Quotations about   poverty

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So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age — the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing children by physical and spiritual night — are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) French writer
Les Misérables, Preface (1862)
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Added on 18-Sep-19 | Last updated 18-Sep-19
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While we are poor, the necessarys ov life are the luxurys; after we git ritch, the luxurys are the necessarys.

[While we are poor, the necessaries of life are the luxuries; after we get rich, the luxuries are the necessaries.]

Josh Billings (1818-1885) American humorist [pseud. of Henry Wheeler Shaw]
Everybody’s Friend, Or; Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor, “Mollassis Kandy” (1874)
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Added on 9-Jun-19 | Last updated 9-Jun-19
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Negroes are not the only poor in the nation. There are nearly twice as many white poor as Negro, and therefore the struggle against poverty is not involved solely with color or racial discrimination but with elementary economic justice.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
Speech to Shop Stewards, Local 815, Teamsters and the Allied Trades Council, New York City (2 May 1967)
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Added on 31-May-19 | Last updated 31-May-19
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Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.

The Bible (14th C BC - 2nd C AD) Christian sacred scripture
Proverbs 31:8-9 [NRSV]
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  • KJV: "Open thy mouth for the dumb in the cause of all such as are appointed to destruction. Open thy mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy."
  • GNT: "Speak up for people who cannot speak for themselves. Protect the rights of all who are helpless. Speak for them and be a righteous judge. Protect the rights of the poor and needy."
Added on 23-Apr-19 | Last updated 23-Apr-19
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Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind then that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; and while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926) American union leader, activist, socialist, politician
Statement to the Court (18 Sep 1918)
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On being convicted of Sedition. Often paraphrased: "As long as there is a lower class, I am in it. As long as there is a criminal element, I am of it. As long as there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
Added on 25-May-18 | Last updated 25-May-18
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What do you suppose makes all men look back to the time of childhood with so much regret (if their childhood has been, in any moderate degree, healthy or peaceful)? That rich charm, which the least possession had for us, was in consequence of the poorness of our treasures. That miraculous aspect of the nature around us, was because we had seen little, and knew less. Each increased possession loads us with a new weariness; every piece of new knowledge diminishes the faculty of admiration; and Death is at last appointed to take us from a scene in which, if we were to stay longer, no gift could satisfy us, and no miracle surprise.

John Ruskin (1819-1900) English art critic, painter, writer, social thinker
The Eagle’s Nest, Lecture 5 “The Power of Contentment in Science and Art,” Sec. 82 (22 Feb 1872)
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If poor you are, poor you will always be,
For wealth’s now given to none but to the rich.

[Semper eris pauper, si pauper es, Aemiliane;
Dantur opes nulli nunc, nisi divitibus.]

Martial (AD c.39-c.103) Spanish Roman poet, satirist, epigrammatist [Marcus Valerius Martialis]
Epigrams [Epigrammata], Book 5, #81
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In Thomas Harbottle, ed., The Dictionary of Quotations (Classical) (1897). Alt. trans.:
  • If you are poor now, Æmilianus, you will always be poor. / Riches are now given to none but the rich. [tr. Bohn (1871)]
  • If thou are poor, Æmilian, / Thou shalt be ever so, / For no man now his presents can / But on the rich bestow. [tr. Fletcher]
  • You want, Æmilianus, so you may; / Riches are given rich men, and none but they. [tr. Wright]
  • Poor once and poor for ever, Nat, I fear; / None but the rich get place and pension here. [tr. N. B. Halhed]
  • You will always be poor, if you are poor, Aemilianus. Wealth is given today t none savethe rich. [tr. Ker (1919)]
Added on 13-Dec-17 | Last updated 13-Dec-17
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It’s a funny thing, the less people have to live for, the less nerve they have to risk losing — nothing.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) American writer, folklorist, anthropologist
Moses, Man of the Mountain, ch. 2 (1939)
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Added on 18-Oct-17 | Last updated 10-Jan-18
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Good government is known from bad government by this infallible test: that under the former the labouring people are well fed and well clothed, and under the latter, they are badly fed and badly clothed.

William Cobbett (1763-1835) English politician, agriculturist, journalist, pamphleteer
Cobbett’s Political Register, Vol. 46 (31 May 1823)
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Added on 17-Oct-17 | Last updated 17-Oct-17
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The murmuring poor, who will not fast in peace.

George Crabbe (1754-1832) English poet, writer, surgeon, clergyman
“The Newspaper,” l. 158 (1785)
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Added on 10-Oct-17 | Last updated 10-Oct-17
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Where Plenty smiles — alas! she smiles for few,
And those who taste not, yet behold her store,
Are as the slaves that dig the golden ore,
The wealth around them makes them doubly poor.

George Crabbe (1754-1832) English poet, writer, surgeon, clergyman
The Village, Book 1, line 136 (1783)
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Added on 2-Oct-17 | Last updated 2-Oct-17
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Ability is a poor man’s wealth.

Matthew Wren (1585-1667) English clergyman, bishop, scholar
(Attributed)

First found in Day's Collacon (1884).
Added on 11-Sep-17 | Last updated 11-Sep-17
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The poverty of goods is easily cured; the poverty of the soul is irreparable.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) French essayist
Essays, Book 3, ch. 10 “Of Managing the Will” (1588) [tr. Cotton (1877)]
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Alt. trans.: "Poverty of possessions may easily be cured, but poverty of soul never."
Added on 1-Aug-17 | Last updated 1-Aug-17
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She ate her trifle, reflecting that grinding poverty, though loathsome while one is in it, has the advantage of making one enjoy money in a way denied to the rich-from-birth.

Kerry Greenwood (b. 1954) Australian author and lawyer
Flying Too High, ch. 2 (1990)
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Added on 13-Jul-17 | Last updated 13-Jul-17
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To be poor and independent, is very nearly an impossibility.

William Cobbett (1763-1835) English politician, agriculturist, journalist, pamphleteer
Advice to Young Men and (Incidentally) to Young Women, Letter 2, #54 (1829)
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Added on 6-Jul-17 | Last updated 6-Jul-17
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“I hope that you did not give him anything, Mr Sanderson!”

“Of course I did, ma’am.”

“But he would only spend it on drink! You know what the working classes are!”

“Indeed, ma’am, and why should he not spend it on drink? Would you deprive the poor, whose lives are bad and miserable and comfortless enough, of the solace of a little relief from grinding poverty? A sordid, sodden relief perhaps, but would you be so heartless as to deny the poor even that pleasure in which all of us indulge at your generous expense?”

Kerry Greenwood (b. 1954) Australian author and lawyer
Cocaine Blues (1989)
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Added on 25-May-17 | Last updated 25-May-17
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You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.
You cannot help small men by tearing down big men.
You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich.
You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than your income.
You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred.
You cannot establish security on borrowed money.
You cannot build character and courage by taking away men’s initiative and independence.
You cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.

William J. H. Boetcker (1873-1962) German-American religious leader, author, public speaker [William John Henry Boetcker]
“The Industrial Decalogue” (1916)

Often referred to as "The Ten Cannots," and also often misattributed to Abraham Lincoln.
Added on 14-Mar-17 | Last updated 14-Mar-17
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In the Feejee islands, it appears, cannibalism is now familiar. They eat their own wives and children. We only devour widows’ houses, & great merchants outwit & absorb the substance of small ones and every man feeds on his neighbor’s labor if he can. It is a milder form of cannibalism.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
Journal (12 Feb 1841)
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Added on 27-Feb-17 | Last updated 27-Feb-17
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The rich rob the poor, and the poor rob each other.

Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) American abolitionist, women's rights activist [b. Isabella Baumfree]
(Attributed)

Variations: "Truly, here the rich rob the poor and the poor rob each other," "Our rich rob the poor, and the poor rob each other."
Added on 24-Feb-17 | Last updated 24-Feb-17
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Yet somehow our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.

Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) American writer
My Several Worlds (1954)
Added on 6-Feb-17 | Last updated 6-Feb-17
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Economic privation proceeds by easy stages, and so long as men suffer it patiently the outside world cares little.

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) English economist
The Economic Consequences of the Peace, ch. 6 (1919)
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Added on 17-Jan-17 | Last updated 17-Jan-17
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[The] “robbing of the poor because he is poor,” is especially the mercantile form of theft, consisting in taking advantage of a man’s necessities in order to obtain his labor or property at a reduced price. The ordinary highwayman’s opposite form of robbery — of the rich, because he is rich — does not appear to occur so often to the old merchant’s mind; probably because, being less profitable and more dangerous than the robbery of the poor, it is rarely practice by persons of discretion.

John Ruskin (1819-1900) English art critic, painter, writer, social thinker
Unto This Last, ch. 3 (1800)
Added on 30-Dec-16 | Last updated 30-Dec-16
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Convinced that character is all and circumstances nothing, [the Puritan] sees in the poverty of those who fall by the way, not a misfortune to be pitied and relieved, but a moral failing to be condemned, and in riches, not an object of suspicion but the blessing which rewards the triumph of energy and will.

R. H. Tawney (1880-1962) English writer, economist, historian, social critic [Richard Henry Tawney]
Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926)
Added on 15-Dec-16 | Last updated 15-Dec-16
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A stranger to human nature, who saw the indifference of men about the misery of their inferiors, and the regret and indignation which they feel for the misfortunes and sufferings of those above them, would be apt to imagine that pain must be more agonizing, and the convulsions of death more terrible, to people of higher rank than to those of meaner stations.

Adam Smith (1723-1790) Scottish economist
The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1.3.2 (1759)
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No man can tell whether he is rich or poor by turning to his ledger. It is the heart that makes a man rich. He is rich or poor according to what he is, not according to what he has.

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) American clergyman and orator
Life Thoughts: Gathered from the Extemporaneous Discourses of Henry Ward Beecher (1858)
Added on 16-Aug-16 | Last updated 16-Aug-16
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He always pictured himself a libertarian, which to my way of thinking means “I want the liberty to grow rich and you can have the liberty to starve”. It’s easy to believe that no one should depend on society for help when you yourself happen not to need such help.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) Russian-American author, polymath, biochemist
I, Asimov: A Memoir (1994)
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The truest American president we have ever had, the companion of Washington in our love and honor, recognized that the poorest man, however outraged, however ignorant, however despised, however black, was, as a man, his equal. The child of the American people was their most prophetic man, because, whether as small shop-keeper, as flat-boatman, as volunteer captain, as honest lawyer, as defender of the Declaration, as President of the United States, he knew by the profoundest instinct and the widest experience and reflection, that in the most vital faith of this country it is just as honorable for an honest man to curry a horse and black a boot as it is to raise cotton or corn, to sell molasses or cloth, to practice medicine or law, to gamble in stocks or speculate in petroleum. He knew the European doctrine that the king makes the gentleman; but he believed with his whole soul the doctrine, the American doctrine, that worth makes the man.

George William Curtis (1824-1892) American essayist, editor, reformer, orator
“The Good Fight” (1865)
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No matter how poor I am; no matter though the prosperous of my own time will not enter my obscure dwelling; if the sacred writers will enter and take up their abode under my roof, if Milton will cross my threshold to sing to me of Paradise; and Shakespeare to open to me the worlds of imagination and the workings of the human heart, and Franklin to enrich me with his practical wisdom, I shall not pine for want of intellectual companionship, and I may become a cultivated man though excluded from what is called the best society in the place where I live.

William E. Channing (1780-1842) American moralist, author, cleric, Unitarian theologian
“Self Culture,” lecture, Boston (Sep 1838)
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To have money is a feare, not to have it a griefe.

George Herbert (1593-1633) Welsh priest, orator, poet.
Jacula Prudentum (1640)
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“Money does not bring happiness” — only the wherewithal, perhaps, to endure its absence.

Ehrenreich - money happiness - wist_info quote

Barbara Ehrenreich (b. 1941) American feminist, journalist, political activist
Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class, ch. 6 (1990)
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Instead of comparing our lot with that of those who are more fortunate than we are, we should compare it with the lot of the great majority of our fellow men. It then appears that we are among the privileged.

Helen Keller (1880-1968) American author and lecturer
The Open Door (1957)
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Poverty is the only burden which is not lightened by being shared with others.

Jean-Paul Richter (1763-1825) German novelist, art historian, aesthetician [pseud. Jean-Paul]
(Attributed)
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In Maturin M. Ballou, Edge-Tools of Speech (1886)
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In vast stretches of the earth, men awoke today in hunger. They will spend the day in unceasing toil. And as the sun goes down they will still know hunger. They will see suffering in the eyes of their children. Many despair that their labor will ever decently shelter their families or protect them against disease. So long as this is so, peace and freedom will be in danger throughout our world. For wherever free men lose hope of progress, liberty will be weakened and the seeds of conflict will be sown.

Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) American general, US President (1953-61)
Speech, Tenth Colombo Plan Meeting, Seattle (10 Nov 1958)
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I know that a man who shows me his wealth is like the beggar who shows me his poverty; they are both looking for alms from me, the rich man for the alms of my envy, the poor man for the alms of my guilt.

Ben Hecht (1894-1964) American writer, director, producer, journalist
A Child of the Century (1954)
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POLLY PEACHUM: The law is simply and solely made for the exploitation of those who do not understand it or of those who, for naked need, cannot obey it.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) German poet, playwright, director, dramaturgist
Die Dreigroschenoper [The Three-Penny Opera], Act 3, sc. 1 (1928)

Alt. trans.: "The law was made for one thing alone, for the exploitation of those who don't understand it, or are prevented by naked misery from obeying it."
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There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificate — died of malnutrition — because the food must rot, must be forced to rot.

In the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
The Grapes of Wrath, ch. 25 (1939)
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Public services have, to use the economist’s word, a strong redistributional effect. And this effect is strongly in favor of those with lower incomes. Those who clamor the loudest for public economy are those for whom public services do the least. Tax reduction that curtails or limits public services has a double effect in comforting the comfortable and afflicting the poor.

John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) Canadian-American economist, diplomat, author
“Wealth and Poverty,” Speech, National Policy Committee on Pockets of Poverty (13 Dec 1963)

See sourcing notes here.
Added on 21-Sep-15 | Last updated 21-Sep-15
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He that feeds the hungry feeds God also.

The Talmud (AD 200-500) Collection of Jewish rabbinical writings
(Unreferenced)
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Even the protective functions of the state are most important for those in the lower income brackets. Lethal serum and poison drugs do, one gathers, work rather democratically on rich and poor alike. But many of us could probably survive a certain amount of exploitation in our prescriptions, fraud in our food packaging, mendacity in our dental advertising, or thimblerigging in our securities. We live in parts of cities where epidemics are less likely. The family that struggles to make ends meet, the widow with life-insurance money around loose, the dwellers in urban tenements need the protection of an alert FTC, FDA, SEC, and Public Health Service.

John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) Canadian-American economist, diplomat, author
“Wealth and Poverty,” Speech, National Policy Committee on Pockets of Poverty (13 Dec 1963)

See sourcing notes here.
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Having been poor is no shame, but being ashamed of it, is.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) American statesman, scientist, philosopher
Poor Richard’s Almanack (1749)
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There can be no permanent disfranchised peasantry in the United States. Freedom can never yield its fullness of blessings so long as the law or its administration places the smallest obstacle in the pathway of any virtuous citizen.

James A. Garfield (1831-1881) US President (1881), lawyer, lay preacher, educator
Inaugural address (4 Mar 1881)
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The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

William Gibson (b. 1948) American-Canadian speculative fiction novelist and essayist
Comment (1990s)

Original use is unconfirmed, earliest reference is in 1992. See here.
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Beauty is only skin deep, but it is a valuable asset if you are poor or have not any sense.

Kin Hubbard (1868-1930) American caricaturist and humorist [Frank McKinney Hubbard]
(Attributed)

See Thomas Adams.
Added on 3-Dec-14 | Last updated 3-Dec-14
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Poor and free rather than rich and enslaved. Of course, men want to be both rich and free, and this is what leads them at times to be poor and enslaved.

[Pauvre et libre plutôt que riche et asservi. Bien entendu les hommes veulent être et riches et libres et c’est ce qui les conduit quelquefois à être pauvres et esclaves.]

Albert Camus (1913-1960) Algerian-French novelist, essayist, playwright
Notebooks (1942-1951)
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Political sovereignty is but a mockery without the means of meeting poverty and illiteracy and disease. Self-determination is but a slogan if the future holds no hope.

John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) US President (1961-63)
Speech, UN General Assembly (25 Sep 1961)
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Added on 8-Sep-14 | Last updated 8-Sep-14
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I cannot criticize my parents for hoping that I would never experience poverty. They had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor. And I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression. It means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is something on which to pride yourself. But poverty itself is romanticized only by fools.

Joanne "Jo" Rowling (b. 1965) British novelist [writes as J. K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith]
Commencement Address, Harvard University (5 Jun 2008)
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Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.

Francis I (b. 1936) Argentinian Catholic Pope (2013- ) [b. Jorge Mario Bergoglio]
Evangelii Gaudium, sec. 53 (24 Nov 2013)
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While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.

Francis I (b. 1936) Argentinian Catholic Pope (2013- ) [b. Jorge Mario Bergoglio]
Evangelii Gaudium, sec. 56 (24 Nov 2013)
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Added on 30-Jul-14 | Last updated 30-Jul-14
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An American Government cannot permit Americans to starve.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) US President (1933-1945)
Speech, San Diego Exposition (2 Oct 1935)
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To be idle and to be poor have always been reproaches, and therefore every man endeavours with his utmost care to hide his poverty from others, and his idleness from himself.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) English writer, lexicographer, critic
The Idler, #17 (5 Aug 1758)
Added on 20-Jun-14 | Last updated 20-Jun-14
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It is all right to tell a man to lift himself up by his own bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself up by his own bootstraps.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
Sermon, Passion Sunday, National Cathedral (31 Mar 1968)
Added on 4-Jun-14 | Last updated 4-Jun-14
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To blame the poor for subsisting on welfare has no justice unless we are also willing to judge every rich member of society by how productive he or she is. Taken individual by individual, it is likely that there’s more idleness and abuse of government favors among the economically privileged than among the ranks of the disadvantaged.

Norman Mailer (1923-2007) American novelist, journalist, playwright, activist
(Attributed)
Added on 21-Apr-14 | Last updated 21-Apr-14
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We may see the small value God has for riches by the people he gives them to.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) English poet
“Thoughts on Various Subjects.” Miscellenies in Prose and Verse [pub. with Jonathan Swift], Vol. 2 (1727)

May be quoting his friend, Dr. John Arbuthnot.
Added on 27-Feb-14 | Last updated 27-Feb-14
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To be broke is not a disgrace, it is only a catastrophe.

Rex Stout (1886-1975) American writer
The League of Frightened Men, ch. 7 [Wolfe] (1935)
Added on 13-Feb-14 | Last updated 13-Feb-14
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What do you think God gave you more wealth than is requisite to satisfy your rational wants for, when you look around and see how many are in absolute need of that which you do not need? Can you not take the hint?

Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819-1881) American novelist, poet, editor [pseud. Timothy Titcomb]
(Attributed)

Quoted in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895)
Added on 15-Jan-14 | Last updated 15-Jan-14
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