"Every generation tends to rewrite history."
- George Gilmer,
former Georgia governor
I have never thought of myself as a prophet. In fact, I'm usually the last one to figure things out. But recent events do prove, as I said in a recent column regarding my study of local history, that King Solomon was right: there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). That includes the downward spiral of the economy.
I'm not an economist, either, so don't worry: I'm not joining the pundits of screen and print to analyze the current financial situation. But what I would like to do is compare what's happening now to a similar situation two centuries ago and see if you come to the same conclusion I did: that mankind might have more gadgets and technology today than we had then, but human nature hasn't changed very much at all.
Or, as someone else said, "The process of history is little more than human nature wearing new clothes."
In his 1984 essay on early Georgia history, University of North Carolina professor Milton Ready used a term that's been running through my head for weeks. Remembering that the origins of America's 13th colony were rooted in philanthropy, Ready surprised his readers by calling the first Georgians "victims of philanthropy."
Long before the 18th-century began, poverty was one of England's greatest problems. Parliament's solutions included workhouses, which were essentially sweat shops where the previously unemployed worked long hours under terrible conditions for a token wage, or debtor's prison for those who couldn't pay their bills at all. Since neither the low-wage worker nor the unemployed prisoner could hope to improve his financial condition, both solutions were self-defeating.
Author Charles Dickens might have used novels such as Oliver Twist to alert the public to the conditions of his day, but James Oglethorpe and his fellow philanthropists conceived of perhaps a better "workhouse": a colony in the new world called Georgia to give the poor a fresh, new start.
The idea sounded good, but it didn't work. By the time the first settlers sailed for the new world, there were few debtors on board. In the end, creditors wouldn't let certain volunteers go, and the Georgia Trustees disqualified others for their less-than-worthy reputations.
Ready uses the Georgia experiment to show why, in the end, this kind of giving-something-for-nothing philanthropy rarely works, and why those whom such projects are designed to help often become unintended victims.
"Rather than show the altruism of the England of that day," Ready says, "the Georgia plan was an attempt to solve England's most pressing problem: poverty in the midst of plenty." Sending the poor 3,000 miles away would at least get them out of England's sight, if not out of their mind.
Throughout history, Ready continues, the more affluent a society becomes, the greater the presumed need "to regulate their social inferiors." In 18th-century England, for example, there were societies for the reformation of manners, the elimination of profanity and the treatment of the mad, along with a myriad of organizations for the poor. Still, poverty continued.
Fast-forward to the United States today where there are some 30,000 private, charitable foundations giving away billions of dollars a year, and these efforts don't hold a candle to what the federal, state and local governments return to their citizens each year in some form of aid. Still, when we scan the American horizon today we see little evidence that the U.S. poverty rate is going down.
The modern "victim" appears, not because the plight of the needy is ignored, but because, for many reasons, programs begun in good faith balloon beyond even an affluent society's ability to bear their cost.
Also, as living standards rise, hopes and expectations of the recipients rise, too. Those expectations, plus sophisticated methods for blending aid to the needy with profit-making for those who provide the service, rarely accomplish their intended goal. From the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s to the "affordable housing for every American" plan of our own generation, those who fall between the cracks of both legislative and financial philanthropy line the streets of our land.
Perhaps we'll win the war on poverty some day, but we have much to learn from the past. In our passion to help the needy - or to elect those who will - we need to count the whole cost, not just the initial, quick solution either for the obviously needy or for those who, well-intentioned or otherwise, just need to "do something."
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to seabara at aol.com.)
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