History of Poverty Beliefs


To understand modern conflicting U.S. American attitudes about poverty and wealth, you have to go back, way back to the Puritans. While they were hardly the only pre – independence colonists, they have become our shared mythologized cultural heritage. The Puritans were Calvinist and they believed in Predestination. That is, they believed some souls we’re destined for heaven and others for hell before they were even born. They also believed in Providence, both a general providence sustaining all life and special providence when God directly intervened into the life of an individual.

The Plymouth Colony was a joint stock merchant adventure. Investors back in England hoped to make a profit from the burgeoning colony. They did not. However the Puritans still needed to reconcile there colonial beliefs in the “sanctity” of private property – and their contractual obligation to generate wealth – with Jesus’s teachings about money.

Puritan preachers did not all agree and there are many historically fascinating sermons you can read online. Ultimately, they settled on the idea that God elected some to be wealthy and some to be poor so that the wealthy might show God’s glory in relieving and ending the suffering of the poor.

Fast forward about a hundred years to the Victorian era and the industrial revolution.  Huge waves of immigrants from all over Europe and Asia come in search of factory jobs and work on the railways.  Young adults from the country left family farms for city life. New York City doubled in population in a century.

City life challenged moral sensibilities. Prostitution,  starvation,  and alcoholism were much easier to see and harder to ignore in the tight conditions of city tenement buildings. The newly formed industrial middle class,  particularly the ladies, sought to address these social ills. Temperance leagues, abolitionist societies,  and charities were founded in response. 

Presbyterian and Methodist believers embraced a theology of personal responsibility for salvation,  rather than predestination.  They taught that anyone could be saved through spiritual devotion and good works. Charity as a means of saving the charitable, of securing the salvation of the donor or volunteer,  rose as an idea.

The recipients of charity – poor, frequently immigrants, and often living without extended family – were viewed as a mixture between objects of pity and sinners in need of salvation.  Needy poor were increasingly asked to give something in return – to stop drinking or to attend church services in exchange for a hot meal or warm bed. Victorians believed it was as important or more to save someone from sin and vice as to save them from hunger or poverty.

Flash forward another hundred years to the Progressive era. Americans began to see the government as a responsible party in providing for the needs of society’s most vulnerable.  Pensions for war veterans, and later pensions for war widows with children, were the first national scale social welfare programs. With the stock market crash and Great Depression,  the failures of relying on the largesse of the wealthy or on charity became more clear. Social welfare programs to directly address poverty were largely supported by the public.

Flash forward one hundred years more to today.  The social safety nets of the Progressive era are gone or sorely weakened.  The wealthy are not asked to give by choice or by tax to the maintenance of the nation’s laborers (including unpaid laborers like mothers). Churches and other charities set their own criteria for poor worthy enough to receive.  Child poverty and starvation are once again on the rise.

The old puritanical and Victorian era beliefs are back in favor. Poverty is seen as an issue of personal responsibility, of sin and vice. Charity exists as much (or more) to assuage the guilt of the wealthy, not to meet the needs of the poor. Volunteering is seen as a spiritual activity;  paying taxes is not.

And that’s how we got here.

One thought on “History of Poverty Beliefs

  1. That’s interesting. I have thought about some of this stuff. I do agree that a lot of charity isn’t strictly free. That’s why I’d fight the urge to accept charity from just anyone, especially from a church. Not only does charity assuage guilt, it also boosts ego. When I accept charity from some, I fuel their ego. And also there’s a “spiritual debt” with any charity. Legally you don’t owe anything in return for the charity, but you may well feel like you owe something in return and the giver may feel that the are owed something in return.

    But I do think that human beings are equipped with love, compassion, pity, a love for fairness and equality and other emotions that lead to charity. Not to say that those who receive that charity don’t still feel in debt or that those giving don’t later on feel indebted to, but I think that kind of charity is a little safer. It’s true that guilt is an emotion too and can lead to charity. Is this a bad thing? It depends why you feel guilty and bad about yourself. Better that you feel guilty for letting down those who are suffering than guilty for letting down God or a church, I say.


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