Causes of Poverty

History often repeats itself but we seldom learn from the past. The Gilded Age is being repeated. A tiny few have unprecedented fortunes while many working people stay in poverty and the middle class is shrinking. Today Victorian attitudes about the poor still hold sway in 21st century America.

In Victorian England “respectable” people believed the poor were poor because of their laziness and moral failings. They were in poverty because they didn’t work hard enough. This is a commonly held belief in modern America. Today many politicians repeat the same false belief that people are poor because of their own behavior. Immigrants are rapists and criminals. Social programs create “dependency” and stifle initiative.

Public television has been running a series of programs depicting life in the slums of London in the late 1800’s. Called “Victorian Slum House,” it has modern-day families and individuals recreating the work and living conditions over five decades from 1860 to 1910. Like millions of real Victorian poor, the Slum House families found it almost impossible to earn enough money to pay the rent and put food on the table.

Episode 4, on the 1890’s, talks about the ground breaking research of Charles Booth. Booth was a wealthy businessman who had an interest in the causes of poverty. He organized an intensive study of the poor in the slums of East London. He published his work in ‘Inquiry Into the Life and Labour of the People in London’ in 1892. This was ground breaking research that influenced many changes in public policy into the early 20th century. I would recommend watching it. You can find it at

In 1890 London was one of the wealthiest cities in the world. The Booth study found that one third of the residents were in poverty. The primary cause of their poverty was low wages and lack of steady income. Lack of access to healthcare and inadequate affordable housing were also factors. The poor of London’s east side worked hard but many of the available menial jobs, in-home piecework, and street trades typical of the time did not pay enough to support families.

Today, according to the Working Poor Families Project, “Millions of American breadwinners work hard to support their families. But, despite their effort, almost one in three working families are mired in low-wage jobs that provide inadequate benefits and offer little opportunity for advancement and economic security.” The Census Bureau say that 14.5 % of live below the official poverty line. Other analysis concludes that roughly half of Americans are not doing well financially. This includes people in poverty and low wage workers who are above the poverty line but still living paycheck to paycheck.

It should be noted that the poor today have it much better than the poor of Victorian times. Their living conditions and material well-being are much better. The slums of today are still rat invested, but they do have indoor plumbing. The poor today do have some access to emergency medical care and there are public programs to help. But the continued existence of about the same percentage of poor people should tell us something about our economic structures.

Poverty is caused by a lack of money because of low wages. It is not caused by laziness, unwise choices, bad behavior, or moral shortcomings. It is not even caused by lack of work as millions of working poor in today’s economy amply demonstrate. Just think about it. If you are from a wealthy family you can be lazy and have immoral behavior but still live in high style.

Today having a job does not mean financial success. Many poor people and even some homeless people have jobs. Matthew Desmond, author and professor of sociology at Princeton University, says “When it comes to poverty, a willingness to work is not the problem, and work itself is no longer the solution” (“Americans Want to Believe Jobs Are the Solution to Poverty. They are Not,” New York Times Magazine, Sept. 11, 2018). Like in Victorian times working without a living wage, healthcare, or affordable housing is a rut not a road to upward mobility.

Professor Desmond points out that one third of the American work force (41.7 million people) earns less than $12 an hour. This would be below the official poverty line for a family of four. Over the last 40 years, the economy has expanded and corporate profits have risen, but real wages have remained flat for workers without a college education. Since 1973, American productivity has increased by 77 percent, while hourly pay has grown by only12 percent. If the federal minimum wage tracked productivity, it would be more than $20 an hour, not today’s poverty wage of $7.25.

In America today income inequality is huge and growing. Upward mobility is dying. Starting at the bottom and working your way up is largely a myth. Since 1971, the middle class has declined by 20% moving into the lower class. The increasing “gig” economy that mixes self-employment, contract work, and short term jobs mirrors the 1800s piecework and home based industries. These arrangements do not have the security or benefits needed for workers in a modern society.

The last episode of “Victorian Slum House” points out that things began to change after 1900. First the poor realized that they could VOTE. In the 1906 election the poor turned out in record numbers and the liberals won by a landslide. This led to real reforms targeted at helping poor people. Labor unions were also on the rise which brought increased wages. In our country the economic situation of working people improved with the election of Franklin Roosevelt. “New Deal” legislation like Social Security, minimum wage laws, and legalizing unions created a growing middle class.

We can learn from this history. In November we should reject the conservative politicians attacks on “entitlements” and the undeserving poor living off the taxes of “hard working” Americans. When working people VOTE, and when they vote for policies that support ordinary people, we all do better.