What is Poverty?

Here is an article by Theodore Dalrymple, which says so perfectly what I would say on the matter, if only my command of the language and my experience of life were equal to his, that I have no qualm about quoting the whole matter, and then grunting. ‘What he said.’

Reproduced here for the purposes of commentary under the Fair Use doctrine. The copyright inheres in the original owners.

h/t to Mary Catelli

What is Poverty?

Theodore Dalrymple

What do we mean by poverty? Not what Dickens or Blake or Mayhew meant. Today, no one seriously expects to go hungry in England or to live without running water or medical care or even TV. Poverty has been redefined in industrial countries, so that anyone at the lower end of the income distribution is poor ex officio, as it were—poor by virtue of having less than the rich. And of course by this logic, the only way of eliminating poverty is by an egalitarian redistribution of wealth—even if the society as a whole were to become poorer as a result.

Such redistribution was the goal of the welfare state. But it has not eliminated poverty, despite the vast sums expended, and despite the fact that the poor are now substantially richer—indeed are not, by traditional standards, poor at all. As long as the rich exist, so must the poor, as we now define them.

Certainly they are in squalor—a far more accurate description of their condition than poverty—despite a threefold increase in per-capita income, including that of the poor, since the end of the last war. Why they should be in this condition requires an explanation—and to call that condition poverty, using a word more appropriate to Mayhew’s London than to today’s reality, prevents us from grasping how fundamentally the lot of “the poor” has changed since then. The poor we shall always have with us, no doubt: but today they are not poor in the traditional way.

The English poor live shorter and less healthy lives than their more prosperous compatriots. Even if you didn’t know the statistics, their comparative ill health would be obvious on the most casual observation of rich and slum areas, just as Victorian observers noted that the poor were on average a head shorter than the rich, due to generations of inferior nourishment and hard living conditions. But the reasons for today’s difference in health are not economic. It is by no means the case that the poor can’t afford medicine or a nourishing diet; nor do they live in overcrowded houses lacking proper sanitation, as in Mayhew’s time, or work 14 backbreaking hours a day in the foul air of mines or mills. Epidemiologists estimate that the higher rate of cigarette consumption among the poor accounts for half the difference in life expectancy between the richest and poorest classes in England—and to smoke that much takes money.

Notoriously, too, the infant mortality rate is twice as high in the lowest social class as in the highest. But the infant mortality rate of illegitimate births is twice that of legitimate ones, and the illegitimacy rate rises steeply as you descend the social scale: so the decline of marriage almost to the vanishing point in the lowest social class might well be responsible for most of its excess infant mortality. It is a way of life, not poverty per se, that kills. The commonest cause of death between the ages of 15 and 44 is now suicide, which has increased most precipitously precisely among those who live in the underclass world of temporary step-parenthood and of conduct unrestrained either by law or convention.

Just as it is easier to recognize ill health in someone you haven’t seen for some time rather than in someone you meet daily, so a visitor coming into a society from elsewhere often can see its character more clearly than those who live in it. Every few months, doctors from countries like the Philippines and India arrive fresh from the airport to work for a year’s stint at my hospital. It is fascinating to observe their evolving response to British squalor.

At the start, they are uniformly enthusiastic about the care that we unsparingly and unhesitatingly give to everyone, regardless of economic status. They themselves come from cities—Manila, Bombay, Madras—where many of the cases we see in our hospital would simply be left to die, often without succor of any kind. And they are impressed that our care extends beyond the merely medical: that no one goes without food or clothing or shelter, or even entertainment. There seems to be a public agency to deal with every conceivable problem. For a couple of weeks, they think this all represents the acme of civilization, especially when they recall the horrors at home. Poverty—as they know it— has been abolished.

Before very long, though, they start to feel a vague unease. A Filipina doctor, for example, asked me why so few people seemed grateful for what was done for them. What prompted her question was an addict who, having collapsed from an accidental overdose of heroin, was brought to our hospital. He required intensive care to revive him, with doctors and nurses tending him all night. His first words to the doctor when he suddenly regained consciousness were, “Get me a fucking roll-up” (a hand-rolled cigarette). His imperious rudeness didn’t arise from mere confusion: he continued to treat the staff as if they had kidnapped him and held him in the hospital against his will to perform experiments upon him. “Get me the fuck out of here!” There was no acknowledgment of what had been done for him, let alone gratitude for it. If he considered that he had received any benefit from his stay at all, well, it was simply his due.

My doctors from Bombay, Madras, or Manila observe this kind of conduct open- mouthed. At first they assume that the cases they see are a statistical quirk, a kind of sampling error, and that given time they will encounter a better, more representative cross section of the population. Gradually, however, it dawns upon them that what they have seen is representative. When every benefit received is a right, there is no place for good manners, let alone for gratitude.

Case after case causes them to revise their initial favorable opinion. Before long, they have had experience of hundreds, and their view has changed entirely. Last week, for example, to the amazement of a doctor recently arrived from Madras, a woman in her late twenties entered our hospital with the most common condition that brings patients to us: a deliberate overdose. At first she would say nothing more than that she wanted to depart this world, that she had had enough of it.

I inquired further. Just before she took the overdose, her ex-boyfriend, the father of her eight-month-old youngest child (now staying with her ex-boyfriend’s mother), had broken into her apartment by smashing down the front door. He wrecked the apartment’s contents, broke every window, stole $110 in cash, and ripped out her telephone.

“He’s very violent, doctor.” She told me that he had broken her thumb, her ribs, and her jaw during the four years she was with him, and her face had needed stitching many times. “Last year I had to have the police out to him.”

“What happened?”

“I dropped the charges. His mother said he would change.”

Another of her problems was that she was now five weeks pregnant and she didn’t want the baby.

“I want to get rid of it, doctor.”

“Who’s the father?”

It was her violent ex-boyfriend, of course.

“Did he rape you, then?”

“No.”

“So you agreed to have sex with him?”

“I was drunk; there was no love in it. This baby is like a bolt out of the blue: I don’t know how it happened.”

I asked her if she thought it was a good idea to have sex with a man who had repeatedly beaten her up, and from whom she said she wished to separate.

“It’s complicated, doctor. That’s the way life goes sometimes.”

What had she known of this man before she took up with him? She met him in a club; he moved in at once, because he had nowhere else to stay. He had a child by another woman, neither of whom he supported. He had been in prison for burglary. He took drugs. He had never worked, except for cash on the side. Of course he never gave her any of his money, instead running up her telephone bills vertiginously.

She had never married, but had two other children. The first, a daughter aged eight, still lived with her. The father was a man whom she left because she found he was having sex with 12-year-old girls. Her second child was a son, whose father was “an idiot” with whom she had slept one night. That child, now six, lived with the “idiot,” and she never saw him.

What had her experience taught her?

“I don’t want to think about it. The Housing’ll charge me for the damage, and I ain’t got the money. I’m depressed, doctor; I’m not happy. I want to move away, to get away from him.”

Later in the day, feeling a little lonely, she telephoned her ex-boyfriend, and he visited her.

I discussed the case with the doctor who had recently arrived from Madras, and who felt he had entered an insane world. Not in his wildest dreams had he imagined it could be like this. There was nothing to compare with it in Madras. He asked me what would happen next to the happy couple.

“They’ll find her a new flat. They’ll buy her new furniture, television, and refrigerator, because it’s unacceptable poverty in this day and age to live without them. They’ll charge her nothing for the damage to her old flat, because she can’t pay anyway, and it wasn’t she who did it. He will get away scot-free. Once she’s installed in her new flat to escape from him, she’ll invite him there, he’ll smash it up again, and then they’ll find her somewhere else to live. There is, in fact, nothing she can do that will deprive her of the state’s obligation to house, feed, and entertain her.”

I asked the doctor from Madras if poverty was the word he would use to describe this woman’s situation. He said it was not: that her problem was that she accepted no limits to her own behavior, that she did not fear the possibility of hunger, the condemnation of her own parents or neighbors, or God. In other words, the squalor of England was not economic but spiritual, moral, and cultural.

I often take my doctors from the Third World on the short walk from the hospital to the prison nearby. It is a most instructive 800 yards. On a good day—good for didactic purposes, that is—there are seven or eight puddles of glass shattered into fragments lying in the gutter en route (there are never none, except during the most inclement weather, when even those most addicted to car theft control their impulses).

“Each of these little piles of smashed glass represents a car that has been broken into,” I tell them. “There will be more tomorrow, weather permitting.” The houses along the way are, as public housing goes, quite decent. The local authorities have at last accepted that herding people into giant, featureless, Le Corbusian concrete blocks was a mistake, and they have switched to the construction of individual houses. Only a few of their windows are boarded up. Certainly by comparison with housing for the poor in Bombay, Madras, or Manila they are spacious and luxurious indeed. Each has a little front yard of grass, surrounded by a hedge, and a much larger back yard; about half have satellite dishes. Unfortunately, the yards are almost as full of litter as municipal garbage dumps.

I tell my doctors that in nearly nine years of taking this walk four times a week, I have never seen a single instance of anyone attempting to clean his yard. But I have seen much litter dropped; on a good day, I can even watch someone standing at the bus stop dropping something on the ground no farther than two feet from the bin.

“Why don’t they tidy up their gardens?” asks a doctor from Bombay.

A good question: after all, most of the houses contain at least one person with time on his or her hands. Whenever I have been able to ask the question, however, the answer has always been the same: I’ve told the council [the local government] about it, but they haven’t come. As tenants, they feel it is the landlord’s responsibility to keep their yards clean, and they are not prepared to do the council’s work for it, even if it means wading through garbage—as it quite literally does. On the one hand, authority cannot tell them what to do; on the other, it has an infinitude of responsibilities towards them.

I ask my Third World doctors to examine the litter closely. It gives them the impression that no Briton is able to walk farther than ten yards or so without consuming junk food. Every bush, every lawn, even every tree, is festooned with chocolate wrappers or fast- food packaging. Empty cans of beer and soft drinks lie in the gutter, on the flower beds, or on top of the hedges. Again, on a good day we actually see someone toss aside the can whose contents he has just consumed, as a Russian vodka drinker throws down his glass.

Apart from the antisocial disregard of the common good that each little such act of littering implies (hundreds a week in the space of 800 yards alone), the vast quantity of food consumed in the street has deeper implications. I tell the doctors that in all my visits to the white households in the area, of which I’ve made hundreds, never—not once—have I seen any evidence of cooking. The nearest to this activity that I have witnessed is the reheating of prepared and packaged food, usually in a microwave. And by the same token, I have never seen any evidence of meals taken in common as a social activity—unless two people eating hamburgers together in the street as they walk along be counted as social.

This is not to say that I haven’t seen people eating at home; on the contrary, they are often eating when I arrive. They eat alone, even if other members of the household are present, and never at table; they slump on a sofa in front of the television. Everyone in the household eats according to his own whim and timetable. Even in so elementary a matter as eating, therefore, there is no self-discipline but rather an imperative obedience to impulse. Needless to say, the opportunity for conversation or sociality that a meal taken together provides is lost. English meals are thus solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

I ask the doctors to compare the shops in areas inhabited by poor whites and those where poor Indian immigrants live. It is an instructive comparison. The shops the Indians frequent are piled high with all kinds of attractive fresh produce that, by supermarket standards, is astonishingly cheap. The women take immense trouble over their purchases and make subtle discriminations. There are no pre-cooked meals for them. By contrast, a shop that poor whites patronize offers a restricted choice, largely of relatively expensive prepared foods that at most require only the addition of hot water.

The difference between the two groups cannot be explained by differences in income, for they are insignificant. Poverty isn’t the issue. And the willingness of Indians to take trouble over what they eat and to treat meals as important social occasions that impose obligations and at times require the subordination of personal desire is indicative of an entire attitude to life that often permits them, despite their current low incomes, to advance up the social scale. Alarmingly, though, the natural urge of the children of immigrants to belong to the predominant local culture is beginning to create an Indian underclass (at least among young males): and the taste for fast food and all that such a taste implies is swiftly developing among them.

When such slovenliness about food extends to all other spheres of life, when people satisfy every appetite with the same minimal effort and commitment, no wonder they trap themselves in squalor. I have little trouble showing my doctors from India and the Philippines that most of our patients take a fast-food approach to all their pleasures, obtaining them no less fleetingly and unstrenuously. They have no cultural activity they can call their own, and their lives seem, even to them, empty of purpose. In the welfare state, mere survival is not the achievement that it is, say, in the cities of Africa, and therefore it cannot confer the self-respect that is the precondition of self-improvement.

By the end of three months my doctors have, without exception, reversed their original opinion that the welfare state, as exemplified by England, represents the acme of civilization. On the contrary, they see it now as creating a miasma of subsidized apathy that blights the lives of its supposed beneficiaries. They come to realize that a system of welfare that makes no moral judgments in allocating economic rewards promotes antisocial egotism. The spiritual impoverishment of the population seems to them worse than anything they have ever known in their own countries. And what they see is all the worse, of course, because it should be so much better. The wealth that enables everyone effortlessly to have enough food should be liberating, not imprisoning. Instead, it has created a large caste of people for whom life is, in effect, a limbo in which they have nothing to hope for and nothing to fear, nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It is a life emptied of meaning.

“On the whole,” said one Filipino doctor to me, “life is preferable in the slums of Manila.” He said it without any illusions as to the quality of life in Manila.

These doctors have made the same journey as I, but in the reverse direction. Arriving as a young doctor in Africa 25 years ago, I was horrified at first by the physical conditions, the like of which I had never experienced before. Patients with heart failure walked 50 miles in the broiling sun, with panting breath and swollen legs, to obtain treatment—and then walked home again. Ulcerating and suppurating cancers were common. Barefoot men contracted tetanus from the wounds inflicted by a sand flea that laid its eggs between their toes. Tuberculosis reduced people to animated skeletons. Children were bitten by puff adders and adults mauled by leopards. I saw lepers with noses that had rotted away and madmen who wandered naked in the torrential rains.

Even the accidents were spectacular. I treated the survivors of one in Tanzania in which a truck—having no brakes, as was perfectly normal and expected in the circumstances— began to slide backward down a hill it had been climbing. It was laden with bags of corn, upon which 20 passengers, including many children, were riding. As the truck slid backward, first the passengers, then the corn, fell off. By the time I arrived, ten dead children were lined up by the side of the road, arranged in ascending order as neatly as organ pipes. They had been crushed or suffocated by the bags of corn that fell on top of them: a grimly ironic death in a country chronically short of food.

Moreover, political authority in the countries in which I worked was arbitrary, capricious, and corrupt. In Tanzania, for example, you could tell the representative of the sole and omnipotent political party, the Party of the Revolution, by his girth alone. Tanzanians were thin, but party men were fat. The party representative in my village sent a man to prison because the man’s wife refused to sleep with him. In Nigeria the police hired out their guns by night to the armed robbers.

Yet nothing I saw—neither the poverty nor the overt oppression—ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centeredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live, that I see daily in England. In a kind of pincer movement, therefore, I and the doctors from India and the Philippines have come to the same terrible conclusion: that the worst poverty is in England—and it is not material poverty but poverty of soul.

 

About John C Wright

John C. Wright is a practicing philosopher, a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaper editor, and a published author of science fiction. Once a Houyhnhnm, he was expelled from the august ranks of purely rational beings when he fell in love; but retains an honorary title.
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35 Responses to What is Poverty?

  1. watermelonyo says:

    Arriving as a young doctor in Africa 25 years ago, I was horrified at first by the physical conditions, the like of which I had never experienced before. Patients with heart failure walked 50 miles in the broiling sun, with panting breath and swollen legs, to obtain treatment—and then walked home again. Ulcerating and suppurating cancers were common. Barefoot men contracted tetanus from the wounds inflicted by a sand flea that laid its eggs between their toes. Tuberculosis reduced people to animated skeletons. Children were bitten by puff adders and adults mauled by leopards. I saw lepers with noses that had rotted away and madmen who wandered naked in the torrential rains.

    But at least they don’t litter!

    Even the accidents were spectacular. I treated the survivors of one in Tanzania in which a truck—having no brakes, as was perfectly normal and expected in the circumstances— began to slide backward down a hill it had been climbing. It was laden with bags of corn, upon which 20 passengers, including many children, were riding. As the truck slid backward, first the passengers, then the corn, fell off. By the time I arrived, ten dead children were lined up by the side of the road, arranged in ascending order as neatly as organ pipes. They had been crushed or suffocated by the bags of corn that fell on top of them: a grimly ironic death in a country chronically short of food.

    But at least they’re not eating junk food! They’re so much better off than the British poor!

    Seriously, how is anyone buying this BS?

    • So you have emerged from the shadows of lurking, no doubt re-armed in your hope that you might enlighten us, your inferiors.

      I am pleased that you have written two posts without once descending into personal attacks. This is remarkable, and I congratulate you on it.

      To speak to your point: do you think Dr. Daniels is merely lying, and misreporting the reactions of his overseas doctors who visit him? Or do you think the reaction of those doctors are insupportable or inappropriate somehow? If so, on what grounds do you, who have not seen and cannot compare from first hand knowledge, the real poverty of the third-world poor with the spiritual poverty of the relatively affluence welfare-state clients, dismiss the comparison?

      The article concerns the deserving poor versus the undeserving. That is the one distinction the philosophy of the Left takes the greatest pains to mock and pretend does not exist.

      • howling_wolf says:

        I think the commenter you are responding to is merely participating in a small exercise of missing the point.

        • watermelonyo says:

          I think the commenter you are responding to is merely participating in a small exercise of missing the point.

          No, I got it. The point is that the British poor, who are receiving money from the British rich, are horrible, undeserving people who don’t deserve that money. Did I miss anything?

      • Patrick says:

        I haven’t learned how to classify objectively the poor into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ in school – desert seems to be a morally loaded category, and moral determinations are – as everybody who’s been following your interminable battle with the Evil Dr. A knows – not objects of possible scientific inquiry.

        • At this point, I think you are merely throwing out objections to be contrary. There is no way ‘scientifically’ to measure poverty: it is an economic category, or a moral one. It is not a physical property of physical systems.

          And what was your (ahem) scientific definition again…? “Poverty is a strata of chronic issues (deficiencies of health, education, happiness, and family stability) that people without steady employment face.”

          Chronic in terms of how many seconds? Education in terms of how many bits of data per second? Health in terms of …. what? Happiness in terms of how many units of happiness-atoms-per-cubic-foot? Family stability (by which I assume you mean chastity) measured in terms of….what?

          Are you using the word scientific in some broad sense to mean any discipline? I doubt social science counts as a real discipline, unlike economics, ethics, law, and other ways to approach the issue.

          You are in denial. The poor in America are absurdly well off by world standards. The fact that you cannot see this and cannot admit this to yourself should give you pause — this is the phenomenon your alleged discipline of social science is supposed to address and explain, not explain away or call an illusion.

          • Photios says:

            It is all in how you define poverty. There are families in the US where children go hungry, homes are lost, needed medicine is unavailable, etc.

            That said, in almost every instance this is the result of systematic poor choices. The problem that I see with our current welfare system is that it creates an environment where poor choices create a perceived benefit which makes leaving chronic poverty challenging if not impossible for many people.

            What Patrick SEEMS opposed to is for the poor to suffer the consequence of their choices. Unfortunately this simply shifts these responsibilities to others which may disincent them — creating a downward spiral.

          • Patrick says:

            “There is no way ‘scientifically’ to measure poverty: it is an economic category, or a moral one. It is not a physical property of physical systems.”

            We can’t agree on this. I think economics and social science is a (young) discipline finding it’s way and you think it profoundly unserious and politically adulterated, and it’s lessons as unsupportable and intolerable distractions from the sermon on self-reliance that everybody needs to hear instead.

            I think I’ll go back to lurking for awhile, though I’m really interested to read the fiction you’ve written on the topic.

            • Robert Mitchell Jr says:

              No, no, you are very close to agreeing with Mr. Wright. “I think economics and social science is a (young) discipline finding it’s way”. Right. Which is why we should not be writing policy based on it. Government requires uniformity (Anything else will be seen as discrimination). Science (Especially in the learning phase, as when Alchemy was turning into Chemistry) requires a thousand gardens and freedom to experiment. Now, to the extent we have allowed economics and social science to be free, the experiments keep showing that a “Capitalist” system and/or a Christian system take better care of the Poor then governments. But the Science keeps getting trumped by emotion, people’s need to “Do something!”. Alas, it appears that the best that can be done for many wounds is to leave it alone and let it heal. Thoughtless compassion can do great harm (for example, taking the accident victim to hospital instead of waiting for the ambulance. Meaning well will not heal a broken back.).

            • The word science can either mean (1) empirical science, which deals with measurable magnitudes (2) any disciplined effort of thinking, which deals with any subject, so long as it is dealt with rationally.

              You are speaking of social science as if it had the prestige and reliability of the first, but you are using deliberately vague and slippery definitions (chronic unhappiness or marital instability causes by unemployment); and, ironically, at the same time you scorn the findings of a real discipline with rigorous definitions, such as economics or law, as mere sermonizing or hortatory.

              Saying that the poor in America are, when compared to the poor in the Third World or in history, not poor, is not a sermon: it is a fact, and is the starting point of any sober discussion of the issue. The only way to get around this fact, and keep the issue in a frivolous and emotional mode, is to cast about for a definition of the word “poor” sufficiently ambiguous as to equate welfare-state dependents who are well-fed to the point of being overweight with starving famine-victims.

              I did not say anything about economics being un-serious, and surprised I have been so unclear as to leave you with that impression.

        • Mary says:

          That in itself can multiply the dangers. As the doctor enumerates here:
          http://www.city-journal.org/html/7_3_oh_to_be.html

          Those who find these essays worth reading will probably also find all of his Life At the Bottom equally so. I particularly recommend it to writers for its assistance in characterizing villains.

      • Gian says:

        An undeserving poor is simultaneously a most deserving spiritual poor. He deserves all the prayers the Church can pray.

        Frankly, one day’s reading of any Indian newspaper is sufficient to cure any sentimentality about Third World. An Indian family dispute does not end with broken furniture and bruises but with wholesale murder and suicide. Mothers killing themselves along with children are extremely common.

      • watermelonyo says:

        To speak to your point: do you think Dr. Daniels is merely lying, and misreporting the reactions of his overseas doctors who visit him? Or do you think the reaction of those doctors are insupportable or inappropriate somehow?

        I think personal anecdotes from culture-shock victims shouldn’t be used in classist propaganda material.

        The article concerns the deserving poor versus the undeserving. That is the one distinction the philosophy of the Left takes the greatest pains to mock and pretend does not exist.

        I understand the distinction perfectly. “Deserving” means those who aren’t receiving aid. “Undeserving” means those who are. If you give aid to the deserving, they will become undeserving, and you will have to take it away from them again. It’s a perfect system.

        • Helping the poor and treating them like human beings is now “Classist.”

          Ah! The world-famous “ists” and “isms.” What would the Politically Correct know-nothings do if they could not coin words which meant the opposite of their meaning? Or word which have emotional content only, and no bearing on reality?

          Classism is now the irrational and phobic hatred and desire to oppress members of another class. Seeing the wreckage moronic Lefty policies have wrought on the poor in England is “classist” is the man reporting the damage, such as a PRISON DOCTOR is not a member of the group whom he treats. What does a prison doctor know about conditions among the poor, after all?

          If they could not invent new words without meaning, the Left could not express themselves at all.

  2. cmgc says:

    We may have avoided a nuclear apocalypse (crossing my fingers that the rise of the machines goes smoothly), but people like this are living post-apocalyptic lives. Severed from culture and ignorant of how to live… and the only thing they vigorously do is lay constant waste to their own wasteland. They become too impotent and misguided to do anything to fix it.

    I have been in this state but have nearly crawled my way out of it. I don’t know how others loved me and held their noses while helping me, except they had the mercy of God, and I didn’t give up. Maybe I had the cute pitiable face of Gollum. Heh. The road I was on, and the road I see others on, is perhaps the most sad and wretched way to hell. You see these people so hungry for meaning and love. In reality they are zombies addicted to counterfeit food, and in their emptiness they walk and moan unknowingly into damnation.

    To me, loving these people is like aliens showing up and having mercy on the warring remnants of a post-apocalyptic Earth, the same people who blew it up but apparently didn’t learn anything. It seems like the most difficult kind of mercy. Maybe for the aliens, it’s not a problem to dispatch a ship from their homeworld carrying their most highly skilled spiritual experts to set us straight. However, I find it hard to imagine any such solution coming from our own governments, most charities, or NGO’s. It is far easier to write a check and be done with it, than to go check how someone is doing.

    Beyond prayer and Christian service, I take comfort in God’s infinite mercy. I like the parable of “one onion” told by Grushenka in The Brothers Karamazov. Could such people for whom everything has become effortless – eating, having a place to live, etc. – do one more effortless thing: accept mercy and extend it freely to others? Let us hope.

  3. Sean Michael says:

    This article by Dr. Dalrymple made grimly horrifiying reading. I FULLY agree that spiritual, moral, and cultural poverty can be far worse than simply physical poverty. And many of our liberals, from President Obama on down, want us to copy the British welfare state. One thing which consoles me is the sheer impossibility of a huge nation with a vast population to saddle itself with such s system before it crashes to ruin from running out of the money to pay for it.

    Maybe bankruptcy will be our salvation??????

    Sean M. Brooks

  4. momofthree says:

    The author said, “I never saw the loss of dignity…”. I must say, although this piece is very well done, and holds much truth, having been to Africa and remote Nepal and Bhutan, I have seen a loss of dignity in developing-world poverty.

    Nevertheless, this piece will keep me thinking hard this weekend.

  5. A Spectator says:

    I have a hunch, Mr. Wright, that the dissention problems you are encountering with regard to this topic are rooted in a sort of substitutive reasoning. Often when one of known conservative affiliations indulges in the “American poverty isn’t *real* poverty” meme, an unspoken suffix to the effect of “therefore nothing’s wrong with the way things are, you obese, chain-smoking, whining plebeian” can be interpreted from the aether. I have a hunch that if you commented on the perceived injustices which result in the ever increasing wealth divide (such as the dual facts of the 17.2 percent income tax rate paid by the wealthiest Americans and the far lower rates paid by large corporations such as Exxon Mobil and GE) much of the recent unpleasantness could be ameliorated or exacerbated, respective, of course, of your stance.

    Please excuse my impertinence.

    • The problem is that the ‘perceived injustices’ is not only something I don’t understand, it is something I cannot even see.

      My mother worked as a clerk in a bank. She spoke with jealousy about the bank owner, who was a wealthy and well connected ‘good ol boy’ and she wished his taxes would be raised. Her wish was granted the next year, and when his taxes were raised, he could not afford to keep his full staff, and she, as the most recent hire, was discharged.

      Envy is self destructive. So, no, there is no way for me to speak kindly of it.

      Making elliptical definitions which rob words of their normal meanings in order to give intellectuals an added ability to deceive themselves I do not regard as an innocent pastime, but as a primary (if not the primary) source and summit of evil in this world. I am philosopher; philosophers love the truth. I regard untruthful men and self-deceiving thinkers and people who play word games rather than use logic the same way I should regard a man who spat in the face of someone I loved.

      There are some things that do not deserve sympathy. The poor do deserve sympathy. Those who, in the name of helping the poor, burn down their hovels in order to burn down the mansions of the rich, actually hate the poor — socialist policies are not based on charity, but on envy, not on love, but on hate.

      • A Spectator says:

        “Cannot even see”? May I presume to speak just once more?

        While I do not advocate real or imagined attempts at wealth redistribution by Progressives, I consider notions of the overtaxed elites rather hollow. I do not claim to know at what time your mother experienced the anecdote you cite; perhaps it was very illustrative of an undeniable truth in its temporal context. In 1955, for instance, the wealthiest tax brackets paid a hefty 51.2% income tax even with exploitable loopholes, and 33% of federal income came from corporate taxes. These numbers have since fallen to 17.2 and 7.4%, respectively. Growth of family income between 1947 and 1979 was nearly equivalent (from 99 to 116%) across tax brackets, but between 1980 and 2007, while the growth of family income amongst (enter politically-charged but contextually-accurate term, stage left) the bottom 99% ranged from 15 to 33%, the top 1% saw an increase of 261%. I have no doubts that these are the direct result of the close personal relationship between corporate lobbyists and our representatives and little doubt that the trickle-down economics of the Right (which fails in praxis before our very eyes given the snippets above and the failure of the wages of wage-earners to even keep up with inflation) and the hyper-regulatory differential taxation (with enormous loopholes for campain financiers) employed by the much-more-(and deservedly so!)-maligned Left are merely paths to the same disasterous end. Namely: a much more accurate equivalence between American “poverty” and poverty abroad.

        On the other hand, perhaps there is something *I* do not see. If this is the case, I will eagerly and humbly await your instruction, if I am not too presumtuous in doing so, because it is better to be wrong, and corrected, than the alternative.

        • Robert Mitchell Jr says:

          If you do not see the “elites” as overtaxed, compared to the 1950′s, it may be because you are focused on the wrong things. They may feel overtaxed because they are, compared to the 50′s. In the 50′s, there was much less government regulation. They felt freer (because we all were) and so the tax burden was lighter. Second, The gap between “rich” and “poor” has never been closer, once you stop focusing on the money and start looking at what the money can buy. Steve Jobs had no access to medical care that the poor don’t. The internet has given the poorest among us access to the best culture and entertainment the world has to offer. The poorest among us have access to the world and the time to see it, thanks to standby travel. The current gap between “rich” and “poor” is largely a case of convenience, and we go through a lot of trouble to insure everyone it treated the same by the government, which is now everpresent in everyone’s daily life. So it goes…..

  6. Sylvie D. Rousseau says:

    The loss of dignity, as well as the loss of peace, is the result of injustice. Injustice is the breach of the Golden Rule: ‘Do as you would be done by’ (and its negative corollary, of course). Not helping the poor as one can is injustice. But giving more than they need and for a longer time than they need to undeserving people (poor or not) who respect nothing and harm themselves and others is unjust towards those who pay for it and those who respect others and others’ property. It is incentivizing bad behavior and discouraging good behavior. Those who devise and administer laws permitting this are also doing injustice. The results of this system are proof that the Behaviorists were right at least on this point.

  7. Stephen J. says:

    Dalrymple’s article is grimly illuminating, but even under an omnidirectional light source we can only generally look in one direction at a time. Maybe it’s pure naivete on my part but I do hope that this is not representative of *everyone* who finds themselves forced to avail themselves of public welfare of one kind or another.

    It may be that, just as we are forced to accept the guilty going free in order to minimize the chances of the innocent being unjustly punished, we may have to accept the “free rider” demographic in order to minimize the chances of the genuinely needy being denied help.

    It is one of those situations in which no alternative appeals. A government wasting welfare on those who could do without it, turning them into nihilist dependents, is bad; giving eminently corruptible human bureaucracies more authority to decide who does and doesn’t “deserve” assistance (a power certain to be abused or bungled) may be worse; and leaving those needy who have no skills or resources to fend for themselves may be worst of all. (Rearrange this list as desired, depending on which you think bad, worse or worst.)

    • Robert Mitchell Jr says:

      It is mostly representative of “everyone” who finds themselves on public welfare. This is because you missed an alternative, the most functional and appealing one. Very, very few people are forced to avail themselves of public welfare, even when things go south. Mr. Wright and others have written on this board about their dire moments, and the terrible temptation to “go on the dole”. But they didn’t. Why? Because as functional human beings, they had friends and family to help out, as well as their churches. A personal support net. People to help out, and be helped out, without any force or regulation behind it, just love and duty. People can end up lacking in all this, but it’s quite rare for it to happen without cause. Personal behavior, that sort of thing. And instead of letting them hit bottom and realize how badly they have acted, we use the government to prop them up just shy of the gutter, for as long as they fill out the paperwork, so they can continue to be angry, alone, and raging against the world until the end of their empty days. This is somehow supposed to be helping them……

      • Mary says:

        Actually, there is a sizeable proportion of welfare recipitents who get on it briefly and get off it very quickly. How sizable? Well, that depends on how you count. The proportion is a much higher percentage of the yearly recipitents than of the ones on any given day.

        • Robert Mitchell Jr says:

          Doesn’t change the fact that it is the last resort for decent people. And, alas, the attempts to remove that stigma have only corrupted the bottom of the barrel….

  8. meunke says:

    As I have mentioned once before in comments here, I work in low C and D class apartments. While I have not seen the sheer crushing amount of this phenomenon that the author is detailing, I can say that EVERYTHING I have seen reinforces what he says. In my case just substitute “British underclass” with “‘Thug’ culture”.

    This actually reached a crescendo a few weeks back when there was a triple murder at one of our buildings. While not much was released by the police, we found out that the cause of the triple shooting, where the killers stood over their victims and finished them as they lie dying, was that one 18 year old ‘disrespected’ some 19 year old wanna be thug. His brother and cousin were killed because they witnessed it.

    I have very little patience anymore for people (left or right) who claim that if we just gave them more financial handouts and freebies they would be just like everyone else. That’s a lie, and deep down, they know it. There is a cultural and, worse, a spiritual desolation out there that shows no signs of healing and indeed grows worse and worse daily, like a cancer.

    What can be done? D**ned if I know.

    • Mary says:

      Stop subsidizing them might help.

      That would necessarily mean removing infants from households where they can’t be supported, since experience has shown that giving the parent money does not make a competent parent. Probably means institutionalizing such parents as are incapable of looking after themselves in the world.

  9. bobsykes says:

    Why does everyone think the squalor of the native British underclass is anything new? Why do they think it has something to do with socialism?

    Figes, in “The Crimean War,” quotes several French sources expressing surprise at the British infantry’s inability to care for themselves. They depended on their officers for literally everything: they could not forage or cook or set up tents or mend their uniforms. The first winter on the peninsula, British troops starved and froze in the open while their French counterparts had relative (but barely sufficient) plenty.

    Squalor is a defining characteristic of the lower British classes at all times under all regimes.

    Go read Dickens.

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