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Are We Wealthy?
by [?]

Among the working-classes shrewd men are now going about putting some very awkward questions which seem paradoxical at first sight, but which are quite understood by many intelligent men to whom they are addressed. The query “Are we wealthy?” seems easy enough to answer; and of course a rapid and superficial observer gives an affirmative in reply. It seems so obvious! Our income is a thousand millions per year; our railways and merchant fleets can hardly be valued without putting a strain on the imagination; and it seems as if the atmosphere were reeking with the very essence of riches. A millionaire gives nearly one thousand pounds for a puppy; he buys seventeen baby horses for about three thousand pounds apiece; he gives four thousand guineas for a foal, and bids twenty thousand pounds for one two-year-old filly; his house costs a million or thereabouts. Minor plutocrats swarm among us, and they all exhibit their wealth with every available kind of ostentation; yet that obstinate question remains to be answered–“Are we wealthy?” We may give the proletarians good advice and recommend them to employ no extreme talk and no extreme measures; but there is the new disposition, and we cannot get away from it. I take no side; the poor have my sympathy, but I endeavour to understand the rich, and also to face facts in a quiet way. Supposing that a ball is being given that costs one thousand pounds, and that within sound of the carriages there are twenty seamstresses working who never in all their lives know what it is to have sufficient food–is not that a rather curious position? The seamstresses are the children of mighty Britain, and it seems that their mother cannot give them sustenance. The excessive luxury of the ball shows that some one has wealth, but does it not also seem to show that some one has too much? The clever lecturers who talk to the populace now will not be content with the old-fashioned answer, and an awkward deadlock is growing more nearly imminent daily. Suppose we take the case of the sporting-man again, and find that he pays three guineas per week for the training of each of his fifty racers, we certainly have a picture of lavish display; but, when we see, on the other hand, that nearly half the children in some London districts never know what it is to have breakfast before they go to school, we cannot help thinking of the palaces in which the horses are stabled and the exquisite quality of the animal’s food. There is not a good horse that mother England does not care for, and there are half a million children who rarely can satisfy their hunger, and who are quartered in dens which would kill the horses in a week. These crude considerations are not-presented by us as being satisfactory statements in economics; but, when the smart mob orator says, “What kind of parent would keep horses in luxury and leave children to hunger?” “Is this wealthy England?” his audience reply in a fashion of their own. Reasoning does not avail against hunger and privation. I am forced to own that, for my part, the awful problem of poverty seems insoluble by any logical agent; but the man of the mob does not now care for logic than ever he did before, and he has advisers who state to him the problems of life and society with passionate rhetoric which eludes reason.

The whole world hangs together, and Chicago may be called a mere suburb of London. English people did not understand the true history of the genesis of poverty until the developments of society in America showed us with terrific rapidity the historical development of our own poverty. The fearful state of things in American cities was brought about in a very few years, whereas the gradual extension of our poverty-stricken classes has been going on for centuries. To us poverty, besides being a horror, was more or less of a mystery; but America exhibited the development of the gruesome monster with lurid distinctness. In the old countries the men who first were able to seize the land gradually sublet portions either for money or warlike service; the growth of manufactures occupied a thousand years before it reached its present extent; and with the rising of manufacturing centres came enormous new populations which were finally obliged to barter their labour for next to nothing–and thus we have the appalling and desolating spectacle of our slums. All that took place in America with the swiftness of a series of stage-scenes; so that men now living have watched the inception and growth of all the most harrowing forms of poverty and the vices arising from poverty. And now the cry is, “Go back to the Land–the Land for the Nation!” Matters have reached a strange pass when such a political watchword should be chosen by thousands in grave and stolid England, and we shall be obliged to compromise in the end with those by whom the cry is raised. I believe that a compromise may be arranged in time, but the leaders of the poor will have to teach their followers wisdom, self-restraint, and even a little unselfishness, impossible as the teaching of that last may seem to be. We have begun a great labour war, in which battles are being lost and won by opposing sides around us every day. The fighting was very terrible at the beginning; but we shall be forced at last to adopt a system of truces, and then the question “Are we wealthy?” may find its answer. At this moment, however much an optimist may point to our wealth, the logical opponent of established things can always point to the ghastly sights that seem to make the very name of wealth a cynical mockery.