Categorising the poor

Categorising the poor

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I have been meaning to write this post for a long time. It's the history of what we might call a “British disease” - the desire to judge people's motives rather than addressing their needs.

For centuries, successive British social systems have recognised that there are people who cannot work,whether because they are too young, too old, too ill or too infirm. These people need to be provided for by others – in the first instance families, but where family support networks break down, support must be provided by the wider community.

And for centuries, successive British social systems have also recognised the existence of people who are perfectly capable of working but are not doing so. Most of these people are unemployed due to economic circumstances. But a small minority are not working because they don't want to. And an even smaller minority pretend to be ill, infirm or unfortunate in order to claim benefits, often while working on the sly.

The origins of the Old Poor Laws

In mediaeval times, most social support was provided by the Church, through the monasteries and the parishes. But after the dissolution of the monasteries, far more of this responsibility fell on the parishes. Welfare provision in Tudor times became patchy and inconsistent – good in some places, less good in others. Eventually, the Poor Laws of 1601 recognised and codified “good practice” in the care of those who could not provide for themselves. Poorhouses were established, in which the old, ill and infirm were cared for, and orphanages were created to house, feed and educate children. It all sounds very civilised.

But there was a darker side. People who were physically unable to provide for themselves were not the only people without work in Tudor times. Unemployment was already high at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries, and it was accompanied by persistently high inflation. A growing number of able-bodied people were either not working or not earning enough to support themselves.

There had been a history of vagrancy in England ever since the Black Death. Once feudal ties were loosened by the shortage of able-bodied workers, some people got into the habit of moving from place to place looking for the best-paid work. The first law controlling wages and restricting movement of labour appeared in 1349 and was reinforced in 1351*. But these were poorly enforced and ineffective. And they did not address the growing number of “sturdy beggars” travelling from place to place, supporting themselves with a mixture of casual work, petty crime and begging.

Such itinerant workers were regarded with fear and suspicion, much as modern-day “travellers” are. The first law outlawing “wandering” appeared in 1388. Initially the punishment amounted to public humiliation: the offender was to be put in the stocks until he could persuade someone to pay for him to return to his “hundred”.

Yet many wanderers were repeat offenders: as fast as they were sent back to their hundreds, they left again. There is little doubt that to start with,many were simply migrating around the country in search of better-paid work, while others were professional beggars (and in the case of women, prostitutes) who knew they could make more money in a place where they were not known – rather like today's homeless man in a doorway, accompanied by obligatory dog, who takes the Tube back to his flat in Mill Hill at the end of a successful day's begging**. But once unemployment started to rise in Tudor times, their ranks were swelled by men, women and children who were genuinely unable to find steady work.

The trouble was that no-one distinguished between the genuinely unemployed and the professional vagrants. Punishments for vagrancy became increasingly harsh: in 1530, the Vagabonds Act licensed begging by the old and infirm, but provided for any able-bodied person found wandering outside their hundred to be “whipped until bloody” then forcibly returned to their hundred and put to work. The only people excused from this were heavily pregnant women and children under seven.

The legislation was strengthened in 1536, when provision was made for mutilation, imprisonment or execution of repeat offenders. And in 1547, a law was passed allowing for enslavement of vagrants. These laws proved too much for the magistrates: neither law was ever enforced. The 1547 law was repealed in 1550, and the death penalty for vagrancy was abolished in 1597. Imprisonment was as far as magistrates would go. Thus were born the first “workhouses”.

They weren't called workhouses at that time. They were known as “houses of correction”. The idea was that “sturdy beggars” were choosing not to work and therefore had a bad work ethic, which needed to be “corrected”. This was done by imposing hard physical work and a spartan regime.

The Poor Laws codified this distinction. Poorhouses were for the “deserving poor” - those who, through no fault of their own, were incapable of working. “Houses of correction” were for the “undeserving poor” - those who were perfectly capable of working but were choosing not to do so. But not many of the unemployed actually ended up in houses of correction. Belatedly, Poor Law legislators realised that unemployment was not necessarily wilful, and so chose to support the majority of unemployed with “outdoor relief”, or what we would now call unemployment benefit.

“Outdoor relief” was originally introduced to support agricultural labourers suffering seasonal unemployment.. Usually it involved some form of workfare, which was supposed to be socially useful but unfortunately included such beneficial activities as parking the unemployed on benches and leaving them there all day. Finding useful work for the unemployed to do was not always easy for parish administrators in times of high unemployment: modern proponents of a countercyclical job guarantee system might like to take note. They also faced the problem known as “hysteresis”, where the skills of the unemployed degenerate over time.

All manner of creative solutions to the twin problems of unemployment and hysteresis were adopted. The so-called “labour rate” was a property tax specifically used to fund the employment of agricultural labourers. The “roundsman” system was a job guarantee system funded by parishes to ensure that all agricultural labourers were productively employed: it depressed wages, but at least it kept people busy. Philanthropists, too, did their bit to relieve unemployment: one clergyman with more money than sense even built a completely useless tower near Rothbury, Northumberland, purely to keep local stonemasons occupied. And the Speenhamland system of income support attempted to ensure that periods of unemployment and under-employment coupled with high inflation did not leave families struggling to afford bread.

The New Poor Laws: benign cruelty

The Poor Laws were in many ways a benevolent institution, reversing the harshness of Tudor times. But the cost of all this assistance grew higher and higher as the population increased in the Industrial Revolution, raising concerns about its affordability. And there was a growing belief that supporting people with benefits destroyed people's incentive to work and was therefore a bad idea from both an economic and, more importantly, moral point of view. Rather than discouraging work with benefits, therefore, people should be compelled to work, if necessary with the threat of starvation. 

Driven by both moral and economic concerns, the Old Poor Laws were replaced in 1834 with a new system designed to ensure that people took responsibility for providing for themselves and their families. No more were parishes to provide unemployment benefits or income support (although in practice many continued to do so). No longer was there to be any attempt to distinguish between those who would not work and those who could not. Poorhouses and houses of correction merged to create a single institution – the workhouse. And into the workhouse went the old, the ill, the infirm, widows, orphans, the unemployed and their families.

Conditions in workhouses were deliberately harsh. It was believed that “work should pay”, and therefore workhouses should be a last resort for the desperate. Not only that, but because work itself was believed to be virtuous, workhouses provided just that – work. Hours and hours of it. Pointless, boring, demeaning work such as breaking stones, picking oakum or – stupidest of all – walking a treadmill. The regime was harsh, food was basic and there was no leisure time. You were not in a workhouse to enjoy yourself. Nor were you there to be cared for if you were incapable of work: the old concept of the benevolent poorhouse had gone. Everyone, old, young, ill, infirm, widows and unemployed, was subject to the same regime. Regardless of the circumstances, you were in a workhouse because you had committed the crime of worklessness. There were no mitigating factors.

Because it was believed that worklessness was caused by moral defect, steps were taken to prevent such moral degeneracy from spreading. People who entered workhouses often died there. Children were separated from their parents, often never to see them again. And husbands and wives were separated, usually permanently.

And yet, for all their harshness, Victorian workhouses had benefits. They provided basic healthcare and education, which many people “on the outside” could not afford. This rudimentary safety net made them particularly attractive to the old and those with children. Because of this, they failed in their basic aim, which was to force everyone to support themselves.

The Victorian period was a time of bizarre contradictions: of appalling cruelty inflicted with the best of motives, and of real social improvements coupled with grinding poverty for far too many. The foundation of the modern welfare state was laid during that time, as campaigners and politicians genuinely concerned about the hardships of the poor enacted legislation to improve their lot.

The economic consequences of old ideas

The moral beliefs that drove both the harsh treatment of vagrants in the 16th century and the unintended cruelty of the Victorian workhouse system persist to this day.

The idea that “work must pay” encourages politicians to make claiming benefits extremely difficult for the unemployed and – more worryingly – for those who are unable to work due to illness or infirmity, just as in Victorian times, workhouse conditions were made deliberately harsh to discourage people from entering them.

Politicians castigate “generational worklessness”, promoting the idea that a tendency to worklessness is somehow inherited, passed on from parents to children. It was this idea that led to the brutal separation of families in the workhouses.

Above all, there remains a strong belief in the moral virtue of work. Work is indeed important for human dignity, so making it possible for people to work is important: but in what way mind-numbingly boring, pointless and demeaning work is dignifying and virtuous is hard to imagine. Nonetheless, the idea that people should be forced to do basic work to “earn” their benefits – even if their time might be better spent looking for a job that actually uses their skills - is electorally popular. Underlying this lies the unwarranted assumption that all jobs are intrinsically of value and therefore anyone who turns down work because it is poorly paid, socially useless and utterly boring is lazy. It was this idea that led to workhouse inmates being forced to work long hours in dreary, pointless jobs. Today, we impose benefit sanctions on people who turn down the dreary, pointless jobs we assign to them in the name of “work experience”. Giving it a different name doesn't change its nature. It's the workhouse work ethic all over again.

It is perhaps understandable that we feel angry when we see people we think should be working but aren't. And it is also understandable that when times are hard, we resent paying benefits to those we feel don't deserve them. I suppose the anger that we feel towards those we regard as “scroungers” and “shirkers” will never go away. But categorising the poor is not only difficult – it is harmful, not to the shirkers and scroungers, but to the genuinely deserving. And it is also economically damaging for society as a whole.

Compelling people to work depresses wages for everyone. Harsh treatment of the workless enables employers to bid down wages to the floor in the certain knowledge that people will accept any work, at any price, rather than face the consequences. In Victorian times, fear of the workhouse depressed wages on the outside, forcing workhouses to respond by making conditions inside even worse. There was a race to the bottom in grimness which culminated in the famous Andover workhouse case, where starving inmates were reduced to eating the bones they had been assigned to grind down to make fertilizer. Today, we withdraw unemployment benefits from people who refuse even unpaid “work”. Is it any wonder that real unskilled wages have been falling?

Falling wages mean reduced demand in the domestic economy and lower tax revenues. If there are in-work benefits, falling wages also mean higher benefit bills. The “roundsman” system resulted in unsustainable benefit bills, as employers under-employed at market rates in the knowledge that they could pay less for the “reserve army” of unemployed labourers auctioned off by the parishes. These days, we prevent Dutch auctions in unskilled labour by imposing minimum wages. Ostensibly, this is to “make work pay”: but as benefit withdrawal for people on minimum wages can mean marginal tax rates of 100% or more, work at the minimum wage may not actually pay at all, though it does limit the benefit bills. But we haven't addressed the root cause of the problem: because we still subscribe to Victorian ideas that people will prefer to live on benefits rather than work to improve their lot, we are still – nearly two hundred years later – trying to compel people to work. The result is spiralling regulation and intervention in labour markets to limit the race to the bottom that such compulsion causes. We have learned nothing from our history.

But worst of all, using rules and sanctions to compel the genuinely work-shy to work diverts attention and resources away from those who really need help. And it unfairly stigmatises the vast majority of those who are not working, whether through unemployment, sickness or disability. Study after study has shown that in general, people want to work – the problem is that suitable jobs aren't always available. And yet there remains a prevalent view, even among people who should know better, that people must be compelled to work with harsh treatment. But today's sanctions for those who won't or can't work are mild compared to the punishments of old: why should they be any more successful? 

A new approach

It is time to abandon the failed ideas of the past once and for all. Ignore the work-shy: they are not worthy of the time and resources we spend on them. Instead, we should concentrate our attention on helping - not compelling - those who genuinely want to work to find useful, fulfilling and well-paid jobs. Enabling people to make the best use of their skills and talents is far and away the best way of creating a productive, vibrant economy. 

We should also stop trying to decide whether someone “deserves” social support. We have been trying to distinguish between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor for over five hundred years, and we are no better able to make that judgement now than we were in the fourteenth century, or the sixteenth, or the nineteenth. We inevitably end up denying support to those who desperately need it. 

Let us give up this fruitless attempt to judge people's motives. Simply provide everyone with a basic income so that they can afford to live, then let them get on with whatever they want to do.

Related reading:

Moral aspects of basic income - Tom Streithorst

The ideal welfare system is a basic income - Adam Smith Institute

A massive outbreak of callousness - Forbes

A Precariat Charter: From Denizen to Citizen - Guy Standing (book)

Image: National Archives via BBC

* The 1349 and 1351 Statutes of Labourers amounted to a prices and incomes policy enacted in response to cost-push inflation due to a major supply-side shock. It was as ineffective then as it was in the 1970s. 

** I do not mean to suggest that ALL homeless beggars in London are frauds. But we should recognise that professional begging exists today just as it did in the fourteenth century. Some things never change.


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