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People need help. In any society, there will be underprivileged, underpaid, underserved groups that need help. Whether that’s charity schools in merry old England or Cotton Mather’s Essays to Do Good, charity was never an unpopular idea. Even as early as 1601, Queen Elizabeth signed the Act for the Relief of the Poor; although it proved to be somewhat cruel to the poor, it does show a want to help underprivileged classes. 

Luckily the poor houses of the 18th century are closed. But how has giving changed?

Attitudes on Poverty

Charity in the 1700s was not only a means for helping your common man but also a method of getting the poor off the street. Poverty was a common condition, and the upper classes often distrusted the poor. There were “worthy” and “unworthy” poor: the worthy being the sick, the lame, or elderly, while the “unworthy” were those who were poor due to perceived “laziness” or a “willingness” to be poor.

We can still see this attitude reflected today in discussions around poverty in the US,  although only about a third of the poor in the U.S. are able-bodied and unemployed. Our attitudes on poverty haven’t changed that much; what has changed is our ability to act for the poor as a society.

What Did Change?

What changed is our ability to act on poverty. While the poor mostly relied on acts of charity in the 1700s, there are involuntary acts of help available to the poor now. Government assistance uses tax dollars to serve poor people, beyond the unsavory poorhouses of the 1700s. In America, the expansion of involuntary giving has grown with the idea that food, education, and shelter are a part of living a dignified, free human existence.


While poverty was seen as almost necessary for advancement in the 1700s, there was a shift in viewing poverty as an outcome of economic factors rather than “God’s will.” That shift away from God’s will as the reason for poverty has allowed the push from private, voluntary charities being responsible for filling into the government seeing helping those in poverty as part of its responsibility to people.


Private charity is a great way to put money towards causes and people that aren’t getting care that they need. It’s fast action on an issue that you as a person care about. You can volunteer your time or straight up give money. Many charities prefer cash, but it is important to choose qualified organizations in order to make donations that you could write off your taxes.


You can also advocate for corporate social responsibility in your workplace. Your workplace may have more power than you as an individual, and asking them to take part in voluntary giving can explode your attempts at helping your society.


As much as we’d love for churches and private citizens take care of the rare person in need, that’s not the reality of the world we live in. Poverty is not rare and has an incredible human cost. Advocating for more than poorhouses is vital. Public education is a means out of poverty; children deserve food; and helping people who need a little help can be very important.  


It’s not God’s will that makes them poor. Poorhouses aren’t a means out of poverty, and we can continue the great strides forward.

About Author

Avery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.