Western world. (The sole exception is the potato famine in Ireland; and even that is a doubtful exception because the Industrial Revolution had barely touched mid-nineteenth-century Ireland -- still a one-crop agricultural country.)

It is not that there have ceased to be droughts, pests, plant diseases, and crop failures in the modern Western world, but that when they occur there is no famine, because the stricken countries are quickly able to import foodstuffs from abroad, not only because the modern means of transport exist, but because, out of their industrial production, these countries have the means to pay for such foodstuffs.In the Western world today, in other words, poverty and hunger -- until the mid-eighteenth century the normal condition of mankind -- have been reduced to a residual problem affecting only a minority; and that minority is being steadily reduced.But the poverty and hunger still prevailing in the rest of the world -- in most of Asia,Central and South America, and Africa -- in short, even now afflicting the great majority of mankind -- show the terrible dimensions of the problem still to be solved. And what has happened and is still happening in many countries today serves to warn us how fatally easy it is to destroy all the economic progress that has already been achieved. Foolish governmental interference led the Argentine, once the world’s principal producer and exporter of beef, to forbid in 1971 even domestic consumption of beef on alternate weeks.Soviet Russia, one of whose chief economic problems before it was communized was to find an export market for its huge surplus of grains, has been forced to import grains from the capitalist countries. One could go on to cite scores of other examples, with ruinous consequences, all brought on by short-sighted governmental policies.

More than thirty years ago, E. Parmalee Prentice was pointing out that mankind has been rescued from a world of want so quickly that the sons do not know how their fathers lived:

“Here, indeed, is an explanation of the dissatisfaction with conditions of life so often expressed, since men who never knew want such as that in which the world lived during many by-gone centuries, are unable to value at its true worth such abundance as now exists, and are unhappy because it is not greater.”10

How prophetic of the attitude of rebellious youth in the 1970s! The great present danger is that impatience and ignorance may combine to destroy in a single generation the progress that it took untold generations of mankind to achieve.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

  • 1E. Parmalee Prentice, Hunger and History, Harper & Bros., 1939, pp.39-40.
  • 2Ibid., pp.15-16.
  • 3William Farr, “The Influence of Scarcities and of the High Prices of Wheat on the Mortality of the People of England,” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, February 16,1846, Vol. IX, p.158.
  • 4Cornelius Walford, “The Famines of the World,” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, March 19, 1878, Vol.41, p.433.
  • 5“Famine,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1965.
  • 6Gaston Bouthoul, La population dans Ia monde, pp. 142-43
  • 7T. S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution (1760-1830), Oxford University Press, 1948,pp.3-4.
  • 8Henry Pratt Fairchild, “When Population Levels Off,” Harper’s Magazine, May, 1938,vol.176, p.596.
  • 9“Famine” and “Russia,” Encyclopedia Britannica, 1965
  • 10Hunger and History, p.236.
Image Source: Victims of the Russian Famine, 1921, via Wikipedia.
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