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A continual debate takes place in both the economic and political arenas over the policy of public support for the poor. This issue has been argued on intellectual, moral, and emotional grounds. Despite this debate, there seems to be no conclusive answer. Should it be a policy of government to provide support to those in need? Should these people support themselves through their own work? Or should it be up to private charities? This essay will attempt to analyze these questions by looking at two historical figures who stood on opposite sides of the spectrum.

Thomas Malthus, an English economist and clergyman of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, was perhaps the most famous opponent of public support for the poor. It is primarily due to his influence that an amendment to limit the generosity of England's Poor Law was passed in 1834. His counterpart, Richard Woodward, who eventually became the Bishop of Cloyne in 1781, was responsible for many of the ideas leading to the passing of Ireland's Poor Law in 1838.

Each of these men argued their cases on the grounds of both policy and justice. Public policy arguments will be defined in this essay as those based on pragmatic criteria. These arguments are directed toward justifying aid to the poor (or the lack thereof) on the ability of this aid to improve the social condition. On the other hand, justice arguments are those based on moral criteria. They are concerned with whether or not aid to the poor is the morally correct or incorrect choice.

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This issue is also considered v.6 of the initial publication series of Major Themes in Economics.


©1990 by the Board of Student Publications, University of Northern Iowa



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