Poverty and the Poor
‘Every one but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor or they will never be industrious’ [16a p
]. Arthur Young’s forceful statement, written in 1771, summarized the deeply held pessimism that characterized social theory from the Tudors to the Hanoverians. Idleness and the suppression thereof supplied its principal theme. Allegedly the besetting sin of the labourer, it was castigated by the godly and criticized by the worldly in about equal measure. Idleness linked questions of sloth, depravity and disorder with problems of productivity and power; it imparted a punitive character to social policy and provided the main justification for a low wage economy. To be sure, there were eighteenth-century writers who argued for a rise in living standards as an incentive to greater effort, but the idea that labour consisted of consumers whose satisfaction was the end of the productive process was still in its infancy. Contemporary wisdom held that high wages promoted indolence, riot and dissipation and that only by payment of barely subsistent wages could the poor be compelled into work and submission [39
Poverty was understood as the normal and irremediable condition of the population. ‘Poverty’, wrote economist and social reformer Patrick Colquhoun,* ‘is that state and condition in society where the individual has no surplus labour in store, or, in other words, no property or means of subsistence but what is derived from the constant exercise of industry in the various occupations of life’ [11 p
]. No sharp distinction separated the ‘labourer’ from the ‘poor’. Indeed, until the eve of the Industrial Revolution the two were practically synonymous. In common parlance the term ‘labouring poor’ applied to all who were compelled to work for their daily bread. It was also assumed that the earnings of those so classified would be insufficient for maintenance and from time to time require supplementation from
private charity or public relief. The ‘labouring poor’ thus embraced the poor with the pauper, the independent with the dependent poor and the deserving with the undeserving poor. These impoverished myriads, claimed Arthur Young, constituted 90 per cent of the population. Contemporaries, though, were not alarmed. Poverty not only supplied an inducement to labour, it was widely regarded as the necessary and indispensable basis of civilization and prosperity. ‘Without a large proportion of poverty’, wrote Colquhoun, in 1806, ‘there could be no riches, since riches are the offspring of labour, while labour can result only from a state of poverty; . . . without poverty there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth, inasmuch as, without a large proportion of poverty, surplus labour could never be rendered productive in procuring either the convenience or luxuries of life’ [11 pp
By 1832, the year in which the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws was appointed, thinking about poverty had changed decisively. The all inclusive notion of the ‘labouring poor’ had been superseded by a new concept of poverty in which dependency and non-dependency were the organizing principles. Debate on the social question henceforth centred on the distinction between the ‘pauper’ and the ‘poor’ The redefinition of terms reflected the influence of a new individualist political economy and arose directly from the social dislocation that accompanied the demographic and industrial revolutions and the hardships created by protracted warfare and dearth [124
]. In response to this distress the authorities had sanctioned an enormous expansion in the level and forms of public relief. Experiments included relief in money and kind, subsidized public works and indoor relief in the workhouse. Most significant of all such schemes was the Speenhamland or allowance system introduced in 1795. Meeting against a background of bad harvests and high prices the Berkshire magistrates, who assembled at the Pelican Inn in the village of Speenhamland near Newbury, decided to supplement agricultural wages with poor law allowances on a scale that varied in accordance with the price of bread and the size of the labourers’ family. The policy of making up wages out of the rates – rates in aid of wages, as it was called – to cope with the social emergency was endorsed by parliament the following year and adopted widely throughout the southern counties thereafter.
The Speenhamland system transformed the character of poor relief. The terms on which relief was given were recast so as to embrace all – employed and unemployed – whose income fell below a minimum
subsistence level. The soaring costs of poor relief registered the transformation that had been wrought and prompted a re-examination of the principles of poor law policy. Critics charged that the expansion of poor relief undermined individual initiative, promoted dependency upon the parish and made labourers into paupers. Some fixed upon the adverse effects on the labour market. Relief payments were said to be injurious to the skill, diligence and honesty of the agricultural labourer. Others pointed to depressed wages, reduced productivity and labour immobility. Still others focused upon the premium placed upon immorality by the relief claimed for bastards and bemoaned the blunting of the work ethic among the industrious poor who could secure more from the parish than could be earned in honest labour [42
]. A significant intervention came from Edmund Burke (1729–1797). His Thoughts and Details of Scarcity
(1795), written shortly after the introduction of the Speenhamland system, was a notable attempt to rethink the idea of the labouring poor in order to demarcate, for purposes of relief policy, those who worked for their subsistence from those who could not work and were dependent upon charity or relief. Burke’s intention was to introduce a firm line of division between the pauper and non-pauper as the basis for a significant reduction in the scope of social policy. In subsequent writings he protested against the ‘political canting language’, the ‘puling jargon’ of the expression ‘labouring poor’, in favour of a rigorous distinction that excluded the able-bodied from the purview of the Poor Law. The most important contribution to this debate came from the pen of the Revd Thomas Robert Malthus (1766–1834). His pamphlet, An Essay on the Principle of Population
, As It Affects the Future Improvement of Society
, published in 1798, became one of the foundational texts of nineteenth-century social theory [Doc
]. Whereas previous writers had viewed population growth as a wealth-creating asset, Malthus saw it as a liability, the cause of widespread distress and near permanent poverty. The labouring poor in this vision were pitched into a relentless struggle for existence, a Hobbesian nightmare in which the industrious poor were pulled downwards towards the dependent poor as the latter slipped ever closer towards starvation and death. Progress, the organizing assumption of enlightened thinking, became a distant contingency and perpetual improvement well nigh impossible. Malthus’s law of population, which supplied a rationalization for the subsistence theory of wages, was quickly incorporated into the central truths of the new ‘dismal science’ of political economy.
Malthus proceeded from the assumption that population tends to increase in a geometrical ratio while subsistence can at best be made to increase only in an arithmetical ratio. The tendency of the population to increase faster than the means of subsistence, unless checked by the exercise of prudence and restraint, must be limited by such positive checks as war, famine, disease and misery to keep up the death rate and by preventative checks such as infanticide and abortion to depress the birth rate. Malthus subsequently conceded that, apart from these manifestations of ‘misery and vice’, population could also be checked through the exercise of moral restraint (i.e., postponement of the age of marriage and strict sexual continence before marriage). Malthus’s principle, posited as an inescapable natural law, struck a mortal blow at the visionary ideals of contemporary social reformers who thought that reason, education and goodwill were sufficient to initiate a perfect social order. Poverty had its origins in the unequal race between population and the means of subsistence rather than in the prevailing social and political arrangements. Social breakdown arising from unlimited population growth, he concluded, could only be averted by the individual pursuit of self-interest working within the framework of the institutions of property, marriage and class division.
Malthus’s principal fear was that the labourer’s ‘prudential restraint’ and ‘love of independence’ was being undermined by the provision of poor relief. The subversive influence of the Poor Laws constituted the starting-point of an uncompromising assault on contemporary social policy. Poor law practices, he argued, encouraged improvident marriages and the proliferation of children for whom there was no support with the result that numbers rose, living standards fell and applications for parish relief soared. In that sense, he observed, the Poor Laws served to ‘create the poor they maintain’. Apart from the encouragement of carelessness and extravagance, idleness and insobriety, drunkenness and dissipation, the Poor Laws also had the effect of transfering resources from the ‘most industrious and worthy’ sorts to the lowest classes. The real victims of the Poor Laws, then, were not the recipients of poor relief but the struggling self-supporting elements above them whose position was jeopardized by the libidinous and irresponsible conduct of their fellows. The poor, Malthus insisted, were their own worst enemies ‘A labourer who marr...