The Idea of Poverty


The idea of poverty, raw and elemental, has proved a most effective discipline on labour, which, it is feared, might give way to indolence and evasion of its duties, should it not remain under a salutary threat of destitution. Accordingly, despite periodic attempts of society to shelter people against dereliction, equally powerful forces seek to sweep them away, so that the individual may be free to make his or her private accommodation with loss and want.

There has been constant movement between a desire to expose the people to, and to protect them from, the asperities of pauperism. Institutions established to look after the poor have been repeatedly constructed, according to the wisdom of one generation and then demolished, following the new understanding of the next. Today’s assault on the welfare state takes it place in a long tradition of tearing down attempts to shelter people from the savage vicissitudes of existence, those created both by nature and by political contrivance.

It may be that a sense of security against the expected perils of life does indeed make some people lazy and disinclined to labour. The only problem is that efforts to dismantle such protection have usually resulted in greater suffering than any abuse of it.

The Statute of Labourers in 1351 was enacted to deal with wage-inflation following the Black Death and the loss of one-third of the labourers of England. This required every able-bodied person under the age of sixty with no means of subsistence to work for whoever wanted his labour; and ‘vagrant serfs’ were compelled to labour for anyone who would employ them.

By the 16th century, population had increased, and ‘surplus labour’ became visible once more, at the moment when the charitable giving of monasteries and religious foundations had been abolished. Punitive enactments against the poor and workless were again passed.

The Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 made a distinction between the ‘impotent’ poor, the idle (unemployed) and the able-bodied (unwilling to work). Overseers of the poor were appointed by each parish to make sure the sick, aged and needy received help. Since parishes varied in their generosity, people naturally moved to where assistance was more generous. The Act of Settlement of 1622 gave parishes the right to return paupers to their home parish, unless they possessed a ‘settlement certificate.’ The Statute of Artificers of 1653 reiterated the compulsion to labour of all between the ages of 12 and 60, and unmarried women between 12 and 40. The objective was ‘to banish idleness, advance husbandry and to yield unto the hired person a convenient proportion of wages.’

The able-bodied without employment could be sent to the workhouse from the 1720s. Out-relief decreased, but conditions in the workhouse were so bad that by the end of the eighteenth century scandals over neglect, promiscuity and early death were so common that only orphans, the infirm and the aged were consigned to its mercy, with the lazy and vagrant consigned to the house of correction.

In 1795, the Speenhamland system (named after the Berkshire parish in which it was conceived) guaranteed that the income of labourers should be tied to fluctuations in the price of bread. This – the most comprehensive safety net before the welfare state – created ‘indiscriminate relief’, which was accused of demoralising the people and inducing in them an aversion to labour. It encouraged farmers to lower wages, since they knew the parish would make up the difference. This anticipates contemporary rhetoric about the dependency culture of welfare and the scandal of the competent and able-bodied living on benefit.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was the response to this ‘evil.’ Like most attempts to remedy the abuse of public charity, the cure was worse than the disease. Under this dispensation, the able-bodied were to be relieved only within the workhouse, where conditions were to be made ‘less eligible’, that is, inferior to the status and income of the lowest- paid independent labourer. The shadow cast by this castigation of the poor lay for more than a century over the industrial towns and cities of Britain.

In 1948, the words ‘The Poor Law shall cease to exist’ served as preamble to the National Assistance Act. The welfare state was accepted by all political parties in the aftermath of the catastrophe in Europe; and so it remained, despite complaints in the 1940s that the people were rushing to obtain spectacles, and were having their teeth pulled for the sake of free dentures. Later, complaints arose that welfare was sapping the moral fibre of the nation. Generations of families were discovered never to have worked, and an ‘underclass’ emerged, and the identification of institutionalised fecklessness came to haunt political debate once more.

This has culminated in the Coalition’s determination to stamp out these evils, a promise which galvanises its torpid political base; at the same time, they pledge to respect those who, ‘through no fault of their own’, become a charge on public funds; a distinction that has, as ever, proved to be far easier to make in theory than in practice.

The politics of Britain have never come to terms with the persistence of a poverty which, although essential to the maintenance of the dynamic of the economy, must, at the same time, be castigated. Whether the abuse of charity by a minority is worse than indiscriminate alms-giving is a question unlikely to be settled in the near future, the more so since the punitive sensibility of the Poor Law still colours the ideology of the present administration, and its belief that the economy is an autonomous and natural system that flourishes best with minimal intrusion by government.

The question persists: does human civilisation find its highest expression in efforts to soften the misfortunes we are prey to, or is to be found in letting the economy, which is, after all, a working out of natural laws (set in train by the invisible hand of the Creator), take its course?  We are living through another moment of vindictive reprisals against the poor. It will no doubt pass, and new tenderness for their plight eventually be rediscovered. It is a pity that, rather than oscillating between punishment and protection, more energy is not expended on efforts to discover where or how a secure and lasting sufficiency for all the people may be found.