It may be time to say goodbye to the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus.
Malthus was an 18th century economist and statistician who circulated interesting (and eventually discredited) theories about poverty and population. Boiled down, Malthus thought poor people had too many children (whom they couldn’t financially support) and that disease, famine, and viruses were nature’s (or God’s) way of killing the poor so that food production would again be sufficient to feed the more-deserving citizenry.
If nature/God didn’t step in, Malthus thought the best way to alleviate poverty was for people to marry later (thus presumably shortening the fertile years), commit to celibacy. or the government needed to stop giving aid to poor families, starve them out, basically.
Effective? We will never know, but we are seeing part of his theory in action, as a terrible virus lands hardest on families living in poverty.
Before you think the rest of Malthus’ theories were resigned to the dustier pages of history, Charles Darwin was a fan, and some of the reverend’s ideas were encoded into Great Britain’s reformed poor laws in 1834, that were eventually adapted – with some modifications – into our own policies. There as in the U.S., the poor were divided into two categories – deserving and undeserving. Deserving poor included some widows and children.
Undeserving poor included everyone else, people whose bad judgment – or so the thinking went — had landed them at the door of their local alms house. Those were the people on whom a deadly virus would be considered both disastrous and justified.
But what if we let this pandemic be our cue to approach family poverty differently?
“There were always soup kitchens, and we always thought of that as being for the ‘other,’” said Michael Williams, state Department of Children and Families deputy commissioner. “We had this value system that led us to believe they must have done something to be in the condition they were in. Now we’ve come to realize, it’s not a consequence of being bad. It’s not that. These things can happen to all of us.”
Now we see that an invisible enemy, as Williams said, can destroy livelihoods and lives.
“This is probably one of the first tragedies where blaming somebody for it is not going to work,” said Williams. “You can’t blame black folks, immigrants, or poor people. There’s no one to blame for this tragedy.”
While families in European countries – think Germany – are weathering the economic impact of the pandemic, so many families in the United States and Connecticut are teetering on the verge of financial ruin. So much of our culture was, as it turns out, built on sand, including our economic, child care, and health care systems.
We’ve been here before. Prior to the Depression, the booming economy disguised the real poverty of many families. The Depression brought that poverty into sharp relief. Connecticut is heading into its sixth week of state-sanctioned quarantine. Our culture is like someone who has had too much to drink. All of our inhibitions/support systems are reduced or eliminated. This is precisely who we’ve been all along.
“A large number of families who have not paid attention to some of the social structures and societal infrastructures that were there undergirding us and giving us supports, that just kind of eroded overnight,” said Williams. “It’s caused people to stop and think: ‘What if those don’t come back?’”
Take, for example, SNAP benefits, which are meant to help provide healthy food to struggling families. As Emily Byrne, executive director at Connecticut Voices for Children, says, in this health-oriented crisis, we are rightfully obsessed with cleanliness and disinfectants. Guess what products families cannot use SNAP to buy? Cleaning products. Disinfectants. In addition, the state’s rent moratorium is a godsend – for April and May. But what about the months beyond?
The Rev. Malthus insisted on laying the fault of poverty at the feet of the most vulnerable. We need, instead, to look at poverty as a symptom of a cultural ill.
“We’ve had so many warnings and messages for us to change, and if we don’t hear this one, God help us with what the next one will be,” said Williams. “We’ve got to be different people in this country. Families have got to be treated differently in this country.”
That means talking about infrastructure beyond bridges. That means talking about child care, and early education, and the folly of tying health insurance to employment. That means taking the future of Connecticut’s families seriously.
“If there was ever a moment to re-imagine the possible,” said Byrne, “now is the time.”