Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone is not enough to produce widely shared prosperity.
Home Essential Documents Themes All Documents Authors Glossary Links Contact Us


Extremes of Wealth and Poverty

Henry George:  The Land Question (1881)

In this Irish famine which provoked the land agitation, there is nothing that is peculiar. Such famines on a smaller or a larger scale are constantly occurring. Nay, more! the fact is, that famine, just such famine as this Irish famine, constantly exists in the richest and most highly civilized lands. It persists even in "good times" 'when trade is "booming;" it spreads and rages whenever from any cause industrial depression comes. It is kept under, or at least kept from showing its worst phases, by poor-rates and almshouses, by private benevolence and by vast organized charities, but it still exists, gnawing in secret when it does not openly rage. In the very centers of civilization, where the machinery of production and exchange is at the highest point of efficiency, where bankvaults hold millions, and show-windows flash with more than a prince's ransom, where elevators and warehouses are gorged with grain, and markets are piled with all things succulent and toothsome, where the dinners of Lucullus are eaten every day, and, if it be but cool, the very greyhounds wear dainty blankets – in these centers in wealth and power and refinement, there are always hungry men and women and little children. Never the sun goes down but on human beings prowling like wolves far food, or huddling together like vermin for shelter and warmth. "Always with You" is the significant heading under which a New York paper, in these most prosperous times, publishes daily the tales of chronic famine; and in the greatest and richest city in the world – in that very London where the plenty of meat in the butchers' shops seemed to some savages the most wondrous of all its wonderful sights – in that very London, the mortuary reports have a standing column for deaths by starvation. ...

Last winter I was in San Francisco. There are in San Francisco citizens who can build themselves houses that cost a million and a half; citizens who can give each of their children two millions of registered United States bonds for a Christmas present; citizens who can send their wives to Paris to keep house there, or rather to "keep palace" in a style that outdoes the lavishness of Russian grand dukes; citizens whose daughters are golden prizes to the bluest-blooded of English aristocrats; citizens who can buy seats in the United States Senate and leave them empty, just to show their grandeur. There are, also, in San Francisco other citizens. Last winter I could hardly walk a block without meeting a citizen begging for ten cents. And, when a charity fund was raised to give work with pick and shovel to such as would rather work than beg, the applications were so numerous that, to make the charity fund go as far as possible, one set of men was discharged after having been given a few days' work, in order to make room for another set. This and much else of the same sort I saw in San Francisco last winter. Likewise in Sacramento, and in other towns.

Last summer, on the plains, I took from its tired mother, and held in my arms, a little sun-browned baby, the youngest of a family of the sturdy and keen Western New England stock, who alone in their two wagons had traveled near three thousand miles looking for some place to locate and finding none, and who were now returning to where the father and his biggest boy could go to work on a railroad, what they had got by the sale of their Nebraska farm all gone. And I walked awhile by the side of long, lank Southwestern men who, after similar fruitless journeyings way up into Washington Territory, were going back to the Choctaw Nation.

This winter I have been in New York. New York is the greatest and richest of American cities–the third city of the modern world, and moving steadily toward the first place. This is a time of great prosperity. Never before were so many goods sold, so much business done. Real estate is advancing with big jumps, and within the last few months many fortunes have been made in buying and selling vacant lots. Landlords nearly everywhere are demanding increased rents; asking in some of the business quarters an increase of three hundred per cent. Money is so plenty that government four per cents sell for 114, and a bill is passing Congress for refunding the maturing national debt at three per cent, per annum, a rate that awhile ago in California was not thought exorbitant per month. All sorts of shares and bonds have been going up and up. You can sell almost anything if you give it a high-sounding corporate name and issue well-printed shares of stock. Seats in the Board of Brokers are worth thirty thousand dollars, and are cheap at that. There are citizens here who rake in millions at a single operation with as much ease as a faro-dealer rakes in a handful of chips. ...

Nevertheless, prosperous as are these times, citizens of the United States beg you on the streets for ten cents and five cents, and although you know that there are in this city two hundred charitable societies, although you realize that on general principles to give money in this way is to do evil rather than good, you are afraid to refuse them when you read of men in this great city freezing to death and starving to death. Prosperous as are these times, women are making overalls for sixty cents a dozen, and you can hire citizens for trivial sums to parade up and down the streets all day with advertising placards on their backs. I get on a horse-car and ride with the driver. He is evidently a sober, steady man, as intelligent as a man can be who drives a horse-car all the time he is not asleep or eating his meals. He tells me he has a wife and four children. He gets home (if a couple of rooms can be called a home) at two o'clock in the morning; he has to be back on his car at nine. Sunday he has a couple of hours more, which he has to put in in sleep, else, as he says, he would utterly break down. His children he never sees, save when one of them comes at noon or supper-time to the horse-car route with something for him to eat in a tin pail. He gets for his day's work one dollar and seventy-five cents – a sum that will buy at Delmonico's a beefsteak and cup of coffee. I say to him that it must be pretty hard to pay rent and keep six persons on one dollar and seventy-five cents a day. He says it is; that he has been trying for a month to get enough ahead to buy a new pair of shoes, but he hasn't yet succeeded. I ask why he does not leave such a job. He says, "What can I do? There are a thousand men ready to step into my place!" And so, in this time of prosperity, he is chained to his car. The horses that he drives, they are changed six times during his working-day. They have lots of time to stretch themselves and rest themselves and eat in peace their plentiful meals, for they are worth from one to two hundred dollars each, and it would be a loss to the company for them to fall ill. But this driver, this citizen of the United States, he may fall ill or drop dead, and the company would not lose a cent. As between him and the beasts he drives, I am inclined to think that this most prosperous era is more prosperous for horses than for men. ... read the whole article

To share this page with a friend: right click, choose "send," and add your comments.

Red links have not been visited; .
Green links are pages you've seen

Essential Documents pertinent to this theme:

Top of page
Essential Documents
to email this page to a friend: right click, choose "send"
Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper