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The relationship of poverty to war depends on varying factors such as whether conflict is offensive or defensive, whether it takes place on foreign or domestic soil, and whether it occurs before, during, or after industrialization. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, colonial wars, including the Revolutionary War, occurred on American soil and were highly destructive of food production and trade, producing negative economic consequences. The Civil War brought economic destruction and want to the agricultural South, but less to the industrialized North. The wars of the twentieth century, such as World War I and World War II, brought with them many beneficial effects on the American economy.
Warfare before the Industrial Revolution
The wars between empires that involved colonial America, such as King William’s War (1689-1697), Queen Anne’s War (1703-1712), King George’s War (1744-1749), and the French and Indian War (1755-1763), featured sporadic battles that affected particular local populations, not the total war of an industrial society. The small fishing community of Gosport, for example, off the coast of New Hampshire, petitioned the provincial legislature in 1760 for forbearance regarding payments of tax. The colony was involved in war (the French and Indian War), which sufficiently affected local finances that the town struggled to raise the money required. “The said Inhabitants have always cheerfully paid their Province Tax with Great Willingness and pleasure,” the town petition read,
so long as they were of ability and untill the four last years when their Circumstances in life became so low (being only a few poor fishermen) and the necessaries for living being Excessively dearer at the place of their aboard one half more than any other part of the Province . . . together with their other great charge, Supporting the Gospel Ministry among them the fewness of the Inhabitants & their poverty and their few within four years last past being Greatly Reduced they having had thirty Two Ratable poles within that time left them to serve the King or Removed to other places.
Individual communities, rather than society as a whole, suffered from reduced manpower (because of militia duty) and disruption of trade. Wealth inequality studies of eighteenth-century America show little change overall because of war.
The Revolutionary War (1775-1783) likewise affected the economies of revolutionary states according to time and circumstance, not America as a whole. Historians have found little evidence of dramatic changes in wealth accumulation and inequality because of this war. There are, of course, isolated instances to the contrary, especially of towns affected by a disruption of overseas trade because of the presence of the British navy off the American coast. The economy of Salem, Massachusetts, for example, suffered from declining trade, causing increasing wealth inequality and social stratification. The fishing community of Gosport continued to experience economic deprivation because of the war. The nearby port city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, helped the fishers and fishwives even though the war negatively impacted Portsmouth’s economy as well. The Portsmouth selectmen petitioned the New Hampshire legislature in 1776, requesting that the “Poor on the Isles of Shoals be relieved out of the Public Treasury, to ease the Burthens of this Town which has been at great Expense on their Account, & at a time when we are unable to Maintain our own.” Three years later, in a 1779 “Statement of the Condition of Matters in Town,” the town complained of economic deprivation “In Consequence of” supporting the inhabitants of Gosport, “which this Town has been burthen’d with the poorer Sort of them since that Time.” Portsmouth trade declined dramatically, such that “Multitudes are reduced from easy Circumstances, to want & beggary, and half the Inhabitants have frequently been without Bread or Fuel.” Inflation made the cost of poor relief £30,000 in 1779, which increased to £80,000 in 1780. Other places in Revolutionary America, however, saw little significant change in economic stratification due to the war. In Chester County, Pennsylvania, for example, wealth inequality during the war years was little different from during the previous decades of the eighteenth century. Wealth inequality increased from 1760 to 1780, but little more than in previous decades, an indicator that the county’s inequality was a part of the maturing of colonial society rather than because of war. In fact, independence—more than warfare—appears to have had the biggest effect on poverty in Revolutionary America. The haphazard and decentralized trade and currency policies of the new Confederation government caused inflation that brought suffering to the agricultural poor.
Industrialization brought increasing wealth inequality to America, a situation only exacerbated during wartime. For example, the top 10 percent of the population owned 43 percent of the wealth from 1750 to 1800, but from 1800 to 1860 this jumped to 61 percent. The percent of the labor force in industry went from 17.5 percent in 1800 to 46.8 percent in 1860. The Civil War in the North continued these trends. Wages (rising 43 percent) lagged behind prices, which rose 117 percent during the war. There were increasing numbers of propertyless living in the growing cities. Meanwhile, those with capital thrived—the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. The Civil War had the most dramatic impact on the South, where most of the fighting occurred. Before the beginning of the war, there was growing inequality in the South among whites; decline in food production during the war, and the disabled Southern economy, continued this trend. The loss of property because of
the emancipation of slaves in 1865 would, perhaps, have leveled wealth inequality in the South if it were not for the millions of freedmen living in the South, most of whom were very poor. The freedmen experienced freedom in all of its forms, including insecurity, hunger, and despair.
The mixed picture of poverty in America during wartime becomes clearer during World War I. Prior to the beginning of the war in 1914, wealth inequality continued to increase in America from the 1800s, and most Americans owned very little of the country’s wealth. This trend was not halted during the war, especially during American involvement from 1917 to 1918, as wages lagged behind inflation. But there were more jobs during the war, many of them filled by women, and there was increasing government involvement in the economy during the Progressive era, particularly during the administration of Woodrow Wilson.
After the war, many sectors of the American economy were booming until the onset of the Great Depression. During the 1930s, depression, homelessness, unemployment, bank failures, and insecurity plagued Americans. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal helped the situation, but full recovery did not occur until the outbreak of World War II. After Roosevelt declared America to be an “Arsenal of Democracy,” providing industrial production to countries threatened by the Axis powers—and then in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor—the American economy quickly left the Depression behind. During the war, unemployment dropped from 7 million to less than a million; 6.5 million workers were added to American payrolls. Personal income doubled. War production doubled every two years. Although the number of taxpayers more than quadrupled—from 13 to 59 million—the tax burden fell increasingly upon large corporations and the rich, leading to wealth redistribution. The wealth of the top one percent of the population was cut in half during the war. The post-World War II period in America continued the trend of lessening wealth inequality, in part because of a strong economy and the growth of government programs to help the poor, disabled, unemployed, and elderly.
- Ball, Duane E., “Dynamics of Population and Wealth in Eighteenth-Century Chester County, Pennsylvania,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 6 (1976): 621-644;
- Faulkner, Harold U., American Economic History (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1960);
- Lawson, Russell M., Portsmouth: An Old Town by the Sea (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2003);
- Link, Arthur S., and William B. Catton, American Epoch: A History of the United States since 1900, Vol. II: The Age of Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1921-1945 (New York: Alfred E. Knopf, 1973);
- Morris, Richard J., “Wealth Distribution in Salem, Massachusetts, 1759-1799: the Impact of the Revolution and Independence” in Essex Institute Historical Collections 114 (1978): 87-102.
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