THIS fact — the great fact that poverty and all its concomitants show themselves in communities just as they develop into the conditions toward which material progress tends — proves that the social difficulties existing wherever a certain stage of progress has been reached, do not arise from local circumstances, but are, in some way or another, engendered by progress itself.
And, unpleasant as it may be to admit it, it is at last becoming evident that the enormous increase in productive power which has marked the present century1, and is still going on with accelerating ratio, has no tendency to extirpate poverty or to lighten the burdens of those compelled to toil. It simply widens the gulf between Dives and Lazarus, and makes the struggle for existence more intense. The march of invention has clothed mankind with powers of which a century ago the boldest imagination could not have dreamed. But in factories where labor-saving machinery has reached its most wonderful development, little children, are at work; wherever the new forces are anything like fully utilized, large classes are maintained by charity or live on the verge of recourse to it; amid the greatest accumulations of wealth, men die of starvation, and puny infants suckle dry breasts; while everywhere the greed of gain, the worship of wealth, shows the force of the fear of want. The promised land lies before us like the mirage. The fruits of the tree of knowledge turn as we grasp them to apples of Sodom that crumble at the touch.
1. Written in 1877.
It is true that wealth has been greatly increased, and that the average of comfort, leisure, and refinement has. been raised; but these gains are not general. In them the lowest class do not share. I do not mean that the condition of the lowest class has nowhere nor in anything been improved; but that there is nowhere any improvement which can be credited to increased productive power. I mean that the tendency of what we call material progress is in nowise to improve the condition of the lowest class in the essentials of healthy, happy human life. Nay, more, that it is to still further depress the condition of the lowest class. The new forces, elevating in their nature though they be, do not act upon the social fabric from underneath, as was for a long time hoped and believed, but strike it at a point intermediate between top and bottom. It is as though an immense wedge were being forced, not underneath society, but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down.
the corresponding passage in Bob Drake's abridgment ...
Introduction: The Problem of Poverty Amid Progress
But just when they start to achieve the conditions civilized communities strive for, poverty takes a darker turn. This occurs as savings in production and exchange are made possible by denser settlement, closer connection with the rest of the world, and labor-saving machinery. It occurs just as wealth consequently increases. (And wealth increases not only in the aggregate, but in proportion to population.)
Now, some will find living better and easier -- but others will find it hard to get a living at all. Beggars and prisons are the mark of progress as surely as elegant mansions, bulging warehouses, and magnificent churches.
Unpleasant as it may be to admit, it is at last becoming evident that progress has no tendency to reduce poverty. The great fact is, poverty, with all its ills, appears whenever progress reaches a certain stage. Poverty is, in some way, produced by progress itself.
Progress simply widens the gulf between rich and poor. It makes the struggle for existence more intense. Wherever these forces are at work, large classes are maintained on charity.
Yes, in certain ways, the poorest now enjoy what the richest could not a century ago. But this does not demonstrate an improvement -- not so long as the ability to obtain the necessities of life has not increased. A beggar in the city may enjoy many things that a backwoods farmer cannot. But the condition of the beggar is not better than that of an independent farmer. What we call progress does not improve the condition of the lowest class in the essentials of healthy, happy human life. In fact, it tends to depress their condition even more.
These new forces do not act on society from underneath. Rather, it is as though an immense wedge is being driven through the middle. Those above it are elevated, but those below are crushed.