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Friday, December 4, 2015

Rotten Boroughs, Poor laws

Mankind has always done better collectively, when worker and employer, city and countryside, rich and poor, looked out for each other. When John Locke used the word "commonwealth as a translation of "civitas" [see Commonwealth according to locke], he was creating a terminology for a world where "e pluribus unum" [Out of many Unity] could be reality. This concept of commonwealth predates Christianity, and the notion that one should protect those who can't help themselves is more Christian than not. One can think of Queen Elizabeth as expressing a progressive mood in England.

British Poor laws date to 1601:

"In 1601, England was experiencing a severe economic depression, with large scale unemployment and widespread famine. Queen Elizabeth proclaimed a set of laws designed to maintain order and contribute to the general good of the kingdom: the English Poor Laws. These laws remained in force for more than 250 years with only minor changes." [SocialHistory]
"Essentially, the laws distinguished three major categories of dependents:
  1. the vagrant,
  2. the involuntary unemployed, and
  3. the helpless."

Poor laws

Each category was dealt with differently. Vagrants were given the opportunity to work or be treated as criminals, the unemployed were put to work and the helpless were helped. Like Modern Welfare the system was designed to treat people fairly

"The laws also set forth ways and means for dealing with each category of dependents. Most important, the laws established the parish (i.e.,local government), acting through an overseer of the poor appointed by local officials, as the administrative unit for executing the law." [SocialHistory]
"The poor laws gave the local government
the power to raise taxes as needed and
use the funds to build and maintain almshouses;
to provide indoor relief (i.e., cash or sustenance) for the aged, handicapped and other worthy poor; and
the tools and materials required to put the unemployed to work.
Parents were required to support their children and grandchildren.
Likewise, children were responsible for the care of their unemployable parents and grandparents.
Children whose parents could not support them were forced into mandatory apprenticeships.
They had no right to object to the compensation or the interference with their own child-rearing activities.
Vagrants and any able bodied persons who refused to work could be committed to a house of correction or fined."

Queen Elizabeth was rightly beloved by her people. But she died in 1603. Her successor King James I (1603-1625), Charles the 1st (1625 – 1649), the Protector State of Olivar Cromwell and then Charles the II (1660-1685) were less liberal.

In 1662 a prohibition on internal migration was passed by the revived Stuart Regime.

"in 1662 a severe Law of Settlement and Removal was enacted in England. The law made it possible for local authorities to force individuals and families to leave a town and return to their home parish if they became dependent. In effect, this law allowed a local government to restrict aid only to persons and families known to be “residents.”" [SocialHistory]

In 1723 the laws were amended to create workhouses, where people would exchange virtual servitude for assistance. This was meant to dissuade people from seeking assistance:

By 1776 "workhouse returns were made showing the existence of about 2,000 workhouses, each with between 20 and 50 inmates. The cost of indoor relief was high; inefficient workhouse management led to increased social pressure for more sympathetic treatment of the poor. This led to the passing of Gilbert's Act in 1782." TestAct

Essentially the poor laws were funded by the people living in poor parishes. Not only that but, over time the initial liberal and charitable principles of their founding were replaced with principles that sought to make an example of the poor. To force people into pure destitution before they could get any relief. As the reformer Jonathan Fels would note years later. Under the English Poor laws, by 1900:

"The Guardians of the poor, with the strict interpretation of their duty, had to force all of the needy into the groove of utter destitute paupers."

Late 19th century reformers like Joseph Fels would seek to reform this. Most of them realized that the poor laws were designed to: keep the poor from asking for help; to prevent the from complaining about low wages and unemployment; and to punish the poor for "asking for another helping of soup." [Dickens] Even so, the time was ripe for correction. The established classes were growing afraid of workers. Some of them were getting violent. They were going on strike. Industrialist reformers like Fels and Mr. George Lansbury were doing reforms in order to avoid a future in which many former wealthy would wind up with their heads on a pike as Marx and his followers were advocating. People like Fels advocated the creation of agricultural colonies to enable people to feed themselves, be employed. Labor became organized and demanded democratic reforms. The wealthy can afford to dance with the poor, during those rare moments when labor has a voice. They own the housing. Even rent support supports their rents.

More to come

Social Welfare History & Poor Laws

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