Social Process

Chapter 21: Poverty and Propagation

Charles Horton Cooley

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WE need to know how poverty is related to the survival of types because it is regarding this, especially, that we are required to have a definite policy. The hardships of the very poor are felt as a call to do something; but when we ask what we should do the answer depends upon how we look upon their condition in relation to social process. Is it a means to the " survival of the fittest," and, if so, does it work in such a way that the fit are the desirable? Can it be abolished? Ought it to be abolished? Is there any other way of accomplishing whatever selective function it may now perform?

There are two extreme views regarding this matter, and all manner of intermediate modifications and compromises. The biologist who sees life only in terms of his specialty is apt to hold that the sufferings of the poor are simply one form of the struggle for existence among biological types, that this struggle is the method of evolution here as everywhere; that it is salutary, though painful, and that any attempt to interfere with it can do only harm; that, in short, the net result of philanthropy is the preservation of inferior types of mankind. This is supported by statistics which aim to show that shiftless,

(227) vicious, diseased, and defective persons are enabled by charity to raise large families of children.

The other extreme is common among those who are moved by first-hand knowledge of the poor, and feel so strongly the inadequacy of the biological view that they are eager to reject it altogether. Poverty, they say, is the chronic disease of a certain part of society, in which people are involved as they are in an epidemic. To have it indicates no inherent weakness, no biological trait of any kind; it does not discriminate and has, therefore, no selective value. Moreover, it does not eliminate, as it must in order to promote evolution. Those who contract it, whether of inferior types or not, do not cease to propagate, but increase more than the well-to-do, passing on their misery to their children. And, beyond this, poverty is propagated socially by the vice, squalor, shiftlessness and inefficiency which are inseparable from it, and spread from one family to another. The whole condition is described as a running sore, which poisons all it touches, and should be cured as a whole by remedial and antiseptic treatment. The theory underlying this view is that the sources of poverty are environmental, and that difference of biological type has so little to do with it as to be negligible. Or, assuming that it does play some part, it is best got at by first removing the social causes, after which any inferior hereditary types there may be can be discerned and eliminated.

Under this view philanthropy, or, more generally, deliberate control of social conditions, is not "interference" but art essential part of the evolutionary process. It never has been nor can be absent so long as man is human and feels his solidarity with his fellows. It has no doubt done harm when unwise, but the remedy for this

( 228) is not an impossible and illogical "letting alone," but the endeavor to make it wiser. Indeed the biological particularists tacitly admit this by carrying on an educational campaign.

No one with any unbiased knowledge of the facts can accept the crudely biological view. It is essentially an a priori interpretation, drawn by analogy from subhuman life. Selection by a merely brutal struggle (which even among the animals is, in fact, modified by mutual aid) is out of place, retrogressive, impossible on a large scale, in human society; and a biology intelligent enough to grasp the implications of the social process must reject it.

To such an intelligent biology the ground for combating poverty, disease and vice by social means is that this is part of a campaign for securing conditions which on the whole make for the survival of higher types. We may lose something by it, we may preserve some who might better die, but the general outcome of our campaign, if rightly planned, is biologically good.

Sound charity does not knowingly aid the propagation of persons of inferior stock. It aims to distinguish them from those who are merely suffering from bad environment, and to set them apart in institutions or colonies, while the others are given a chance in a better environment. In no other way but by close and sympathetic study can this distinction be made, so that the intelligent social worker is the real social biologist, those who ignore the social factor being doctrinaires.

Moreover, except as we bring about good social conditions we have no standard to tell what stocks are socially desirable. Who are the "fit" whom we wish to preserve? Fitness implies some general situation by which

( 229) it is tested, and the kind we want is fitness for the higher social order we are trying to build up, for the wise, just, prosperous, and spiritually progressing state. The only way to test for this is to create as high a social order as we can, and give each competing type a chance to function in it. To wipe out vast numbers by some crude process on the assumption that it eliminates the "unfit" will not do, or will do only so long as we are unable to substitute some better mode of selection.

If all of our babies were subjected to the conditions that babies are subjected to in Terra del Fuego, most of them, I suppose, would die of exposure, and a very rapid " natural selection " would take place; but there is no reason to suppose that, for civilized purposes, the surviving type would be at all improved. The power to endure extreme cold is only a small merit in modern life. In the same way, of two children living in an infected tenement the one who dies may be of a socially more desirable type than the one who lives. The facts collected by Mr. Havelock Ellis and others regarding the feeble childhood of men of genius show how easily, under such a test, the better types might perish.

The extreme biological view involves the absurdity of requiring that we tolerate indefinitely a bad state of society in order to produce a stock that is fit for a good one. Evidently the true way is to endeavor to better the society and the stock at the same time, expecting each to react favorably upon the other.

I cannot, however, assent to the other extreme view, namely, that poverty has nothing to do with hereditary degeneracy and cannot in any manner or degree work against it. My impression is that destructive condi-

(230) -tions, like misery, disease, and vice, though their action is largely indiscriminate, nevertheless attack degenerate stocks with special virulence, and have some tendency to diminish them relatively to those that are sounder. The process is crude and wasteful, needing to be replaced by a better one, but it probably has had, and still has an important part in the evolution of the race.

Say what you will of environmental factors in success or failure, there is no reasonable doubt that differences of natural capacity also enter. Under like conditions one individual, because of inherent energy and intelligence, may emerge from misery, while another, lacking these traits, remains in it. And it is quite possible that the same traits may lead the former on to a successful and well-ordered life, including the raising of a normal family, while the latter remains unprolific.

It is not true, so far as I can judge from antecedent probability, or from the evidence, that those who fall below the misery line have, as a class, as large a natural increase as those who rise somewhat above it. A steady young man who can earn good wages, a competent housewifely girl, are types favored in marriage, and likely to rear families. And those who "do well" are also less devitalized by exhaustion, discouragement, and dissipation. They make good their place in the intermediate class, have more children and bring a larger proportion of them to maturity than they would if they had failed. The small families of the rich have led many to overlook the fact that among less prosperous people success and fecundity are in some degree connected. I know the common impression regarding the large families of the shiftless and degenerate and admit that they are often abnormally large. I think, however, the impression is

( 231) on the whole exaggerated, perhaps because of our feeling that such families ought to have no children at all.

A standard work dealing with poverty in America remarks that "the families of paupers or semi-paupers usually average smaller than those of the population as a whole, partly because the number among classes degenerate enough to be dependent is not so large as ordinarily supposed, partly because of a high infant mortality, and partly because the families of these classes tend to disintegrate rapidly."[1] Admitting what exceptions you please, I have little doubt that this will hold true on the whole.

Of dissipation we may say much the same as of economic failure; heredity is certainly a factor in it, however subordinate to environment, and the dissipated are, without doubt, a comparatively unprolific class. Vice, alcoholism, and irregularity of all kinds tend to diminish fecundity. The sterility due to venereal disease alone is enormous, though not confined, unfortunately, to the licentious themselves, but extending to their wives and children, and to whomever else they may contaminate. Alcoholism leads to sexual vice, and also lowers intelligence and vitality. It is true that drunkards often have large families, but for one such case you will find perhaps four of those who have formed no stable marriage relation. It is a mere truism to say that, as a rule, dissipation means a kind of life inconsistent with the raising of a normal family.

I think, then, we ought not, in dealing with poverty, to ignore the possibility that inferiority of hereditary type may be a factor in it. If people who cannot support a

( 232) family actually have children, I would wish these to have as good a chance as any; but so far as possible I would prevent such people from having children. I favor reforms aimed at reducing the infant death-rate, but think they should be accompanied by other reforms aimed at reducing the birth-rate among those who are unable to maintain the social standards.

Let me suggest an actual problem. It is well known that the birth-rate of the Negroes in the South is very high, so high that if it were not largely offset by a very high infant death-rate, the colored people would soon overwhelm the whites. Apparently, then, if social reforms were rapidly introduced lowering the death-rate of colored children to that of the whites, without other reforms tending to lower their birth-rate, this overwhelming would actually take place. I ask, then, whether, from the white standpoint at least, this one-sided reform would not be worse than none, and whether we might not make a similar mistake by pushing improvements in the care and feeding of infants without at the same time pushing eugenic measures aimed at raising the standard of heredity in the infants born.

No doubt the shifting conditions of our society may bring it to pass that large numbers are living below the social standards from reasons quite apart from natural incapacity. This is evidently the case with immigrants coming from countries of lower standards and often undergoing here exceptional economic and moral pressure. The presumption is that any social inferiority they may exhibit is due to environmental rather than hereditary causes. I suppose the fact that most social workers in America deal largely or wholly with immigrants has much to do with the prevalence among them of the view that

( 233) the hereditary causes of poverty are unimportant. The greater stress put upon the latter in England may be connected with the different character of English poverty.

The social conditions best for the maintenance of the biological type are neither very harsh nor very easy. We need a real struggle to supply a test of what can make good in life, but the conditions of this struggle should ameliorate with social progress. Any test should conform to the normal conditions of the system for which the test is made; and any social struggle that is on a lower plane is not a good test.

I have heard it asserted that the best types are those that can survive under the worst conditions; but this is patently false. The test of extreme physical hardship in infancy would probably tend to eliminate the higher intellectual capacities. The best types are simply those capable of the best function, and the more nearly we can make good function on a high social level the test of survival the better.

Hardly anything gives rise to more confusion than discussing the " struggle for existence" without a clear understanding of the relativity of all struggle to conditions and standards. When you say, "The struggle for existence is a good thing," the thoughtless infer that the harsher it is the better. On the other hand, when you say, " The struggle for existence (under misery conditions) is degrading," the thoughtless of another bias conclude that it ought to be abolished and life made comfortable to all, regardless of achievement. We need a struggle, with standards to arouse exertion and to shut out incompetence; and these standards should be the highest in social requirement, and their enforcement the most hu-

( 234) -mane that we are able to establish. I take it that we are trying to pass from low standards and brutal or haphazard means of enforcement to a higher condition in both respects.

We need to distinguish rather sharply between moderate hardship and a really degrading poverty, or, if you please, between poverty and misery,[2] between a state in which social standards can be maintained and one in which they inevitably break down. The latter means general retrogression, and is accompanied by conditions, such as ignorance, disease and vice, which are destructive of biological standards as well as social. The former permits that real but not brutal struggle for existence which is a part of the life of every people and essential as a guarantee against degeneration

Is it not true that moderate economic hardship acts as a frontier, a fighting-line, where fundamental standards, both biological and social, are maintained, and hardy and humane types of men are developed? There are kinds and degrees of difficulty, sufficient to be exacting but not enough to be destructive, that test and sift and reinvigorate the people who pass through them.

The case of the present immigrant to America is not so different from that of the pioneer as we are apt to think. He also comes from a crowded place to a place of opportunity, and strives by a bold venture to better his condition and enlarge the boundaries of life. Some succeed and some fail; accident, we must admit, plays a great part. Many of the attendant conditions are unfair and demoralizing-as was the case with the pioneers. Never-

( 235) -theless, the general outcome, even as things go now (and we may hope to make them go much better), is the fostering of vigorous types. The history of those who have been in this country for two or three generations makes this fairly evident.

We need to watch this fighting-line and take care of the wounded-see to it, that is, that those who fall into misery are given a chance to recover, if they are capable of it, and at any rate are not allowed to extend their condition to whole neighborhoods and form infectious misery environments. Unless we can abolish the struggle altogether, which seems neither possible nor desirable, I do not see how we can expect to avoid sporadic misery as a by-product of it; but what we can do is so to standardize the conditions of the struggle and the care of those who fail as to prevent the growth of a self-perpetuating misery class.

Scientific a priori tests of fitness to propagate, such as may be developed by the aid of family records or medical and psychological examinations, will probably be found of increasing value in eliminating the definitely degenerate by segregation or sterilization. It is not probable, however, that they can ever meet the more general need of a competitive standard of biological competence.

There are two fundamental and possibly permanent reasons why we cannot select our hereditary types artificially: first, because we are not likely to agree as to just what types are desirable, and, second, because if we did agree there is no practicable method of ascertaining the individuals belonging to these types and controlling their propagation.

Selective breeding is a comparatively simple matter with domestic animals, where what we seek is a definite

(236) and easily ascertained trait like length or fineness of wool in sheep, weight in hogs or beef-cattle, speed or strength in horses, laying capacity in fowls, and so on. But in the case of man we do not know just what we want, and probably never shall. We should not dare to set up a standard of physical vigor, for fear of excluding psychical powers of more value; and the social and moral traits which we might desire to increase do not manifest themselves with certainty until rather late in life.

Moreover, it is clear that the desirable thing in human life is not one good type but many, a diversity of types corresponding to multifarious and unforeseeable functions. It is most unlikely that we shall ever assume to define these types in advance.

These difficulties seem so insuperable that it is hardly necessary to go on and show that, owing to the great share which environment has in producing desirable types of character, it is difficult to see how we could be sure what individuals lacked the requisite hereditary capacity. Galton's view that success is a fair test has little following, and no other test is at hand. 1 conclude, then, that the sphere of a scientific eugenics, which shall deliberately select some types for propagation and reject others, should probably not extend much beyond the suppression of clearly marked kinds of degeneracy.

It would seem that we must rely for our standards mainly upon the actual test of social struggle, acting either through economic misery or through some kind of moral pressure, in the nature of custom or public opinion, which shall discourage from raising families those who do not "make good," and require a greater fecundity from those who do.

( 237) In the past we have made use, unconsciously, of misery, which was rendered the more unjust and indiscriminate by the fact that those subject to it were held in a lower class, having little real opportunity to show their fitness for a higher condition. We seek to do away with this, not only because of the injustice and indiscrimination, but also because degradation impairs the whole state of society. At the same time we must admit the possibility that we may make a bad situation worse by abolishing the only selective agent we have.

Our chief reliance, apparently, must be upon substituting custom and social pressure for misery in restricting the propagation of those who cannot maintain their families at a normal standard of living. Experience seems to show that the voluntary check easily comes into operation along with the growth of intelligence and social ambition-so easily that it is already carried to excess by the well-to-do in most countries, and in at least one country—France—by the bulk of the people. It appears not at all Utopian to think that this mild and indirect check may in time not only take the place of destructive misery, but prove more effective as a method of selection.

Meanwhile we have a difficult problem in that class of people who are poor stock, but not so definitely degenerate that it is practicable to interfere and prevent their propagation. Almost every village has such a problem in the irresponsible procreation of families whom the community knows to be incompetent. I have received trustworthy accounts of many such from students.

It will appear to some that the whole plan of improvement breaks down at this point through the inadequacy of social pressure to limit natural increase. But we have come a long way since Malthus, and in a general view of

( 238) the situation it appears probable, though not demonstrable, that social pressure will more and more meet the problem. A reasonable view of irresponsible procreation is that it is confined chiefly to those families which, through neglect, have not learned to feel the cogency of higher standards of life, and that the best way to deal with it is to make those standards universal. To fall back upon misery and vice for elimination would probably, by increasing irresponsibility, make matters worse rather than better. In other words, while the plan of dealing with the whole situation by opportunity, standards, and moral control is not free from difficulties, it is more promising, even at its weakest point, than a policy of neglect.


  1. A. G. Warner, American Charities (Revised Edition). 60.
  2. Professor Edward T. Devine suggests this distinction in his book, Misery and Its Causes.

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