What are the Horatio Alger Myth and Social Darwinism, and how did they influence the 19th-century response to the poor?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The Horatio Alger myth was the idea that any American could achieve wealth through living good lives and working hard.  The myth is named after the American author Horatio Alger, who wrote a series of pulp novels for boys and young men in the late 1800s.  Alger’s heroes always experienced a “rags to riches” transformation because of their hard work and clean living (and often through some luck).  This idea shaped American responses to the poor because it helped make Americans think that poor people who tried hard enough could get ahead in life.  This meant that those who stayed poor deserved their fate in some way.

Social Darwinism was the idea that society is, like nature, an arena of competition where only the fittest can prosper.  It held that those people who get to be rich and powerful in a society do so because they are superior to others.  The people who remain poor, by contrast, are clearly inferior.  This shaped American responses to the poor because it promoted the idea that the poor were less worthy than the rich and therefore deserved to be poor.

Thus, both the Horatio Alger myth and Social Darwinism helped make Americans less inclined to provide assistance to the poor.

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