The GOP's Malthusian streak on full display at RNC

If you’re looking for a drinking game (while alternately looking to cut back on your drinking), take a swig every time someone speaking from the podium at the Republican National Convention says the word “poverty.”

The Republican national platform includes the word “poverty” just 15 times and “poor” four times, though two of those times the word appears in the phrase “poorly managed,” as in the “poorly-managed” Federal Housing Administration. By comparison, “war” is in there 58 times, “freedom” 45, and “America” 286.

As for solutions for poverty, the Party of Lincoln’s platform offers “the advance of political freedom and entrepreneurial capitalism.”

Convention speakers have dedicated more of their air time to categorizing Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Third vaccine candidate with 90% efficacy Biden won — so why did Trump's popularity hit its highest point ever? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Calls mount to start transition as Biden readies Cabinet picks MORE’s shortcomings than offering much in the way of solutions to poverty. In June, Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBottom line Democratic anger rises over Trump obstacles to Biden transition Feehery: A possible House Speaker conundrum for Democrats MORE rolled out “A Better Way,” which turned out to be not better, but instead, a great deal of rehashing based on the questionable premise that government programs had done little or nothing toward alleviating poverty.

And somewhere in Bath, England, the desiccated corpse of the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus is smiling, if not outright laughing.

Though he may have been occasionally misunderstood, much of what we’re hearing (and not hearing) about poverty from the Republicans seems rooted in the writings of Malthus, a long-dead English cleric and economist. Though his name doesn’t come up much in conversation these days, his writings affected the way we viewed – and sometimes still view – people who are poor.

Malthus was a minister and economics professor who was inordinately interested in the effect of overpopulation of England’s larger cities, most notably London. His “Essay on the Principle of Population” published anonymously with a much longer title in 1798, was a barn-burner. It was not by any means his only work, but it is probably the best remembered. Malthus, who took his role as social scientist seriously, was responding to a series of laws meant to address poverty that was becoming increasingly noticeable in the country. Malthus came to the belief that the country’s policies encouraged too much copulating, and not enough hard work on the part of the poor. In today’s vernacular, too many entitlement programs rob a body of the desire to work.

Sound familiar?

Charles Darwin was a fan of Malthus. Overpopulation, wrote Malthus, could potentially deplete the earth’s resources, and Darwin agreed. Disasters such as floods and famine were, Malthus wrote, “positive checks” on humanity’s inability to discipline itself – particularly the poor. If that sounds harsh – “positive checks” -- his critics thought so, too, and they jumped on him for it.

To give him credit, Malthus’ subsequent scholarship showed that the man did not shy away from rigorously examining his own premises. Darwin revamped the concept a little, and labeled the process by which people survive “natural selection.”

Time and the river eventually proved Malthus incorrect in his fear of running out of food. He didn’t factor in a food revolution that would increase productivity beyond any one’s dreams.

Back when the field of Republican presidential candidates was large, most of them sidestepped questions about whether they embraced the theory of evolution.


Wonder how they’d have answered a question about Malthus, one of Darwin’s influences? Are the poor responsible for their lot? Are the rest of us? And if not, is poverty and hunger, as Malthus wrote, God’s way of culling the herd?


Campbell is a journalism professor and writer. She is the author of Dating Jesus: Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl and the upcoming Searching for The American Dream in Frog Hollow. Her work has appeared in the Hartford Courant, Connecticut Magazine, The New Haven Register and The Guardian. Follow her @campbellsl