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Swift opens this famous satirical essay by saying that it is a "melancholy object" to view the impoverished condition faced by countless Irish children and their mothers:
...beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in stroling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants who, as they grow up, either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country, to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.
In other words, thousands of Irish children grow up in poverty and remain that way for most of their lives. The girls will enter the same vicious cycle as their mothers, and the boys will either turn to crime, serve as mercenaries, or become indentured servants in the New World. Swift's famous tongue-in-cheek solution to this situation is to suggest that Irish children might be sold to well-to-do Englishmen for their meat. This shocking proposal is intended as a criticism of those who try to engineer solutions to social problems through abstract reasoning, and of the new political economy that increasingly viewed people in terms of their productive value.
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