History of thought on poverty

Attention to poverty appears to be greater today than any other time over the last 300 years. As evidence for this claim, here is an update to the graph in EOP Chapter 1 from the Google N-gram Viewer, showing the incidence of references to “poverty” in all digitized texts back to 1700.

Over this period, there has been a marked change in mainstream thinking about the causes of poverty and appropriate policy responses. EOP Part 1 argues that we have seen a transition in thinking between two very different models.

  • Model 1: poverty is due to bad behaviors by poor people, such as their lack of effort or foresight. By this model, there is little or no good reason for antipoverty policies beyond (limited and targeted) protection from shocks, which is largely seen as a political expediency. Chronic poverty is to be accepted and may even be deemed necessary.
  • Model 2: poverty is due to market and governmental failures including weak institutions. By this view, there is still an important role for protection from uninsured risks, but promotional policies against poverty are also identified, and are seen as perfectly consistent with a robust growing economy, and even an important source of that growth.

There have been advocates of both models through time, but we have moved from a world in which Model 1 was closer to the mainstream view 200 years ago to one in which Model 2 is closer to the mainstream view today. EOP tries to describe and understand this transition in thinking.

Further reading on the history of poverty in America

The politics of memory: Slavery, its eventual abolition, and the long aftermath, is a crucial part of the story of poverty in America. Much has been written on the topic. An interesting aspect is how the history has been interpreted and re-interpreted over the subsequent 150 years, in what Jane Dailey refers to as the “politics of memory”. This also comes out well in Eric Foner’s book review essay, which I recommend. (I hope to post more items on this topic as I find them.)

The lost opportunity: With reference to one fascinating part of the history, Chapter 1 of EOP (pp. 54-55) provides a short discussion of General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order at the end of the American Civil War whereby previously enslaved African-American families were each to be given 40 acres of farmland. As we all know, this hugely pro-poor land reform never happened, although it seems that it would have been implemented if not for the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. To learn more, I found this interesting discussion of the policy proposal and its origins by Henry Louis Gates.




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