Malthus and Dickens

I finally downloaded my new book. Grand Pursuit by Sylvia Nasser is meeting all of my expectations. It is challenging and a very interesting read, and after going throug the prologue her comments are very timely.

As a nation, and world, our economic situation is challenging. However, there are many similarities of our current issues with the mid 1800s. One example which I would like to address is our desire to shorten unemployment benefits for those that have lost their jobs. In the 1830s, as a result of Robert Malthus, England eliminated many social safety nets. Instead, the government required its out of work people to live in workhouses to earn government benefits. It became quite degrading for the people that lived under these conditions.

Malthus, who’s real job was a clergyman, was an economist wannabe. He was a man with a mathematical mind who was concerned about what he saw going on with the people in his parish. He felt that “nine parts in ten of the whole race of mankind were condemned to lives of abject poverty and grinding toil.” His reason for this premise was that people were more concerned with the pleasures of sex and reproduction that all other “human instincts” were ignored. The higher levels of human need were forgotten while people focused on the baser needs of sex. This is why Malthus believed that eventually population would out grow the ability of the world to produce enough food to feed all these people.

Malthus was also very critical of the English welfare system. He felt that by providing charity for people in need the system was hurting  the poor’s self-respect. Also, because the welfare system provided more relief for larger families, it encouraged people to have more children. The system of care that had been established, according to Malthus, was perpetuating and enlarging the ranks of the poor.

Malthus’s argument was so strong that the English Parliament actually passed a new Poor Law in 1834. Public relief was limited to those who were living in parish workhouses. Some saw these workhouses as nothing more than prisons. This would include Charles Dickens.

Nasser argues in her book that Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol as an attack on the philosophy of Malthus. Scrooge represents the stingy English who are exploiting the poor. Dickens has Scrooge demonstrating this lack of concern for the working class with a response to a comment stating the poor would rather die than go to the workhouse. Scrooge responds, “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” We all know the story how Scrooge was converted, saves Tiny Tim, and changes his ways.

The conflict between Malthus and Dickens is relevant to our situation today. The poverty level in this country now stands at 15.1%. This is the highest level in years. Economists are saying that recovery is still two years away. Unemployment checks are running out for many people, and they will no longer be counted as unemployed. They will fall into the ranks of the discouraged worker. We have a choice to make. We can reopen the poor farm on 78th in Hazel Dell and put all of the Clark County unemployed in there, or we can get together and come up with some new ideas for dealing with this situation. The choice is ours.

I am not a bleeding heart liberal, but I am a pragmatist. I believe we can find solutions to these serious problems. We just need to get to work and, as Nike says, just do it.

And that is my thought for the day!

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