Read Chapter IX. of Problems of Poverty, free online book, by John A. Hobson, on

Moral Aspects of Poverty.

Se. “Moral” View of the Causes of Poverty. Our diagnosis of “sweating” has regarded poverty as an industrial disease, and we have therefore concerned ourselves with the examination of industrial remedies, factory legislation, Trade Unionism, and restrictions of the supply of unskilled labour. It may seem that in doing this we have ignored certain important moral factors in the problem, which, in the opinion of many, are all important. Until quite recently the vast majority of those philanthropic persons who interested themselves in the miserable conditions of the poor, paid very slight attention to the economic aspect of poverty, and never dreamed of the application of economic remedies. It is not unnatural that religions and moral teachers engaged in active detailed work among the poor should be so strongly impressed by the moral symptoms of the disease as to mistake them for the prime causes. “It is a fact apparent to every thoughtful man that the larger portion of the misery that constitutes our Social Question arises from idleness, gluttony, drink, waste, indulgence, profligacy, betting, and dissipation.” These words of Mr. Arnold White express the common view of those philanthropists who do not understand what is meant by “the industrial system,” and of the bulk of the comfortable classes when they are confronted with the evils of poverty as disclosed in “the sweating system.” Intemperance, unthrift, idleness, and inefficiency are indeed common vices of the poor. If therefore we could teach the poor to be temperate, thrifty, industrious, and efficient, would not the problem of poverty be solved? Is not a moral remedy instead of an economic remedy the one to be desired? The question at issue here is a vital one to all who earnestly desire to secure a better life for the poor. This “moral view” has much to recommend it at first sight. In the first place, it is a “moral” view, and as morality is admittedly the truest and most real end of man, it would seem that a moral cure must be more radical and efficient than any merely industrial cure. Again, these “vices” of the poor, drink, dirt, gambling, prostitution, &c., are very definite and concrete maladies attaching to large numbers of individual cases, and visibly responsible for the misery and degradation of the vicious and their families. Last, not least, this aspect of poverty, by representing the condition of the poor to be chiefly “their own fault,” lightens the sense of responsibility for the “well to do.” It is decidedly the more comfortable view, for it at once flatters the pride of the rich by representing poverty as an evidence of incompetency, salves his conscience when pricked by the contrast of the misery around him, and assists him to secure his material interests by adopting an attitude of stern repression towards large industrial or political agitations in the interests of labour, on the ground that “these are wrong ways of tackling the question.”

Se. “Unemployment” and the Vices of the Poor. The question is this, Can the poor be moralized, and will that cure Poverty? To discuss this question with the fullness it deserves is here impossible, but the following considerations will furnish some data for an answer

In the first place, it is very difficult to ascertain to what extent drink, vice, idleness, and other personal defects are actually responsible for poverty in individual cases. There is, however, reason to believe that the bulk of cases of extreme poverty and destitution cannot be traced to these personal vices, but, on the other hand, that they are attributable to industrial causes for which the sufferer is not responsible. The following is the result of a careful analysis of 4000 cases of very poor undertaken by Mr. Charles Booth. These are grouped as follows according to the apparent causes of distress

4 per cent, are “loafers.”
14  "   "    are attributed to drink and thriftlessness.
27  "   "    are due to illness, large families, or other misfortunes.
55  "   "    are assigned to “questions of employment.”

Here, in the lowest class of city poor, moral defects are the direct cause of distress in only 18 per cent. of the cases, though doubtless they may have acted as contributory or indirect causes in a larger number.

In the classes just above the “very poor,” 68 per cent. of poverty is attributed to “questions of employment,” and only 13 per cent. to drink and thriftlessness. In the lowest parts of Whitechapel drink figures very slightly, affecting only 4 per cent. of the very poor, and 1 per cent. of the poor, according to Mr. Booth. Even applied to a higher grade of labour, a close investigation of facts discloses a grossly exaggerated notion of the sums spent in drink by city workers in receipt of good wages. A careful inquiry into the expenditure of a body of three hundred Amalgamated Engineers during a period of two years, yielded an average of 1d. per week spent on drink.

So, too, in the cases brought to the notice of the Lords’ Committee, drink and personal vices do not play the most important part. The Rev. S. A. Barnett, who knows East London so well, does not find the origin of poverty in the vices of the poor. Terrible as are the results of drunkenness, impurity, unthrift, idleness, disregard of sanitary rules, it is not possible, looking fairly at the facts, to regard these as the main sources of poverty. If we are not carried away by the spirit of some special fanaticism, we shall look upon these evils as the natural and necessary accessories of the struggle for a livelihood, carried on under the industrial conditions of our age and country. Even supposing it were demonstrable that a much larger proportion of the cases of poverty and misery were the direct consequence of these moral and sanitary vices of the poor, we should not be justified in concluding that moral influence and education were the most effectual cures, capable of direct application. It is indeed highly probable that the “unemployed” worker is on the average morally and industrially inferior to the “employed,” and from the individual point of view this inferiority is often responsible for his non-employment. But this only means that differences of moral and industrial character determine what particular individuals shall succeed or fail in the fight for work and wages. It by no means follows that if by education we could improve all these moral and industrial weaklings they could obtain steady employment without displacing others. Where an over-supply of labour exists, no remedy which does not operate either by restricting the supply or increasing the demand for labour can be effectual.

Se. Civilization ascends from Material to Moral. The life of the poorest and most degraded classes is impenetrable to the highest influences of civilization. So long as the bare struggle for continuance of physical existence absorbs all their energies, they cannot be civilized. The consideration of the greater intrinsic worth of the moral life than the merely physical life, must not be allowed to mislead us. That which has the precedence in value has not the precedence in time. We must begin with the lower life before we can ascend to the higher. As in the individual the corpus sanum is rightly an object of earlier solicitude in education than the mens sana, though the latter may be of higher importance; so with the progress of a class. We cannot go to the lowest of our slum population and teach them to be clean, thrifty, industrious, steady, moral, intellectual, and religious, until we have first taught them how to secure for themselves the industrial conditions of healthy physical life. Our poorest classes have neither the time, the energy, or the desire to be clean, thrifty, intellectual, moral, or religious. In our haste we forget that there is a proper and necessary order in the awakening of desires. At present our “slum” population do not desire to be moral and intellectual, or even to be particularly clean. Therefore these higher goods must wait, so far as they are dependent on the voluntary action of the poor. What these people do want is better food, and more of it; warmer clothes; better and surer shelter; and greater security of permanent employment on decent wages. Until we can assist them to gratify these “lower” desires, we shall try in vain to awaken “higher” ones. We must prepare the soil of a healthy physical existence before we can hope to sow the moral seed so as to bring forth fruit. Upon a sound physical foundation alone can we build a high moral and spiritual civilization.

Moral and sanitary reformers have their proper sphere of action among those portions of the working classes who have climbed the first rounds in the ladder of civilization, and stand on tolerably firm conditions of material comfort and security. They cannot hope at present to achieve any great success among the poorest workers. The fact must not be shirked that in preaching thrift, hygiene, morality, and religion to the dwellers in the courts and alleys of our great cities, we are sowing seed upon a barren ground. Certain isolated cases of success must not blind us to this truth. Take, for example, thrift. It is not possible to expect that large class of workers who depend upon irregular earnings of less than 18s. a week to set by anything for a rainy day. The essence of thrift is regularity, and regularity is to them impossible. Even supposing their scant wage was regular, it is questionable whether they would be justified in stinting the bodily necessities of their families by setting aside a portion which could not in the long run suffice to provide even a bare maintenance for old age or disablement. To say this is not to impugn the value of thrift in maintaining a character of dignity and independence in the worker; it is simply to recognize that valuable as these qualities are, they must be subordinated to the first demands of physical life. Those who can save without encroaching on the prime necessaries of life ought to save; but there are still many who cannot save, and these are they whom the problem of poverty especially concerns. The saying of Aristotle, that “it is needful first to have a maintenance, and then to practise virtue,” does not indeed imply that we ought to postpone practising the moral virtues until we have secured ourselves against want, but rather means that before we can live well we must first be able to live at all.

Precisely the same is true of the “inefficiency” of the poor. Nothing is more common than to hear men and women, often incapable themselves of earning by work the money which they spend, assigning as the root of poverty the inefficiency of the poor. It is quite true that the “poor” consist for the most part of inefficient workers. It would be strange if it were not so. How shall a child of the slums, ill-fed in body and mind, brought up in the industrial and moral degradation of low city life, without a chance of learning how to use hands or head, and to acquire habits of steady industry, become an efficient workman? The conditions under which they grow up to manhood and womanhood preclude the possibility of efficiency. It is the bitterest portion of the lot of the poor that they are deprived of the opportunity of learning to work well. To taunt them with their incapacity, and to regard it as the cause of poverty, is nothing else than a piece of blind insolence. Here and there an individual may be to blame for neglected opportunities; but the “poor” as a class have no more chance under present conditions of acquiring “efficiency” than of attaining to refined artistic taste, or the culminating Christian virtue of holiness. Inefficiency is one of the worst and most degrading aspects of poverty; but to regard it as the leading cause is an error fatal to a true understanding of the problem.

We now see why it is impossible to seriously entertain the claim of Co-operative Production as a direct remedy for poverty. The success of Co-operative schemes depends almost entirely upon the presence of high moral and intellectual qualities in those co-operating trust, patience, self restraint, and obedience combined with power of organization, skill, and business enterprise. These qualities are not yet possessed by our skilled artisan class to the extent requisite to enable them to readily succeed in productive co-operation; how can it be expected then that low-skilled inefficient labour should exhibit them? The enthusiastic co-operator says we must educate them up to the requisite moral and intellectual level. The answer is, that it is impossible to apply such educating influences effectually, until we have first placed them on a sound physical basis of existence; that is to say, until we have already cured the worst form of the malady. From whatever point we approach this question we are driven to the conclusion that as the true cause of the disease is an industrial one, so the earliest remedies must be rather industrial than moral or educational.

Se. Effects of Temperance and Technical Education. Again, we are by no means justified in leaping to the conclusion that if we could induce workers to become more sober, more industrious, or more skilful, their industrial condition would of necessity be improved to a corresponding extent. If we can induce an odd farm-labourer here and there to give up his “beer,” he and his family are no doubt better off to the extent of this saving, and can employ the money in some much more profitable way. But if the whole class of farm-labourers could be persuaded to become teetotalers without substituting some new craving of equal force in the place of drink, it is extremely probable that in all places where there was an abundant supply of farm-labourers, the wage of a farm-labourer would gradually fall to the extent of the sum of money formerly spent in beer. For the lowest paid classes of labourers get, roughly speaking, no more wages than will just suffice to provide them with what they insist on regarding as necessaries of life. To an ordinary labourer “beer” is a part of the minimum subsistence for less than which he will not consent to work at all. Where there is an abundance of labour, as is generally the case in low-skilled employments, this minimum subsistence or lowest standard of comfort practically determines wages. If you were merely to take something away from this recognized minimum without putting something else to take its place, you would actually lower the rate of wages. If, by a crusade of temperance pure and simple, you made teetotalers of the mass of low-skilled workers, their wages would indisputably fall, although they might be more competent workers than before. If, on the other hand, following the true line of temperance reform, you expelled intemperance by substituting for drink some healthier, higher, and equally strong desire which cost as much or more to attain its satisfaction; if in giving up drink they insisted on providing against sickness and old age, or upon better houses and more recreation and enjoyment, then their wages would not fall, and might even rise in proportion as their new wants, as a class, were more expensive than the craving for drink which they had abandoned.

Or, again, take the case of technical or general education. In so far as technical education enabled a number of men who would otherwise have been unskilled labourers, to compete for skilled work, it will no doubt enable these men to raise themselves in the industrial sense; but the addition of their number to the ranks of skilled labour will imply an increase in supply of skilled labour, and a decrease in supply of unskilled labour; the price or wage for unskilled labour will rise, but the wage for skilled labour will fall assuming the relationship between the demand for skilled and unskilled labour to remain as before. A mere increase in the efficiency of labour, though it would increase the quantity of wealth produced, and render a rise of wages possible, would of itself have no economic force to bring about a rise. No improvement in the character of labour will be effectual in raising wages unless it causes a rise in the standard of comfort, which he demands as a condition of the use of his labour. If we merely increased the efficiency of labour without a corresponding stimulation of new wants, we should be simply increasing the mass of labour-power offered for sale, and the price of each portion would fall correspondingly. It would confer no more direct benefit upon the worker as such, than does the introduction of some new machine which has the same effect of adding to the average efficiency of the worker. Those who would advocate technical and general education, with a view to the material improvement of the masses, must see that this education be applied in such a way as to assist in implanting and strengthening new wholesome demands in those educated, so as to effectively raise this standard of living. There can be little doubt but that such education would create new desires, and so would indirectly secure the industrial elevation of the masses. But it ought to be clearly recognized that the industrial force which operates directly to raise the wages of the workers, is not technical skill, or increased efficiency of labour, but the elevated standard of comfort required by the working-classes. It is at the same time true, that if we could merely stimulate the workers to new wants requiring higher wages, they could not necessarily satisfy all these new wants. If it were possible to induce all labourers to demand such increase of wages as sufficed to enable them to lay by savings, it is difficult to say whether they could in all cases press this claim successfully. But if at the same time their efficiency as labourers likewise grew, it will be evident that they both can and would raise that standard of living.

In so far as the results of technical education upon the class of low-skilled labourers alone is concerned, it is evident that it would relieve the constant pressure of an excessive supply. Whatever the effect of this might be upon the industrial condition of the skilled industries subjected to the increased competition, there can be no doubt that the wages of low-skilled labour would rise. Since the condition of unskilled or low-skilled workers forms the chief ingredient in poverty, such a “levelling up” may be regarded as a valuable contribution towards a cure of the worst phase of the disease.

This brief investigation of the working of moral and educational cures for industrial diseases shows us that these remedies can only operate in improving the material condition of the poorest classes, in so far as they conduce to raise the standard of living among the poor. Since a higher standard of comfort means economically a restriction in the number of persons willing to undertake work for a lower rate of wage than will support this standard of comfort, it may be said that moral remedies can be only effectual in so far as they limit the supply of low-skilled, low-paid labour. Thus we are brought round again to the one central point in the problem of poverty, the existence of an excessive supply of cheap labour.

Se. The False Dilemma which impedes Progress. There are those who seek to retard all social progress by a false and mischievous dilemma which takes the following shape. No radical improvement in industrial organization, no work of social reconstruction, can be of any real avail unless it is preceded by such moral and intellectual improvement in the condition of the mass of workers as shall render the new machinery effective; unless the change in human nature comes first, a change in external conditions will be useless. On the other hand, it is evident that no moral or intellectual education can be brought effectively to bear upon the mass of human beings, whose whole energies are necessarily absorbed by the effort to secure the means of bare physical support. Thus it is made to appear as if industrial and moral progress must each precede the other, a thing which is impossible. Those who urge that the two forms of improvement must proceed pari passu, do not precisely understand what they propose.

The falsehood of the above dilemma consists in the assumption that industrial reformers wish to proceed by a sudden leap from an old industrial order to a new one. Such sudden movements are not in accordance with the gradual growth which nature insists upon as the condition of wise change. But it is equally in accordance with nature that the material growth precedes the moral. Not that the work of moral reconstruction can lag far behind. Each step in this industrial advancement of the poor should, and must, if the gain is to be permanent, be followed closely and secured by a corresponding advance in moral and intellectual character and habits. But the moral and religious reformer should never forget that in order of time material reform comes first, and that unless proper precedence be yielded to it, the higher ends of humanity are unattainable.