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Alfred Russel Wallace : Alfred Wallace : A. R. Wallace :
Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)

The Alleged Increase of Poverty (S510a: 1895)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A long letter to the Editor printed on page 3 of the 5 March 1895 issue of The Daily Chronicle (London). To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S510A.htm

The Editor of The Daily Chronicle.

     Sir,--Your correspondent C. N. Nicholson, in your issue of the 15th inst., asks for some tangible evidence that poverty has increased during the last thirty or forty years notwithstanding the decrease of official pauperism. With your permission I will adduce certain well-established facts which seem to me to demonstrate that such an increase has taken place, notwithstanding the great increase of wealth and luxury, and of the well-being of certain classes of the community.

     In 1885 I published (in my Bad Times, p. 49), a diagram showing the comparative increase, from 1850 to 1882, of population, of indoor paupers, and of wealth as indicated by the income tax. The two former showed curves which were roughly parallel, indicating a tolerably fixed proportion, while wealth exhibited an increase more than three times as great. I also showed that the decrease in outdoor paupers, chiefly in certain London unions, was coincident with a great increase in charitable organisations, which were admitted to have taken the place of outdoor relief and to have alone rendered its decrease possible. The Charities Register of 1885 showed that there had been formed in the preceding twenty years no less than 132 charitable institutions of a general character, besides large numbers of new local charities in various London districts. An examination of Low's Handbook of London Charities for 1894-95 shows that this increase has continued, since I find the record of nearly fifty institutions for purely charitable purposes which have been established since 1883, and this does not represent the total number, since the date of origin is not always given. But these entirely new institutions constitute but a small portion of the increase of charitable work in London, which is mainly due to the continuous growth of the older and better-known institutions. Dr. Barnardo's Homes, for example, beginning on a very small scale in 1866, have steadily grown, till now 5,000 children, who would otherwise be paupers, are supported, educated, and started in life either at home or abroad; and the Church of England Society for Providing Homes for Waifs and Strays, established only in 1882, has increased year by year till it now supports nearly 2,000 children.

     There are in London at least forty other institutions of like character, each supporting from over 250 to 1,000 children, widows, or aged poor, besides about fifty others having each from 50 to 250 inmates. There are also a considerable number of smaller orphanages, almshouses, and hospitals, as well as numerous charity-schools and reformatories, having a total of about 8,000 inmates. Then we have the enormous recent extension of societies for giving free meals to school children and adults, the number of such meals given in one year in London being about two millions. Beyond all this, and entirely without any public record, is the ever-flowing tide of individual charity, largely administered through the clergy of all denominations in the poor districts of every part of London, or by ladies and others who devote their time and a portion of their means to the relief of distress.

     This continuous increase of charity is further augmented by a never-failing supply of legacies. In the year 1893 more than half a million sterling was bequeathed to various charities in London, exclusive of other amounts left for educational or religious purposes. Probably an approximately equal amount is now bequeathed every year, and this alone must lead to a continual increase in the vast sum total of London charity. The direct relief of distress through the agency of the Salvation Army and of the Charity Organisation Society is not taken account of in this enumeration of London charitable work, no estimate of the amount of relief afforded by these institutions being given in any of the works at my command.

     The total amount of the charitable relief afforded by the various agencies here referred to is very great. A rough addition of the more important, as given in Low's Handbook, shows that over 40,000 children, widows, and aged or destitute persons are permanently maintained by them; while it is probable that a much larger number--perhaps twice or thrice as many--receive temporary assistance calculated to save them from actual destitution, from pauperism, or from suicide. If this estimate is anywhere near the truth, it shows us that the gross numbers of the recipients of private or unofficial charity are not very much less, and may be considerably greater, than those relieved by the guardians and alone termed "paupers" by persons whose aim appears to be to conceal the real facts as to the condition of the people. The London official paupers in January 1894 amounted to 122,840, not including those relieved in the casual wards. If, now, we add to the 40,000 persons who are entirely provided for in the various private charitable institutions, only a little more than twice as many who receive partial or temporary relief in their own homes--surely not an extravagant estimate, and very likely much below the truth--we arrive at the conclusion that official pauperism only represents one-half of the extreme poverty and destitution that is actually relieved; while there still remains the indisputable fact that an unknown multitude are constantly dying from the direct or indirect effects of insufficient food, clothing, rest, and fresh air. The facts here given demonstrate that private charity has very rapidly increased, during the last thirty years especially, while the number of official paupers has diminished very slowly; whence it follows that there has been a considerable increase in London poverty, and probably also in that of all our great cities and other centres of dense populations.

     The unwelcome conclusion thus reached is supported in a striking manner by the statement of the Registrar-General as to the continuous increase of deaths in workhouses and other public institutions in far greater proportion than that of the general mortality. In his fifty-first annual report (1888), at page 71, he says:-- "The proportion to total deaths was 6.9 per cent. in workhouses, 3.4 in hospitals, and 1.1 in lunatic asylums. The proportion of deaths recorded in workhouses, which steadily increased from 5.6 per cent. in 1875, to 6.7 per cent. in 1885, further rose after a slight decline in 1886 and 1887, to 6.9 per cent. in 1888." On referring to the latest report issued (1893), we find that the increase has continued, the proportion in that year being 7.12 per cent.

     This refers to the whole of England and Wales; but in London the increase is still more alarming. In the earliest year of which I have the official report (1865), the deaths in London workhouses were 9.1 per cent. of the total deaths. From 1881 to 1888 the proportion varied from 12.2 to 13 per cent.; in 1891 it had increased to 13.8 per cent., and in 1893 to 15.2 per cent. During the same period the deaths in workhouses, hospitals, and lunatic asylums combined, increased from 16.5 per cent. in 1865, to 25.5 per cent. in 1893.

     The significance of these facts will perhaps be more clear if we give the actual figures. The total deaths in London during the twenty-nine years increased from 73,460 in 1865 to 89,707 in 1893, or about 21 per cent. During the same period the deaths in workhouses increased from 6,715 in 1865 to 13,624 in 1893, or more than 100 per cent.! Equally suggestive is the fact that during the same period deaths by suicide in London have increased more than 59 per cent., or nearly three times as fast as the general mortality; for although many causes drive men to this mode of death, there can be no doubt that one of the most potent is destitution or the dread of destitution--the terrible strain caused by inability to procure the barest necessaries for wife or children.

     The interpretation of these weighty facts--the continuous increase of deaths in workhouses and by suicide at a far greater rate than the general mortality--seems to me perfectly clear. The ever-increasing intensity of the struggle for life--for a competence among the middle, and for bare existence among the lower classes--inevitably leads to the crowding-out of aged, feeble, or diseased workers, who thus find it more and more difficult to support life. Hence it is that, despite all the efforts of philanthropy, and the most lavish expenditure in charity, an ever-increasing proportion of the aged poor drift into the workhouse, the hospital, or the lunatic asylum, where they end their wretched lives; or, in dread of this hateful consummation, prefer a voluntary death. Many, however, will accept neither alternative, and thus, week by week, winter and summer alike, large numbers die in their miserable attics or cellars, either from direct starvation or as the inevitable result of long-continued privation of all the conditions essential to a healthy existence. And all this goes on in the midst of the ever-increasing wealth and luxury of the upper classes, of which it is really the logical sequence.

     In view of the two classes of facts now briefly summarised, viz.--the great and continuous increase of private charity, resulting in a total aggregate probably not inferior to that of official pauperism, and the coincident increase of deaths in workhouses and by suicide--facts perfectly well known to all who care to know them--it is, in my judgment, little less than criminal to set forth with all the weight of authority the decrease in Official Pauperism as indicating a diminution of poverty and a real amelioration of the condition of the whole people. The actual facts, if they could be brought home to the public mind, would serve as a veritable "handwriting on the wall" denouncing the rottenness of our whole social system. The younger generation of workers whom we have been educating and enfranchising, are beginning to ask why these things are. The time has come when our legislators and politicians must grapple with the fundamental causes which permit this mass of unspeakable human misery to continue in one of the richest--if not the richest--country in the world. If they persist in shutting their eyes to the facts, or in declaring that they have no remedy for them, they will assuredly bring about their own destruction as utterly incompetent rulers.

     To myself, the rapid spread of Socialism affords the only gleam of light amid the pervading darkness. Socialists, at all events, believe that in a rich country with an industrious and skilful population no man, woman, or child should either die of starvation or linger out their shortened lives, as millions now do, in degradation and misery. They know that the labour expended each year, if properly applied and organised, would not only provide necessaries and comforts for all, but would also allow of ample leisure and a full rational enjoyment of life; and they are convinced that it is not beyond the wit of man (as our present legislators would have us believe it is), to bring about this result. They are for the most part young, energetic, and earnest, and they have a great and inspiring ideal for which to work. They will doubtless make mistakes and meet with unforeseen difficulties, but every mistake corrected and every difficulty overcome will only the more surely point the way to ultimate success. The state of society is now so bad, so utterly rotten, that it cannot well be made worse. A continually increasing flood of charity has left things just as bad as it found them. Legislation on the old lines, of ameliorating symptoms without touching causes, has utterly failed.

     The Social Problem should now be the one great subject of discussion and of future legislation. It must be dealt with on principles of fundamental justice rather than, as hitherto, of a narrow expediency. The most fundamental and far-reaching principle is that which has recently been set forth as in the direct road of Social Evolution--that in a country claiming to be free and civilised, equal opportunities for maintaining life and securing happiness should be afforded to all. Let the people demand assent to this great, and simple, and just principle from all who offer themselves as their representatives, so that legislators of the old school may give way to more hopeful and more earnest men. Thus alone will any real progress be made.--I am, &c.,

Alfred R. Wallace.
Feb. 25.

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