One of the more fascinating experiences of my doctoral studies at Columbia University was delving into the writings of Richard Hofstadter in Shelia Kamerman’s policy class, particularly his 1944 book: Social Darwinism in American Thought which I found to be eye opening.
The concept was new but seemed plausible: some Americans embraced Charles Darwin’s theories of natural selection to explain the existence of what appeared to be an intractable underclass. Therefore, arriving at the conclusion that expending resources to prop up this hopeless group of derelicts would be a disservice to the whole of society. Better to let them wither and die. The problem with this idea is who decides who belongs is the category of the hopeless. Are children born useless?
It was in this class that I learned of the influence of the British sociologist and political theorist Herbert Spencer in promoting the notion that human activity could be understood through the principle of survival of the fittest. I knew of Spencer because I found one of his quotes to be quite compelling: “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation.” I soon learned that one quote tells you little about a person. I embraced the quote because I was working in a church and I was dismayed by how easily people were susceptible to dogma.
In his book, Hofstadter describes how the great theologian Henry Ward Beecher became a forceful proponent of Spencer’s theory which helped it take root in American society. I have wondered since whether strains of social Darwinism have a grip on the American society today. These ideas were resurrected by a recent article in Think Progress in which the writer examined biblical roots of modern conservative thinking about welfare for the poor, pointing to members of the House of Representatives who used the words of Jesus: “The poor will always be with us,” to suggest that some poor people have no desire to be anything but poor. Believing this helps to justify taking away Medicaid benefits from tens of millions of poor Americans. For decades Republicans have been selling the idea that enriching the rich enriches us all.
Poverty remains entrenched in the United States. The 2015 official rate of 13.5 percent meant 43.1 million Americans lived below the poverty line. Almost half—19.1 million—live in “deep poverty,” below 50 percent of the poverty threshold. Children below the age of 18 years old are more likely to be among the extreme poor. Inequality continues to climb and, according to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center, America’s middle class is shrinking. The share of middle-class households fell from 55 percent in 2000, to 51 percent in 2014. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has instituted a campaign to give American a raise since wages have stagnated since 1979. One consequence tied to the declining economic status of Americans is an escalating deadly opioid crisis. Another may be the election of President Donald Trump. Should his administration eviscerate Medicaid, the opioid crisis would worsen.
Richard Hofstadter had his finger on the pulse of the American political landscape. He was the DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University and the author of several groundbreaking books, including his 1955 Pulitzer-Prize winning book, The American Political Tradition. He also wrote two important books in the 1960s: Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964) for which he won another Pulitzer Prize. He had much to say that is relevant for today’s political realities. Our society is fractured and the President of the United States has become the fracturer-in-chief with his attacks on the pillars of a free society—the judiciary and the press.
Will the poor always be with us? As long as greed and unfettered capitalism allows the top 10 percent of America’s families to hold more wealth than all the rest combined, and the top one percent to possess 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, there will be millions of poor people. Ours is a mess that may beyond social workers’ ability to fix. However, we must be involved in finding solutions. Otherwise it will not be just the poor who will become an endangered species. Our entire way of living may be hanging in the balance.
Written By Charles E. Lewis Jr., Ph.D
Will The Poor Always Be With Us? was originally published @ Charles Lewis – Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy and has been syndicated with permission.