Poverty Then and Now

Charles Taylor charts a shift from the Middle Ages:

“For the Middle Ages, there was an aura of sanctity around poverty. It was not that this extremely rank-conscious society did not have a healthy contempt for the destitute and powerless, at the absolute bottom of the social ladder. But precisely because of this, the poor person offered an occasion of sanctification. Following the discourse of Matthew 25, to help a person in need was to help Christ. […]

But in the fifteenth century, partly as a result of a rise in population, and crop failures, and a consequent flow of the destitute towards the towns, there is a radical change in attitude. A new series of poor laws is adopted, whose principle is sharply to distinguish those who are capable of work from those who genuinely have no recourse but charity.”

This shift to distinguishing the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor (to use the 19th century terminology) has been well sustained throughout Western culture for quite some time now.