In his satirical pamphlet titled A Modest Proposal, what social problems does Jonathan Swift point out?

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his satirical pamphlet titled A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift calls attention to a number of social problems in the Ireland of his day.  Such problems include the following:


  • Poverty (especially of women) and begging (especially by mothers in order to feed their children).
  • Desperation on the part of poor people, who often commit theft or leave the country to pursue the means to sustain themselves.
  • The inability of many parents who are not actual beggars to support their children.
  • Abortion or infanticide as solutions to the problem of producing children whom their parents cannot afford.
  • The very depressed economic conditions of the country as a whole.
  • The great number of children who are born out of wedlock.
  • The mistreatment of poor people by their landlords.
  • An over-abundance of Catholics (a condition that many Protestants would have regarded as a problem).
  • The unpopularity of landlords among their tenants.
  • A decline in the population of deer, which have been over-hunted.
  • Poverty among teenagers.
  • The tendency of some young women to purchase on credit clothes they cannot afford.
  • The great number of poor people who are elderly and sick.
  • Great unemployment even among people who are relatively young.
  • Hunger among the young who might potentially be employed.
  • The inability of many tenants to pay the rent they owe their landlords.
  • The tendency of many mothers to neglect their children.
  • Physical abuse of wives by their husbands – abuse often intended to cause abortions.


At one point, Swift ironically lists a whole series of social “problems” that can actually be read as practical solutions to some of the problems already listed above:


Therefore let no man talk to me of other expedients: Of taxing our absentees at five shillings a pound: Of using neither cloaths, nor houshold furniture, except what is of our own growth and manufacture: Of utterly rejecting the materials and instruments that promote foreign luxury: Of curing the expensiveness of pride, vanity, idleness, and gaming in our women: Of introducing a vein of parsimony, prudence and temperance: Of learning to love our country, wherein we differ even from Laplanders, and the inhabitants of Topinamboo: Of quitting our animosities and factions, nor acting any longer like the Jews, who were murdering one another at the very moment their city was taken: Of being a little cautious not to sell our country and consciences for nothing: Of teaching landlords to have at least one degree of mercy towards their tenants. Lastly, of putting a spirit of honesty, industry, and skill into our shop-keepers, who, if a resolution could now be taken to buy only our native goods, would immediately unite to cheat and exact upon us in the price, the measure, and the goodness, nor could ever yet be brought to make one fair proposal of just dealing, though often and earnestly invited to it.

However, since none of these solutions is palatable to the people who control Ireland, Swift instead modestly (and ironically) proposals that the poor children of Ireland be sold, killed, and eaten.