Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Oliver Twist, the Victorian Era, and modern poverty

Oliver Twist is an excellent statement on attitudes toward the poor in Victorian England. Charles Dickens shows us how many people of that era were so classist that they treated the poor like criminals. Poor people could only get assistance from poor houses, which had much in common with modern sweatshops. Families were separated. The poor were grossly underfed, to the point of slow starvation, worked hard, and beaten. Even children did not escape this treatment, and were often given away to abusive masters who used them for sweeping chimneys and other menial labor. When Oliver Twist escapes from an abusive master who beats him, he falls in with thieves and prostitutes. Much of the remainder of the book shows his difficulty in escaping that situation.

Historians believe actual conditions during the Victorian era were even worse than Dickens described. Dickens grew up near a workhouse, and would have known this, so it is probable that he toned it down to make the book more socially acceptable.

Although things have changed since then, and conditions for the poor have much improved in most first world nations, attitudes toward the poor are particularly relevant as the recession in the United States and elsewhere continues to deprive people of jobs.

In Oliver Twist, a common misconception people have is that poor people are poor because they are lazy. In one instance, when Oliver Twist is already tired, hungry, and has injured feet, people refuse to help him because he can't run up a hill fast enough. Although he is unable to do so in his condition, they nonetheless conclude that he is lazy.

Many people today believe the same about the poor; that we should cut social programs like food stamps, LIHEAP, and financial assistance to the disabled, because they discourage people from finding jobs. How a person is supposed to find a job on a chronically empty stomach, or with the sort of disability that makes employers scramble to find a fictitious excuse to avoid hiring you, I'm not sure. With people losing jobs left and right, it seems even more ridiculous. I once met a former movie professor who was homeless. The college he taught at nearly went out of business and greatly downsized, you see. He didn't look homeless. That's another misconception people have about the homeless today. In fact, many homeless people go to great lengths to avoid looking homeless. At drop-in centers, typically only open for a limited number of hours on weekdays, it may be possible to shower and wash clothing for free. Failing that, many homeless people who are employed, regularly or irregularly (but not earning enough to afford a home), or have some other small income (e.g. social security, unemployment insurance, busking) will pay to shower at the gym and wash clothing at a public laundromat. Failing other options, many homeless people will take towel baths, which, while less than ideal, can be enough to avoid looking like a stereotypical beggar.

Many poor people are just down on their luck, as illustrated wonderfully in Oliver Twist. Furthermore, stereotypes about poor people being criminals may be self-fulfilling prophecies of a sort. While Oliver Twist receives a little charity after running away, it is not enough to live on. Criminals are the first people to help him in any long-lasting way. Of course, he did not initially know they were criminals. Unfortunately, by the time he figures it out, they have a vested interest in keeping hold of him.

Not all the poor people in Oliver Twist who can't afford food turn to crime. Many of them simply starve to death.

If we cut foodstamps, and programs that provide more immediate assistance (e.g. food banks and soup kitchens), won't the people who are laid off and can't find a new job, or disabled and unable to find an accommodating employer, be forced to make the same decision: Crime or starvation? You might ask, what about begging? In Santa Fe, I once saw two cops pull a gun on a guy for doing just that. He wasn't even being aggressive about begging. He was just flying a sign.

Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist is an excellent reminder of why we shouldn't count people lazy criminals just because they are poor, and the benefits of a social safety net in reducing crime and preventing poverty from being a death sentence. Although times have changed, poor people today may still find comfort and understanding in the book.

Oliver Twist is in the public domain (at least in the United States; if you live elsewhere, please confirm before reading a free copy) and available free online:


  1. Your blog was not helpful in figuring out where a man who just became homeless can get help.

  2. This is so sadly true. There is so much talk right now about cutting social safety nets. What are the poor supposed to do? This is compounded by the lack of jobs. It is really frightening that society can be so mean and callous.

  3. people are so sensitive ^^

  4. this helped me a lot thank you and poop to you^^^

  5. this did not help at all
    so dum i found a much better website
    but ithelped my friends lol

  6. This helped me a lot, thank you very much! x

  7. why would a homeless man go to a charles dickens website to get help?! get a job