Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Poverty knocks

Some weeks ago I gave a talk to the Caverswall History Society on the old Poor Law which was in place until the changes in the 1830s which led to the widespread introduction of the work house. The workhouse had existed prior to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act and it was the existence of a “House of Industry” in Caverswall which I saw in an 1800 Staffordshire Advertiser which led me to explore this area of history.

What is remarkable is the similarity of argument that existed in the past about the community response to poverty and now. Recently a storm of controversy surrounded the Channel 4 program “Benefit Street”, but exactly the same viewed was expressed about the feckless in Parliaments of the 18th century. Our response to what to do about the poor is comparable. The Coalition Government has introduced workfare in which the unemployed have to work for their benefit. In the 1720s the poor were often put to work spinning wool to defray the cost to the authorities of looking after them. The writer Daniel Defoe wrote in 1727 that by doing this you were putting out of work spinners elsewhere “then there must be a skein the less done by some poor family that span it before….It is only transporting manufacture from Colchester to London and taking the bread out of the mouths of the poor of Essex to put it into the mouths of the poor of Middlesex”. Today we have a situation where  putting unemployed people to work for nothing in retail stores means that shop workers face the possibility of being put out of work themselves.

Another 18th century example was the subsidising of low wages by using bread in the Speenhamland system named after the village in Berkshire where the scheme was pioneered to assist farm labourers whose wages were being cut. It was adopted nationally and proved ruinously expensive as a series of poor harvests and war caused economic hardship. Now the wages of the low paid are made up through the tax payer funded Working Tax Credit system effectively subsidising stingy employers. 

The view often expressed by commentators of “Benefit Street” is the anger directed at the scrounger who will not work and is a drain on the country’s resources. We see past comments such as “sturdy beggar” directed at the 17th century wandering vagrants- the scrounger of his time. However in the reports of the overseers of the Leek Poor Law in 1808, one can glimpse the circumstances that can bring people low. Decisions were made to support an elderly widow, a deserted family or a disabled army veteran.

In the welfare debate we seem to be constantly replaying the old arguments about deserving or undeserving poor. Perhaps we should be looking at other ways to provide support as well as freeing people from the bureaucratic complexity of the present benefit system? I have always favoured the Basic Income approach. It has a long history and has been championed by people as diverse as Thomas More, Tom Paine and Martin Luther King.