Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Who are the poor? The traditional poor versus the modern poor; nature and personnel


The identity of the poor and the nature of poverty both changed utterly at the industrial revolution.

In terms of the nature of poverty there are striking contrasts. For example, the traditional poor were thin, starving, and spent most of their tiny income on food - but the modern poor are obese, eat too much, and spend most of their income on entertainment, distractions, fashion etc.

The traditional poor worked very long hours, day after day - the modern poor do not work

And so on.


But the traditional and modern poor are different people altogether.

1. The traditional poor were dead, or soon to be dead.

And if they themselves did not die, then all of their children very probably would.

(Pretty much all of the children who survived themselves to reproduce, were from the upper and middle classes - a small proportion of the population (?15 percent) produced nearly all the offspring who survived childhood.)

2. Therefore the traditional poor were a temporary class - always going extinct, but being replaced by downward mobility from the middle and upper classes.

3. In consequence, the traditional poor, while they were briefly alive, were recent descendants of the middle and upper classes - they had wealthy ancestors and probably wealthy relations.

The traditional poor were in effect 'distressed gentlefolk' - for instance the offspring of the younger sons, plain sisters, rebellious, idle, sick, unintelligent and unlucky members of the middle and upper classes.

4. Traditional poverty was therefore a temporary transitional state en route to (not long delayed) death.


1. The modern poor are first and foremost alive, not dead.

2. Furthermore the modern poor will raise - or have raised by someone else if they cannot or will not raise them for themselves  - nearly as many children as they produce. Since the industrial revolution and for the first time in human history the poor have a higher Darwinian 'reproductive success' than the wealthy.

3. Thus the modern poor are mostly the descendants of previous poor.

4. The modern poor are therefore a permanent (multi-generational), self-reproducing class.


In sum the Industrial Revolution did indeed create poverty - but not in the sense most people believe. The Industrial Revolution created poverty by keeping the poor alive, and allowing them to reproduce  - and making the poor into a permanent and self-replicating class.

In effect, and paradoxically; the Industrial Revolution has been blamed for keeping poor people alive and the children of the poor alive, rather than killing them all (or almost all) by starvation, disease and violence.

This is a developed summary and interpretation of Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms (2007).

See also