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T. Robert Malthus [1766-1834]


T. Robert Malthus on the Poor

By Frank W. Elwell


Consistent with his functionalist orientation, Malthus asserts that a working class is absolutely essential to every society. Labor will always be necessary to wrest subsistence from nature. The institution of private property and self-interest provide the motivation for human thought and action. It is the goad of necessity—t he desire to avoid poverty or to obtain riches—that motivates much of human industry. Unequal rewards for industry and idleness are the “master spring” of human activity.

The desire for riches, or the fear of poverty, also motivates humans to regulate the number of their offspring. The poor represent that portion of the population that is not supported through existing technology and distrWhere are the Extremely Poor?ibution systems. Poverty (and its consequent misery and vice), according to Malthus, is an outgrowth between our ability to produce food and our tendency to reproduce the species. Because of population’s tendency to outstrip available food supplies, the mass of people are subjected to physical distress (lack of food and other necessities) and consequently limit population increase (either through preventive checks, or failing those, positive checks). It is because of this imbalance between production and reproduction, Malthus states, that “millions and millions of human existences have been repressed.” This necessity to repress population has existed in every society in the past, exists in the present, and will always exist.

If the proportion between the natural increase of population and food which I have given be in any degree near the truth, it will appear, on the contrary, that the period when the number of men surpass their means of subsistence has long since arrived, and that this necessity oscillation, this constantly subsisting cause of periodical misery, has existed ever since we have had any histories of mankind, does exist at present, and will for ever continue to exist, unless some decided change take place in the physical constitution of our nature (50).

Malthus maintains that there is a necessity for both workers and proprietors in all societies beyond hunting and gathering levels. He does not see poverty as a consequence of moral worth or the fitness to survive. Labor is the only property owned by the poor, which they sell in exchange for money to purchase the necessities of life. He views severe inequality with horror and asserts that it is not necessary nor very useful to the bulk of mankind. We are morally obligated to alleviate the plight of the poor, Malthus says, though we must recognize that we can never fully do so. His critique of the British poor laws stems from three sources: 1) His functional analysis of poverty, welfare, and population growth; 2) The greatest good for the greatest number of people; and 3) The high value he places on human liberty.

Whether conceived in a purposeful manner to hold down the costs of labor, or conceived out of compassion to alleviate distress--the provision of welfare removes the necessity of some population checks on the poor. The result of this removal is that population rises, the market becomes flooded with new laborers and those willing to work longer and harder to support their increasePlease Helpd number of offspring. The fatal flaw of the poor laws is that it encourages population growth without increasing provisions to support that growth In accordance with the law of supply and demand, poor laws will contribute to “raise the price of provisions and  lower the real price of labour” (29). Labor, you will recall, is the only commodity that the poor have to sell in order to obtain resources. Thus, available provisions must be spread over a greater number of people, and distress becomes more widespread and severe. Poor laws serve to soften the fear of poverty. They diminish the power of the poor to save (through lowering the price of labor) and weaken a strong incentive for the poor to work. Worse, the laws remove one of the major checks to early marriage and having children. Thus a higher proportion of the next generation will live in poverty as a result.

Malthus acknowledges that it may appear hard in individual circumstances, but holding dependent poverty disgraceful, encouraging people to use  preventive checks, will promote the greatest good for the greatest number. If you are going to provide assistance, Malthus asserts, you must give power to a certain class of people who will manage the necessary institutions to provide the relief. These institutions will be charged with formulating rules in order to discriminate between those who are worthy and unworthy of aid. This represents a tremendous power over the life affairs of all who are forced to ask for support. He cites a frequent complaint of the poor regarding welfare administrators, and observes (somewhat sociologically): “The fault does not lie so much in these persons, who probably, before they were in power, were not worse than other people, but in the nature of all such institutions” (31).

Generally, Malthus believes, a government that attempts to “repress inequality of fortunes” through welfare mechanisms will bePromote the General Welfare “destructive of human liberty itself.” He also greatly fears concentrating so much power into the hands of the state--as absolute power corrupts absolutely. Finally, Malthus is also concerned with the effect of dependence on the poor themselves. Hard labor, he concedes, is evil, but dependence is far worse. In our attempts to alleviate the plight of the poor through welfare laws we sacrifice the liberties and freedom of the poor, subjecting them to “tyrannical regulations” in exchange for promises of relief. But society cannot fulfill its part of the bargain, cannot eliminate the distresses of poverty without removing necessary checks on population--thus creating more poor. The poor are forced to sacrifice their liberty and get little in return.

This analysis of welfare does not lead Malthus to advocate that the poor should be left to their plight. Rather, he suggests some institutional reforms--consistent with the law of population--that will serve to make a more just, equitable society. Malthus’ proposals are an attempt to tie population growth itself to increases in the produce of the land. Malthus’ proposals are an attempt to tie population growth itself to increases in the produce of the land. He advocates freedom of movement so that people can go to areas where work is plentiful. Incentives for tilling new lands to increase production and furnish an “increasing quantity of healthy work” (32). He also favors the establishment of county workhouses. The intent of these workhouses is to provide a place “where any person, native or foreigner, might do a days work at all times and receive the market price for it.” The fare should be hard, those that are able would be obliged to work for the prevailing wage. The workhouses are intended to eliminate the most severe distress while maintaining the necessary incentive for human industry and the operation of preventive checks on population.

Finally, Malthus clearly states, human benevolence and compassion must augment these social policies.  For Malthus, “the proper office of benevolence” is to soften the “partial evils” arising from people acting in their own self-interests. But compassion and benevolence can never replace self-interest as the mainspring of human action. The poor, Malthus maintains, will always be among us. But it is our moral obligation to minimize inequalities as much as the laws of nature will allow. He points out that while inequality is essential to motivate human beings to activity and productivity, the inequality need not be as great as existed in his own society.

World Inequality

Malthus’ 1798 Essay was designed to demonstrate the impossibility of a social utopia--but he insisted that we could (indeed, should) reduce social and economic inequality through structural reform. In the next essay we will be looking at Malthus’s contributions to theories of social and biological evolution.

For a more extensive discussion of Malthus’s theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.


Elwell, F. (2009), Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

Elwell, F. (2013), Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.

Malthus, T. R. (Thomas Robert) (2012-05-12). An Essay on the Principle of Population.  Kindle Edition.


Referencing this Site

To reference T. Robert Malthus on the Poor you should use the following format: 

Elwell, Frank W., 2013, "T. Robert Malthus on the Poor," Retrieved August 31, 2003, [use actual date] 

©2007 Frank Elwell, Send comments to felwell at

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