Thomas Malthus was a clergyman and philosopher of the late 18th century. His ideas on the causes of poverty and the means by which it could be eliminated were controversial for his time and would probably have been unspeakable in ours. However, his work shaped England’s “Poor Laws,” influenced scientists and philosophers such as Charles Darwin, and remains pertinent today.
Malthus believed that the population would always increase more rapidly than food supply, which meant that large numbers of people would always suffer from starvation and poverty. His calculations demonstrated that while food supply grew at a linear rate, populations tended to grow at an exponential one.
The inspiration behind his ideas came from his work as a parish priest, where he noticed that the numbers of poor people he was baptizing far outstripped the number of deaths he was recording. As a member of a wealthy family himself, he was also struck by the abject poverty and miserable conditions the poor were living in. At the time, almost a seventh of England was on some sort of welfare, but its population was booming.
Carrying out more studies on England’s poor gave Malthus a clearer picture of the problem. Poor families showed a tendency to have more children when their economic situation improved, even slightly, as it had after the industrial revolution. This had the effect of again lowering the average living standard of the entire family.
In this sort of poverty trap, the poor would remain unable to escape their condition. A poor family was also generally more likely to have a greater of number of children because some were always expected to die in their infancy. The solution, Malthus stated, was to encourage the poor to marry later and have fewer children, if any at all. By having children, they would be sentencing more people to live in poverty and starvation.
The way to encourage the poor to adopt this solution would be to eliminate all types of aid. While this would initially be very hard and even cruel, it would eliminate poverty and dismantle the poverty trap in the long run.
What welfare did, Malthus believed, was encourage the poor to marry earlier even when they could not support a family and have children they could not afford. The effect of this was that families continued to be poor and live on the very barest of necessities. England’s Poor Laws, which propped up people who suffered from bad harvests, was creating the very poverty it hoped to eliminate.
Once these practices were taken up, food supply could finally keep up with the lowered population growth. If food supply could not keep up, Malthus believed that three necessary and inevitable things would take place: plague, famine and war. These would once again balance out the population, but at a much greater cost.
Critics have generally attacked Malthusianism from two different angles. One side believes that a small population is not good for a country. The Mercantalists argue that high population growth, even if it results in poverty, is good for the country. It would provide it with people to fight in the army, work in factories and provide cheap services.
Mercantalists did not want the population to earn very high wages or live far above the poverty line—this would stagnate economic growth and weaken the nation. Modern anti-Malthusians also believe that low birth rates are bad for the economy because the workforce would not be able to support its older population.
Other critics of Malthusianism believe that his proposed solutions are not the best way to tackle poverty. They are needlessly inhumane. Human ingenuity can come with with solutions to expand food supply to meet population needs. Norman Borlaug, the mind behind the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, is cited as an example. He created strains of corn and wheat that had much higher yields than before, saving millions from starvation.
Neo-Malthusians, as modern proponents of Malthus are called, say the current statistics speak for themselves. Populations in almost every developing country are growing rapidly as they become wealthier and advancements in medicine keep more children and older people alive. In the last 110 years, the world’s population has grown from 1.6 billion to 7.2 billion.
But 805 million worldwide go to bed hungry, and most are from developing countries. A fourth of people in Sub-Saharan Africa are chronically malnourished. More than 750 million lack access to clean water, which leads to 850,000 deaths per year. In major cities, such as Mumbai, half the population are living in wretched and slum-like conditions. In Sub-Saharan Africa, this number reached 61 percent. Most poor people continue to have more children than they can afford to take care of.
While the poor continue to have high fertility rates, they will continue to be poor. Neo-Malthusians advocate for better family planning, a change in societal expectations and norms, greater access to contraceptives and more education about conception to reduce the poor’s fertility rates.