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Quotations about Poverty



Life is indeed a pleasant road
To those whom fortune blesses;
But 'tis a thorny path to those
Whom poverty oppresses.
~James Lendall Basford (1845–1915), Sparks from the Philosopher's Stone, 1882


...if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin... ~Charles Darwin, 1836 entry about slavery in Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the countries visited during the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Round the World, under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.N.


The folly of men, not their hard-heartedness, was the great cause of the world's poverty. ~Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000–1887, 1888


My poverty is not complete:  it lacks me.  ~Antonio Porchia, Voces, 1943, translated from Spanish by W.S. Merwin


"You wouldn't mind my asking if it happened to be a job as you was come about, sir, would you?" asked Mrs. Plornish, wistfully. She asked it so anxiously, that if he had been in possession of any kind of tenement, he would have had it plastered a foot deep, rather than answer No. But he was obliged to answer No; and he saw a shade of disappointment on her face, as she checked a sigh, and looked at the low fire. Then he saw, also, that Mrs. Plornish was a young woman, made somewhat slatternly in herself and her belongings by poverty; and so dragged at by poverty and the children together, that their united forces had already dragged her face into wrinkles. ~Charles Dickens (1812–1870)


The rich and poor are but different ventricles of the same heart of humanity. ~Horace Mann (1796–1859)


I have seen humanity hanging on a cross. Do none of you know what sighs the sun and stars look down on in this city, that you can think and talk of anything else? Do you not know that close to your doors a great multitude of men and women, flesh of your flesh, live lives that are one agony from birth to death? Listen! their dwellings are so near that if you hush your laughter you will hear their grievous voices, the piteous crying of the little ones that suckle poverty, the hoarse curses of men sodden in misery, turned half way back to brutes, the chaffering of an army of women selling themselves for bread. With what have you stopped your ears that you do not hear these doleful sounds? For me I can hear nothing else. ~Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000–1887, 1888


The story of his youth was a series of bitternesses, as is the case with almost all distinguished men. Poverty sits by their cradle, and keeps watch over them till they have grown up; and this lean nurse remains their true companion through life. ~Heinrich Heine


The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied — except by individuals — but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing. ~John Berger, "The Soul and the Operator," Keeping a Rendezvous, 1992


It would be nice if the poor were to get even half of the money that is spent in studying them. ~Bill Vaughan, Bell-McClure Syndicate, as quoted in The Reader's Digest, 1974


I love that... girl. I'd give my life for her, but I'd endanger my immortal soul for a beef stew. Hunger is a horrible thing... Love and business and family and religion and art and patriotism are nothing but shadows of words when a man's starving! ~O. Henry, "Cupid à la Carte," Heart of the West, 1904


You can't quit poverty. ~Two and a Half Men, "I Can't Afford Hyenas," written by Eddie Gorodetsky and Jeff Abugov, 2004  [S1, E14, Alan]


Hunger makes a thief of any man. ~Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth, 1931


Mother had the gripe and clutch of poverty upon her face, upon her figure, and not least of all upon her voice. Her sharp and high-pitched words were squeezed out of her, as by the compression of bony fingers on a leathern bag; and she had a way of rolling her eyes about and about the cellar, as she scolded, that was gaunt and hungry. ~Charles Dickens (1812–1870)


The poor often have strewn in their pathway flowers of whose fragrance the rich know nothing. ~James Lendall Basford (1845–1915), Sparks from the Philosopher's Stone, 1882


One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. ~Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own, 1929


      Poverty indeed is the strenuous life, — without brass bands or uniforms or hysteric popular applause or lies or circumlocutions; and when one sees the way in which wealth-getting enters as an ideal into the very bone and marrow of our generation, one wonders whether a revival of the belief that poverty is a worthy religious vocation may not be... the spiritual reform which our time stands most in need of...
      We have grown literally afraid to be poor. We despise any one who elects to be poor in order to simplify and save his inner life. If he does not join the general scramble and pant with the money-making street, we deem him spiritless and lacking in ambition. We have lost the power even of imagining what the ancient idealization of poverty could have meant: the liberation from material attachments, the unbribed soul, the manlier indifference, the paying our way by what we are or do and not by what we have... the more athletic trim, in short, the moral fighting shape. ~William James, "The Value of Saintliness," 1901


And the spending of this truly vast amount of money... has left everybody just sitting around slack jawed and dumbstruck, staring into the maw of that most extraordinary paradox: You can't get rid of poverty by giving people money. ~P. J. O'Rourke, Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government, 1991


Scarcity causes hardship, but affluence creates poverty. ~Marshall McLuhan


"The Malthusians" is generally classed as one of P. J. Proudhon's most famous of his shorter pieces. It appeared in 1848. Proudhon did not especially stigmatize the idea of small families — as an economist he probably would have recommended parental prudence in the limitation of offspring. His indictment of the Malthusians was chiefly directed against those of the economists who entertain the ridiculous idea that the masses of the people are poor because they are numerous, thereby keeping in the background the fact that they are poor because they are robbed. The Malthusian theory broadly stated is that population outstrips subsistence. But if this hypothesis were correct, poverty would be a characteristic common to all, determinable in degree in the exact ratio of increase in population, whereas poverty is peculiarly confined to a class, and that class, as we find, the victims of capitalistic privilege and gluttony. Modern Socialists proclaim the truth that the poor are poor because the rich are rich, and seek to transform Society on the principle of equality of conditions. The researches of modern chemistry have pointed out the possibilities of the unlimited enlargement upon subsistence in economy of means, and the production of food-stuffs in the Laboratory is no distant dream. Meanwhile, Proudhon has satisfactorily answered Malthus, and Socialism has reduced his theory to practical absurdity. ~Henry Seymour, 1886


It is the poor years that make the good ones so very good, and poverty has always what wealth has not, betterment ahead. I do not know how one can be a blinder fool than to think that prosperity alone can make him happy... The only really poor person is the one who is mean and selfish. ~Edward Payson Powell (1833–1915), "An Old-Time Thanksgiving," 1904


But before they had reached the corner of the lane, the man came running after them, and pressing her hand, left something in it — two old, battered, smoke-encrusted penny pieces. Who knows but they shone as brightly in the eyes of angels as golden gifts that have been chronicled on tombs? ~Charles Dickens (1812–1870)


However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names... Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house. The setting sun is reflected from the windows of the alms-house as brightly as from the rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. I do not see but a quiet mind may live as contentedly there, and have as cheering thoughts, as in a palace. The town's poor seem to me often to live the most independent lives of any... Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts... Humility like darkness reveals the heavenly lights. The shadows of poverty and meanness gather around us, "and lo! creation widens to our view"... Moreover, if you are restricted in your range by poverty, if you cannot buy books and newspapers, for instance, you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences; you are compelled to deal with the material which yields the most sugar and the most starch. It is life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler... Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul. ~Henry David Thoreau


...and in his daily knowledge of the gentleness and goodness flowering the by-paths of the world, not to be trodden down beneath the heavy foot of poverty, but springing up, elastic, in its track, and making its way beautiful; he had better learned and proved, in each succeeding year, the truth of his old faith.~Charles Dickens (1812–1870)


The greatest of all advantages with which an ambitious man can begin life is that of being poor. The man who wishes to make millions must not be born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He must feel that it is sink or swim with him... If in addition to being poor himself he has witnessed his parents' struggle with adversity, and resolves to drive the wolf from the door of the family, he has the strongest of all incentives which lead to success. No ambition of a merely personal nature can be compared with this. Responsibility thrown upon a young poor man, that is the thing to bring out what is in him. Such is the raw material out of which great captains of industry are made. ~Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919)  [a little altered —tg]


To be shelterless and alone in the open country, hearing the wind moan, and watching for day through the whole long weary night; to listen to the falling rain, and crouch for warmth beneath the lee of some old barn or rick, or in the hollow of a tree, are dismal things — but not so dismal as the wandering up and down where shelter is, and beds and sleepers are by thousands; a houseless rejected creature. To pace the echoing stones from hour to hour, counting the dull chimes of the clocks; to watch the lights twinkling in chamber windows, to think what happy forgetfulness each house shuts in; that here are children coiled together in their beds, here youth, here age, here poverty, here wealth, all equal in their sleep, and all at rest; to have nothing in common with the slumbering world around, not even sleep, Heaven's gift to all its creatures, and be akin to nothing but despair; to feel, by the wretched contrast with everything on every hand, more utterly alone and cast away than in a trackless desert; — this is a kind of suffering, on which the rivers of great cities close full many a time, and which the solitude in crowds alone awakens. ~Charles Dickens (1812–1870)


The village had its one poor street, with its poor brewery, poor tannery, poor tavern, poor stable-yard for relays of post-horses, poor fountain, all usual poor appointments. It had its poor people too. All its people were poor, and many of them were sitting at their doors, shredding spare onions and the like for supper, while many were at the fountain, washing leaves, and grasses, and any such small yieldings of the earth that could be eaten. Expressive signs of what made them poor, were not wanting; the tax for the state, the tax for the church, the tax for the lord, tax local and tax general, were to be paid here and to be paid there, according to solemn inscription in the little village, until the wonder was, that there was any village left unswallowed. ~Charles Dickens (1812–1870)


      ...the Green Lanes. This was a retired spot, not of the choicest kind... Great heaps of ashes; stagnant pools, overgrown with rank grass and duckweed; broken turnstiles; and the upright posts of palings long since carried off for firewood, which menaced all heedless walkers with their jagged and rusty nails; were the leading features of the landscape: while here and there a donkey, or a ragged horse, tethered to a stake, and cropping off a wretched meal from the coarse stunted turf, were quite in keeping with the scene, and would have suggested (if the houses had not done so sufficiently, of themselves) how very poor the people were who lived in the crazy huts adjacent, and how fool-hardy it might prove for one who carried money, or wore decent clothes, to walk that way alone, unless by daylight.
      Poverty has its whims and shows of taste, as wealth has. Some of these cabins were turreted, some had false windows painted on their rotten walls; one had a mimic clock, upon a crazy tower of four feet high, which screened the chimney; each in its little patch of ground had a rude seat or arbour. The population dealt in bones, in rags, in broken glass, in old wheels, in birds, and dogs. These, in their several ways of stowage, filled the gardens; and shedding a perfume, not of the most delicious nature, in the air, filled it besides with yelps, and screams, and howling. ~Charles Dickens (1812–1870)


      They rattled on through the noisy, bustling, crowded streets of London, now displaying long double rows of brightly-burning lamps, dotted here and there with the chemists' glaring lights, and illuminated besides with the brilliant flood that streamed from the windows of the shops, where sparkling jewellery, silks and velvets of the richest colours, the most inviting delicacies, and most sumptuous articles of luxurious ornament, succeeded each other in rich and glittering profusion. Streams of people apparently without end poured on and on, jostling each other in the crowd and hurrying forward, scarcely seeming to notice the riches that surrounded them on every side; while vehicles of all shapes and makes, mingled up together in one moving mass like running water, lent their ceaseless roar to swell the noise and tumult...
      Nor were there wanting objects in the crowd itself to give new point and purpose to the shifting scene. The rags of the squalid ballad-singer fluttered in the rich light that showed the goldsmith's treasures, pale and pinched-up faces hovered about the windows where was tempting food, hungry eyes wandered over the profusion guarded by one thin sheet of brittle glass — an iron wall to them; half-naked shivering figures stopped to gaze at Chinese shawls and golden stuffs of India. There was a christening party at the largest coffin-maker's, and a funeral hatchment had stopped some great improvements in the bravest mansion. Life and death went hand in hand; wealth and poverty stood side by side; repletion and starvation laid them down together. ~Charles Dickens (1812–1870)


      And let us linger in this place for an instant to remark that, if ever household affections and loves are graceful things, they are graceful in the poor. The ties that bind the wealthy and the proud to home may be forged on earth, but those which link the poor man to his humble hearth are of the true metal, and bear the stamp of Heaven. The man of high descent may love the halls and lands of his inheritance as a part of himself, as trophies of his birth and power; his associations with them are associations of pride, and wealth, and triumph; the poor man's attachment to the tenement he holds, which strangers have held before, and may to-morrow occupy again, has a worthier root, struck deep into purer soil. His household gods are of flesh and blood, with no alloy of silver, gold, or precious stone; he has no property but in the affections of his own heart; and when they endear bare floors and walls, despite of rags, and toil, and scanty meals, that man has his love of home from God, and his rude hut becomes a solemn place.
      Oh! if those who rule the destinies of nations would but remember this — if they would but think how hard it is for the very poor to have engendered in their hearts that love of home from which all domestic virtues spring, when they live in dense and squalid masses, where social decency is lost, or rather never found — if they would but turn aside from the wide thoroughfares and great-houses, and strive to improve the wretched dwellings in by-ways where only Poverty may walk, — many low roofs would point more truly to the sky, than the loftiest steeple that now rears proudly up from the midst of guilt, and crime, and horrible disease, to mock them by its contrast. ~Charles Dickens (1812–1870)


      My lords and gentlemen and honorable boards, when you in the course of your dust-shovelling and cinder-raking have piled up a mountain of pretentious failure, you must off with your honorable coats for the removal of it, and fall to the work with the power of all the queen's horses and all the queen's men, or it will come rushing down and bury us alive.
      Yes, verily, my lords and gentlemen and honorable boards, adapting your Catechism to the occasion, and by God's help so you must. For when we have got things to the pass that with an enormous treasure at disposal to relive the poor, the best of the poor detest our mercies, hide their heads from us, and shame us by starving to death in the midst of us, it is a pass impossible of prosperity, impossible of continuance. It may not be so written in the Gospel according to Podsnappery; you may not "find these words" for the text of a sermon, in the Returns of the Board of Trade; but they have been the truth since the foundations of the universe were laid, and they will be the truth until the foundations of the universe are shaken by the Builder. This boastful handiwork of ours, which fails in its terrors for the professional pauper, the sturdy breaker of windows and the rampant tearer of clothes, strikes with a cruel and a wicked stab at the stricken sufferer, and is a horror to the deserving and unfortunate. We must mend it, lords and gentlemen and honorable boards, or in its own evil hour it will mar every one of us. ~Charles Dickens (1812–1870)


I thought it very touching to see these two women, coarse and shabby and beaten, so united; to see what they could be to one another; to see how they felt for one another; how the heart of each to each was softened by the hard trials of their lives. I think the best side of such people is almost hidden from us. What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and GOD. ~Charles Dickens (1812–1870)


...said Stephen Blackpool — "...Thou mak'st me see it wi' a better eye. Bless thee..." It was but a hurried parting in a common street, yet it was a sacred remembrance to these two common people. Utilitarian economists, skeletons of schoolmasters, Commissioners of Fact, genteel and used-up infidels, gabblers of many little dog's-eared creeds, the poor you will have always with you. Cultivate in them, while there is yet time, the utmost graces of the fancies and affections, to adorn their lives so much in need of ornament; or, in the day of your triumph, when romance is utterly driven out of their souls, and they and a bare existence stand face to face, Reality will take a wolfish turn, and make an end of you. ~Charles Dickens (1812–1870)


The life of this gentleman has been one of a very chequered description: he has undergone transitions — not from grave to gay, for he never was grave — not from lively to severe, for severity forms no part of his disposition; his fluctuations have been between poverty in the extreme, and poverty modified, or, to use his own emphatic language, "between nothing to eat and just half enough." He is not, as he forcibly remarks, "One of those fortunate men who, if they were to dive under one side of a barge stark-naked, would come up on the other with a new suit of clothes on, and a ticket for soup in the waistcoat pocket;" neither is he one of those whose spirit has been broken beyond redemption by misfortune and want. He is just one of the careless, good-for-nothing, happy fellows, who float cork-like on the surface, for the world to play at hockey with: knocked here and there and everywhere — now to the right, then to the left, again up in the air, and anon to the bottom, but always reappearing, and bounding with the stream buoyantly and merrily along. ~Charles Dickens (1812–1870), "The Broker's Man"


      Cant as we may, and as we shall to the end of all things, it is very much harder for the poor to be virtuous than it is for the rich; and the good that is in them, shines the brighter for it. In many a noble mansion lives a man, the best of husbands and fathers, whose private worth in both capacities is justly lauded to the skies. But bring him here, upon this crowded deck. Strip from his fair young wife her silken dress and jewels, unbind her braided hair, stamp early wrinkles on her brow, pinch her pale cheek with care and much privation, array her faded form in coarsely patched attire, let there be nothing but his love to set her forth or deck her out, and you shall put it to the proof indeed. So change his station in the world, that he shall see in those young things who climb about his knee: not records of his wealth and name: but little wrestlers with him for his daily bread; so many poachers on his scanty meal; so many units to divide his every sum of comfort, and farther to reduce its small amount. In lieu of the endearments of childhood in its sweetest aspect, heap upon him all its pains and wants, its sicknesses and ills, its fretfulness, caprice, and querulous endurance: let its prattle be, not of engaging infant fancies, but of cold, and thirst, and hunger: and if his fatherly affection outlive all this, and he be patient, watchful, tender; careful of his children's lives, and mindful always of their joys and sorrows; then send him back to Parliament, and Pulpit, and to Quarter Sessions, and when he hears find talk of the depravity of those who live from hand to mouth, and labour hard to do it, let him speak up, as one who knows, and tell those holders forth that they, by parallel with such a class, should be High Angels in their daily lives, and lay but humble siege to Heaven at last.
      Which of us shall say what he would be, if such realities, with small relief or change all through his days, were his! Looking round upon these people: far from home, houseless, indigent, wandering, weary with travel and hard living: and seeing how patiently they nursed and tended their young children; how they consulted ever their wants first, then half supplied their own; what gentle ministers of hope and faith the women were; how the men profited by their example; and how very, very seldom even a moment's petulance or harsh complaint broke out among them: I felt a stronger love and honour of my kind come glowing on my heart, and wished to God there had been many Atheists in the better part of human nature there, to read this simple lesson in the book of Life. ~Charles Dickens (1812–1870)


I shall cherish the hope that every volume of this Edition will afford me an opportunity of recording the extermination of some wrong or abuse set forth in it. Who knows, but by the time the series reaches its conclusion, it may be discovered that there are even magistrates in town and country, who should be taught to shake hands every day with Common-sense and Justice; that even Poor Laws may have mercy on the weak, the aged, and unfortunate; that Schools, on the broad principles of Christianity, are the best adornment for the length and breadth of this civilised land; that Prison-doors should be barred on the outside, no less heavily and carefully than they are barred within; that the universal diffusion of common means of decency and health is as much the right of the poorest of the poor, as it is indispensable to the safety of the rich, and of the State; that a few petty boards and bodies — less than drops in the great ocean of humanity, which roars around them — are not to let loose Fever and Consumption on God's creatures at their will, or always to keep their little fiddles going, for a Dance of Death! ~Charles Dickens, 1847, Preface, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club


How much is conveyed in those two short words — The 'Parish!' And with how many tales of distress and misery, of broken fortune and ruined hopes, too often of unrelieved wretchedness and successful knavery, are they associated! A poor man, with small earnings, and a large family, just manages to live on from hand to mouth, and to procure food from day to day; he has barely sufficient to satisfy the present cravings of nature, and can take no heed of the future. His taxes are in arrear, quarter day passes by, another quarter day arrives: he can procure no more quarter for himself, and is summoned by — the parish. His goods are distrained, his children are crying with cold and hunger, and the very bed on which his sick wife is lying is dragged from beneath her. What can he do? To whom is he to apply for relief? To private charity? To benevolent individuals? Certainly not — there is his parish. There are the parish vestry, the parish infirmary, the parish surgeon, the parish officers, the parish beadle. Excellent institutions, and gentle, kind-hearted men. The woman dies — she is buried by the parish. The children have no protector — they are taken care of by the parish. The man first neglects, and afterwards cannot obtain work — he is relieved by the parish: and when distress and drunkenness have done their work upon him, he is maintained a harmless, babbling idiot in the parish asylum. ~Charles Dickens (1812–1870)


Poor and content is rich and rich enough... ~William Shakespeare, Othello, c.1604  [III, 3, Iago]


One of the joys of wealth is the right to preach the virtues of poverty. ~"Poor Richard Junior's Philosophy," The Saturday Evening Post, 1906, George Horace Lorimer, editor





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