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A New Abolition Movement — Against Poverty

by Joyce Appleby on Jun 19, 2003

Joyce Appleby

Alabama’s Gov. Bob Riley has astounded friend and foe alike by proposing a tax increase of $1.3 billion to lift the heavy tax burden from the state’s poor. Admonishing critics that the New Testament teaches us “to help those who are the least among us,” Riley is attacking an entrenched system of inequity in his state.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay has denounced a Senate bill to extend an increased tax credit for children to the nation’s 6.5 million low-income families, and has buried the measure in another round of tax cuts for the affluent.

Advocates for the poor such as Riley are pushing against the same obstacles that 18th-century opponents of slavery confronted: acceptance of an evil because of its familiarity. It’s hard to be outraged by a condition like poverty that’s been around for millennia.

It was once the same with slavery. While enslavement was always considered a deplorable fate, people accepted it as an ineradicable evil, like dying. Then, with remarkable suddenness, the idea of abolition aroused a cadre of reformers who unsettled public complacency in less than a century.

In 1780, Pennsylvania abolished slavery, its legislative body being the first in the world to extinguish a system as old as the Bible. All the Northern states followed Pennsylvania’s example, most of them providing for emancipation gradually according to the enslaved person’s age.

“A House divided against itself cannot stand,” Abraham Lincoln said on the eve of the Civil War, adding presciently that “this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” But the same Lincoln quoted scripture to say that the poor will always be with us. After all, Thomas Robert Malthus’s powerful theory about population growth taught that poverty was the inescapable lot of the mass of men and women.

Breaking through this penumbra of resignation about poverty has not proved easy. The 19th-century English radical William Cobbett was the first to denounce the cruelty of those jobs that kept sober and industrious workers fully employed but did not pay them enough to feed their families. Working against the grain, Cobbett excoriated his contemporaries for favoring public handouts over adequate wages.

Cobbett’s working poor have now attracted the attention of today’s activists who promote the living wage. More than a hundred jurisdictions have passed living wage ordinances for employees. But the level of general, public concern about poverty has not changed much. Most of us merely deplore it in dinner table conversations before asking someone to pass the lamb chops.

Barbara Ehrenreich detailed the privations and humiliations of the working poor during the booming 1990s in “Nickel and Dimed,” a book that made it to the best-seller list. Though not quite a second “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “Nickel and Dimed” has also been turned into a play. Still, earnest sympathy for the plight of those who work full time and yet find themselves below the poverty line gets diluted into the conviction that little can be done.

Yet we could join Gov. Riley in his campaign to help “the least among us.” We could reject the idea of minimum wage laws in favor of living-wage legislation that guaranteed all who work a decent living.

Those who argue that raising wages would generate price increases ignore the fact that those making $20,000 or less a year would be more than compensated by their wage hikes — and that the rest of us can afford to pay more.

Social Security taxes — the most onerous payroll deduction for the poor — could be made graduated. The cost of these graded rates could be recouped by raising the cap of $87,000 on the income base for which Social Security taxes are levied. And there are other ways to attack the problem, were there but a will to do so.

The rise of evangelical Christianity fueled the antislavery movement as did the Enlightenment’s ardent embrace of liberty. Romantic literature played a part too, creating a realm of imagination where avid readers of novels could fantasize a different reality,such as that of being slaves themselves.

The ideal of personal freedom has proved a double-edged sword in the campaigns to end slavery and poverty. Freedom stood in stark contrast to slavery. Few ever imagined that they could escape slavery if shackled. But with poverty the case is different. People believe that, if poor, they would use their freedom to lift themselves out of poverty’s abyss.

The demand upon the imagination regarding poverty is greater and involves a more searching self-examination. It’s hard to consider our own talents as merely the kind of gifts that society chooses to reward or to reckon how poorly we might have coped with the handicaps of want and the consequences of inadequate schooling and health care. What will ever prod us to confront poverty as

our forbears did slavery? What will it take to awaken our slumbering consciences? We’ve had the quickening of religious fervor in the past decades, but today’s Evangelicals have yet to evince any concern for the lot of America’s working poor. If not from them, where will the empathetic outrage emerge that says “there but for the grace of God go I”?


Joyce Appleby, UCLA emerita professor, is author of "The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism" (2010).