Wealth and Want
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Working Poor

Millions of Americans work full-time year-round at jobs that don't provide enough to support themselves much less a family. Millions of parents of young children are both employed full-time outside the home at wages that barely cover the costs of child care. Thousands of childcare workers aren't paid enough to live decently or further their own educations.

Is there a way out of this? Henry George saw one. He describes where all the money is going, and prescribes the remedy for this. His remedy will create jobs, improve wages, reduce the concentrations of wealth and income, and lower the barriers to entry for those who dream of opening their own businesses.

Henry George: The Crime of Poverty  (1885 speech)

Did you ever think of the utter absurdity and strangeness of the fact that, all over the civilised world, the working classes are the poor classes? Go into any city in the world, and get into a cab and ask the man to drive you where the working people live. He won't take you to where the fine houses are. He will take you, on the contrary, into the squalid quarters, the poorer quarters. Did you ever think how curious that is? Think for a moment how it would strike a rational being who had never been on the earth before, if such an intelligence could come down, and you were to explain to him how we live on earth, how houses and food and clothing, and all the many things we need were all produced by work, would he not think that the working people would be the people who lived in the finest houses and had most of everything that work produces? Yet, whether you took him to London or Paris or New York, or even to Burlington, he would find that those called the working people were the people who live in the poorest houses.

All this is strange — just think of it. We naturally despise poverty; and it is reasonable that we should. I do not say — I distinctly repudiate it — that the people who are poor are poor always from their own fault, or even in most cases; but it ought to be so. If any good man or woman could create a world, it would be a sort of a world in which no one would be poor unless he was lazy or vicious. But that is just precisely the kind of a world this is; that is just precisely the kind of a world the Creator has made. Nature gives to labour, and to labour alone; there must be human work before any article of wealth can be produced; and in the natural state of things the man who toiled honestly and well would be the rich man, and he who did not work would be poor. We have so reversed the order of nature that we are accustomed to think of the workingman as a poor man. ... read the whole speech

Henry George: The Crime of Poverty  (1885 speech)

... Nature gives to labour, and to labour alone; there must be human work before any article of wealth can be produced; and in the natural state of things the man who toiled honestly and well would be the rich man, and he who did not work would be poor. We have so reversed the order of nature that we are accustomed to think of the workingman as a poor man.

And if you trace it out I believe you will see that the primary cause of this is that we compel those who work to pay others for permission to do so. You may buy a coat, a horse, a house; there you are paying the seller for labour exerted, for something that he has produced, or that he has got from the man who did produce it; but when you pay a man for land, what are you paying him for? You are paying for something that no man has produced; you pay him for something that was here before man was, or for a value that was created, not by him individually, but by the community of which you are a part. What is the reason that the land here, where we stand tonight, is worth more than it was twenty-five years ago? What is the reason that land in the centre of New York, that once could be bought by the mile for a jug of whiskey, is now worth so much that, though you were to cover it with gold, you would not have its value? Is it not because of the increase of population? Take away that population, and where would the value of the land be? Look at it in any way you please. ...

Now, supposing we should abolish all other taxes direct and indirect, substituting for them a tax upon land values, what would be the effect?

  • In the first place it would be to kill speculative values. It would be to remove from the newer parts of the country the bulk of the taxation and put it on the richer parts. It would be to exempt the pioneer from taxation and make the larger cities pay more of it. It would be to relieve energy and enterprise, capital and labour, from all those burdens that now bear upon them. What a start that would give to production!
  • In the second place we could, from the value of the land, not merely pay all the present expenses of the government, but we could do infinitely more. In the city of San Francisco James Lick left a few blocks of ground to be used for public purposes there, and the rent amounts to so much, that out of it will be built the largest telescope in the world, large public baths and other public buildings, and various costly works. If, instead of these few blocks, the whole value of the land upon which the city is built had accrued to San Francisco what could she not do? ... read the whole speech
Henry George: Thou Shalt Not Steal  (1887 speech)
Natural religion and revealed religion alike tell us that God is no respecter of persons; that He did not make this planet for a few individuals; that He did not give it to one generation in preference to other generations, but that He made it for the use during their lives of all the people that His providence brings into the world. If this be true, the child that is born tonight in the humblest tenement in the most squalid quarter of New York, comes into life seized with as good a title to the land of this city as any Astor or Rhinelander.

How do we know that the Almighty is against poverty? That it is not in accordance with His decree that poverty exists? We know it because we know this, that the Almighty has declared: "Thou shalt not steal." And we know for a truth that the poverty that exists today in the midst of abounding wealth is the result of a system that legalizes theft.

The women who by the thousands are bending over their needles or sewing machines, thirteen, fourteen, sixteen hours a day; these widows straining and striving to bring up the little ones deprived of their natural breadwinner; the children that are growing up in squalor and wretchedness, underclothed, underfed, undereducated, even in this city, without any place to play — growing up under conditions in which only a miracle can keep them pure — under conditions which condemn them in advance to the penitentiary or the brothel — they suffer, they die, because we permit them to be robbed, robbed of their birthright, robbed by a system which disinherits the vast majority of the children that come into the world.

There is enough and to spare for them. Had they the equal rights in the estate which their Creator has given them, there would be no young girls forced to unwomanly toil to eke out a mere existence; no widows finding it such a bitter, bitter struggle to put bread into the mouths of their little children; no such misery and squalor as we may see here in the greatest of American cities; misery and squalor that are deepest in the largest and richest centers of our civilization today.

These things are the results of legalized theft, the fruit of a denial of that commandment that says: "Thou shalt not steal." How is this great commandment interpreted today, even by men who preach the Gospel? "Thou shalt not steal." Well, according to some of them, it means: "Thou shalt not get into the penitentiary." Not much more than that with some. You may steal, provided you steal enough, and you do not get caught. Do not steal a few dollars — that may be dangerous, but if you steal millions and get away with it, you become one of our first citizens. ...  read the whole speech

Clarence Darrow: How to Abolish Unfair Taxation (1913)

Everybody nowadays is anxious to help do something for the poor, especially they who are on the backs of the poor; they will do anything that is not fundamental. Nobody ever dreams of giving the poor a chance to help themselves. The reformers in this state have passed a law prohibiting women from working more than eight hours in one day in certain industries — so much do women love to work that they must be stopped by law. If any benevolent heathen see fit to come here and do work, we send them to gaol or send them back where they came from.

All these prohibitory laws are froth. You can only cure effects by curing the cause. Every sin and every wrong that exists in the world is the product of law, and you cannot cure it without curing the cause. Lawyers, as a class, are very stupid. What would you think of a doctor, who, finding a case of malaria, instead of draining the swamp, would send the patient to gaol, and leave the swamp where it is? We are seeking to improve conditions of life by improving symptoms.

Land Basic

No man created the earth, but to a large extent all take from the earth a portion of it and mould it into useful things for the use of man. Without land man cannot live; without access to it man cannot labor. First of all, he must have the earth, and this he cannot have access to until the single tax is applied. It has been proven by the history of the human race that the single tax does work, and that it will work as its advocates claim. For instance, man turned from Europe, filled with a population of the poor, and discovered the great continent of America. Here, when he could not get profitable employment, he went on the free land and worked for himself, and in those early days there were no problems of poverty, no wonderfully rich and no extremely poor — because there was cheap land. Men could go to work for themselves, and thus take the surplus off the labor market. There were no beggars in the early days. It was only when the landlord got in his work — when the earth monopoly was complete — that the great mass of men had to look to a boss for a job.

All the remedial laws on earth can scarcely help the poor when the earth is monopolized. Men must live from the earth, they must till the soil, dig the coal and iron and cut down the forest. Wise men know it, and cunning men know it, and so a few have reached out their hands and grasped the earth; and they say, "These mines of coal and iron, which it took nature ages and ages to store, belong to me; and no man can touch them until he sees fit to pay the tribute I demand." ...

Fundamentally, all law recognizes the right to eminent domain, to take the portion of any human being for the welfare of the public — that no man's claim to any portion of the earth shall stand in the way of the common good. This is a common law, but in practice it only applies where a rich railroad wants to get the land of some poor widow.

Everybody who works is poor; nobody would work if they were not poor, and nobody can get rich working. I never tried it, but I have seen others try it. The land boomer comes along and gets good car service to this poor man's home, and then charges him ten dollars per month instead of five. A lot of reformers are trying to get parks laid out in the slums, which only make the poor move, for they cannot pay the increased rent. The greater the population, the less the worker gets. As the land becomes valuable, more and more goes to rent. The bigger the city, the deeper the poverty; the bigger the city the more degradation, there are the almshouses and gaols filled to overflowing. It is better for the men who own the earth to have big cities — but for no one else. Every man, woman, and child adds to the wealth of the land owner; the others must secure land upon which to live, and they must bid with each other for the right to live. ... read the whole speech

Walter Rybeck: What Affordable Housing Problem?

Like all creatures -- goldfinches, squirrels, butterflies, cicadas -- we humans are squatters on this planet. We all need a part of earth for shelter, nourishment, a work site and a place to raise the next generation. Otherwise we perish. ...

In the 1980s, Washington, D.C., was concerned about its growing army of homeless. At that time I found there were 8,000 boarded-up dwelling units in our Nation's Capital -- more than enough to accommodate some 5,000 street people. I also found there were 11,500 privately owned vacant lots in the District of Columbia, mostly zoned for and suitable for homes or apartments. Decent housing on these sites held in cold storage would have provided an alternative for the many low-income families squatting in places that were overcrowded, overpriced, overrun with vermin and overloaded with safety hazards.

These issues spurred my research described in a 1988 report, "Affordable Housing -- A Missing Link." Evidence from the Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics and other sources over a 30-year period revealed the following average cost increases of items that go into the building and maintenance of housing:
  • Wages of general building construction workers rose 14 percent a year.
  • Wages of special trade construction workers rose 11 percent a year.
  • Construction material costs rose 11.5 percent a year.
  • Combined wage-materials-managerial costs for residential building rose 12.5 percent a year.
  • Fuel and utility costs for housing rose 13.8 percent a year. All of these costs closely tracked the Consumer Price Index which, over these same 30 years, rose by 12 percent a year. According to those figures, housing prices and housing rents apparently were held in check
Why do those statistics not seem to jibe with what you have been told, seen with your own eyes, and felt in your own pocketbooks?
  • How to explain that, during the last decade of my research period, U.S. households with serious housing problems increased from 19 to 24 millions?
  • What caused the portion of renters paying more than 35 percent of their income for housing doubled from 21 to 41 percent during the last two decades of the study period?
  • Why were over 2.4 million renters paying 60 percent or more of their income for rent?
The answers would be obvious except that, so far, I have not mentioned what happened to the price of the land that housing sits on. Many of those who talk and write about housing conveniently overlook the fact that housing does not exist in mid air but is attached to the land, and that the price of this land has gone through the stratosphere.

In contrast to those 11- to 14-percent annual increases in housing-related costs, residential land values nationwide rose almost 80 percent a year, or almost 2000 percent over those three decades.  ...

A close friend in Bethesda bought a house and lot there 40 years ago for $20,000. Two months ago he sold the property for a cool half million. That 2400 percent increase was entirely land value. The buyer immediately demolished the house to put up a larger one, so he clearly paid half a million for the location value -- the land value -- alone.

Officials, civic leaders and commentators who bemoan the lack of affordable housing nevertheless applaud each rise in real estate values as a sign of prosperity. Seeing their own assets multiply through no effort of their own apparently makes them forget the teachers, firemen, police and low-income people who are boxed out of a place to squat in their cities and neighborhoods. ...

Many of our Founding Fathers, George Washington included, had amassed huge estates. But the property tax induced them to sell off excess lands they were not using.  ...

One of the many virtues of a tax on land values is that it can be introduced gradually. Cities that take this incremental approach report that homeowners-voters-taxpayers hardly notice the change. What's important in modernizing your taxation is not the speed of change but the direction you choose. If you keep the present tax system with its disincentives for compact and wholesome growth, you will experience the treadmill effect that has been so familiar in so-called urban and housing "solutions." You will have to keep running faster and faster with patchwork remedies to keep from sliding backward.

A caution. Revising taxes as proposed here will not end the need for housing subsidies, at least not in the short run, but it will do three things that should greatly reduce subsidies.
  • One, by deflating land costs it will enable the private market to offer homes and sites at lower costs.
  • Two, this will shrink the number of families needing subsidies.
  • Three, it will stretch subsidy dollars farther because sites for publicly assisted housing can be acquired far more cheaply.
In Conclusion, I have tried to show that America has a housing land problem, not an affordable housing problem. This problem can be substantially alleviated by freeing the market of anti-enterprise taxes and by turning the property tax right side up -- that is, by dropping tax rates on housing and by raising them on publicly-created land values. Read the whole article

Gems from George, a themed collection of excerpts from the writings of Henry George (with links to sources)

FIVE centuries ago the wealth-producing power of England, man for man, was small indeed compared with what it is now. Not merely were all the great inventions and discoveries which since the Introduction of steam have revolutionized mechanical industry then undreamed of, but even agriculture was far ruder and less productive. Artificial grasses had not been discovered. The potato, the carrot, the turnip, the beet, and many other plants and vegetables which the farmer now finds most prolific, had not been introduced. The advantages which ensue from rotation of crops were unknown. Agricultural implements consisted of the spade, the sickle, the flail, the rude plow and the harrow. Cattle had not been bred to more than one-half the size they average now, and sheep did not yield half the fleece. Roads, where there were roads, were extremely bad, wheel vehicles scarce and rude, and places a hundred miles from each other were, in difficulties of transportation, practically as far apart as London and Hong Kong, or San Francisco and New York, are now.

Yet patient students of those times tell us that the condition of the English laborer was not only relatively, but absolutely better in those rude times than it is in England today, after five centuries of advance in the productive arts. They tell us that the workingman did not work so hard as he does now, and lived better; that he was exempt from the harassing dread of being forced by loss of employment to want and beggary, or of leaving a family that must apply to charity to avoid I starvation. Pauperism as it prevails in the rich England of the nineteenth century was in the far poorer England of the fourteenth century absolutely unknown. Medicine was empirical and superstitious, sanitary regulations and precautions were all but unknown. There were frequently plague and occasionally famine, for, owing to the difficulties of transportation, the scarcity of one district could not "be relieved by the plenty of another. But men did not as they do now, starve in the midst of abundance; and what is perhaps the most significant fact of all is that not only were women and children not worked as they are today, but the eight-hour system, which even the working classes of the United States, with all the profusion of labor-saving machinery and appliances have not yet attained, was then the common system! — Protection or Free Trade — Chapter 22: The Real Weakness of Free Trade.

THE aggregate produce of the labor of a savage tribe is small, but each member is capable of an independent life. He can build his own habitation, hew out or stitch together his own canoe, make his own clothing, manufacture his own weapons, snares, tools and ornaments. He has all the knowledge of nature possessed by his tribe — knows what vegetable productions are fit for food, and where they maybe found; knows the habits and resorts of beasts, birds, fishes and insects; can pilot himself by the sun or the stars, by the turning of blossoms or the mosses on the trees; is, in short, capable of supplying all his wants. He may be cut off from his fellows and still live; and thus possesses an independent power which makes him a free contracting party in his relations to the community of which he is a member.

Compare with this savage the laborer in the lowest ranks of civilized society, whose life is spent in producing but one thing, or oftener but the infinitesimal part of one thing, out of the multiplicity of things that constitute the wealth of society and go to supply even the most primitive wants; who not only cannot make even the tools required for his work, but often works with tools that he does not own, and can never hope to own. Compelled to even closer and more continuous labor than the savage, and gaining by it no more than the savage gets — the mere necessaries of life — he loses the independence of the savage. He is not only unable to apply his own powers to the direct satisfaction of his own wants, but, without the concurrence of many others, he is unable to apply them indirectly to the satisfaction of his wants. He is a mere link in an enormous chain of producers and consumers, helpless to separate himself, and helpless to move, except as they move. The worse his position in society, the more dependent is he on society; the more utterly unable does he become to do anything for himself. The very power of exerting his labor for the satisfaction of his wants passes from his own control, and may be taken away or restored by the actions of others, or by general causes over which he has no more influence than he has over the motions of the solar system. The primeval curse comes to be looked upon as a boon, and men think, and talk, and clamor, and legislate as though monotonous manual labor in itself were a good and not an evil, an end and not a means. Under such circumstances, the man loses the essential quality of manhood — the godlike power of modifying and controlling conditions. He becomes a slave, a machine, a commodity — a thing, in some respects, lower than the animal.

I am no sentimental admirer of the savage state. I do not get my ideas of the untutored children of nature from Rousseau, or Chateaubriand, or Cooper. I am conscious of its material and mental poverty, and its low and narrow range. I believe that civilization is not only the natural destiny of man, but the enfranchisement, elevation, and refinement of all his powers, and think that it is only in such moods as may lead him to envy the cud-chewing cattle, that a man who is free to the advantages of civilization could look with regret upon the savage state. But, nevertheless, I think no one who will open his eyes to the facts, can resist the conclusion that there are in the heart of our civilization large classes with whom the veriest savage could not afford to exchange. It is my deliberate opinion that if, standing on the threshold of being, one were given the choice of entering life as a Terra del Fuegan, a black fellow of Australia, an Esquimaux in the Arctic Circle, or among the lowest classes in such a highly civilized country as Great Britain, he would make infinitely the better choice in selecting the lot of the savage. For those classes who in the midst of wealth are condemned to want, suffer all the privations of the savage, without his sense of personal freedom; they are condemned to more than his narrowness and littleness, without opportunity for the growth of his rude virtues; if their horizon is wider, it is but to reveal blessings that they cannot enjoy. — Progress & Poverty — Book V, Chapter 2: The Problem Solved: The Persistence of Poverty Amid Advancing Wealth

"THE poor ye have always with you." If ever a scripture has been wrested to the devil's service, this is that scripture. How often have these words been distorted from their obvious meaning to soothe conscience into acquiescence in human misery and degradation — to bolster that blasphemy, the very negation and denial of Christ's teachings, that the All Wise and Most Merciful, the Infinite Father, has decreed that so many of His creatures must be poor in order that others of His creatures to whom He wills the good things of life should enjoy the please and virtue of doling out alms! "The poor ye have always with you," said Christ; but all His teachings supply the limitation, "until the coming of the Kingdom." In that kingdom of God on earth, that kingdom of justice and love for which He taught His followers to strive and pray, there will be no poor. — Social Problems — Chapter 8: That We All Might Be Rich.

WE naturally despise poverty; and it is reasonable that we should. I do not say — I distinctly repudiate it — that the people who are poor are poor always from their own fault, or even in most cases; but it ought to be so. If any good man or woman had the power to create a world, it would be a sort of a world in which no one would be poor unless he was lazy or vicious. But that is just precisely the kind of a world that this is; that is just precisely, the kind of a world that the Creator has made. Nature gives to labor, and to labor alone; there must be human work before any article of wealth can be produced; and, in a natural state of things, the man who toiled honestly and well would be the rich man, and he who did not work would be poor. We have so reversed the order of nature, that we are accustomed to think of a working-man as a poor man. — The Crime of Poverty

... go to "Gems from George"

Kris Feder: Progress and Poverty Today

As this book was written, the Industrial Revolution was transforming America and Europe at a breathless pace. In just a century, an economy that worked on wind, water, and muscular effort had become supercharged by steam, coal, and electricity. Canals, railroads, steamships and the telegraph were linking regional economies into a national and global network of exchange. The United States had stretched from coast to coast; the western frontier was evaporating.

American journalist and editor Henry George marveled at the stunning advance of technology, yet was alarmed by ominous trends. Why had not this unprecedented increase in productivity banished want and starvation from civilized countries, and lifted the working classes from poverty to prosperity? Instead, George saw that the division of labor, the widening of markets, and rapid urbanization had increased the dependence of the working poor upon forces beyond their control. The working poor were always, of course, the most vulnerable in depressions, and last to recover from them. Unemployment and pauperism had appeared in America, and indeed, were more prevalent in the developed East than in the aspiring West. It was "as though a great wedge were being forced, not underneath society, but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down." This, the "great enigma of our times," was the problem George set out to solve in Progress and PovertyRead the whole article

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related themes:

house rent and wages





cost of living

housing affordability




paying twice

all benefits...

absentee ownership


barriers to entry


daily bread


Declaration of Independence



thou shalt not steal


economic justice

equal opportunity


fences and bandages

jobs chasing people

rent and wages

land earning more than work

land monopoly

land monopoly capitalism

land prices

lowering the price of land


marginal land

margin of production

Robinson Crusoe

no victims

patchwork remedies



poverty's causes

abolishing poverty

poverty and God

poverty and justice

protecting the poor


rich get richer

wealth concentration

ruling class




supporting a family

the least of these

trade unions


underused land

wage slaves


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Wealth and Want
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