I have been looking at some stuff covering the recent series of reports on poverty by the UN Rapporteur, which made comparisons between the UK now, and the mean-spirited approach of 19th Century workhouses that Dickens wrote about.
How much has really changed?
On the face of it, there are certainly similarities in attitudes that bear scrutiny, and the report made me wonder what conditions were actually like in the workhouses and what their objectives were, back in 1834, when the New Poor law came into effect.
I thought there might be some mileage in pulling out some differences and similarities, so off I went, doing a bit of reading.
Money for old rope?
It was a lot more complicated than I imagined, not that I had given much real thought to life in The Workhouse. I’d done a little bit about the Poor Law at school as part of my GCE “O” Level History course, so I had some vague idea of what it was all about.
“I’ll end up in the workhouse” was an expression that my Nan used when she was particularly hard-up, and at that time, I had a picture in my mind that involved picking oakum, which, as a child, I thought was some kind of crop. It was only later that I realised that it was pulling strands out of old tarry rope knots, and was akin to hard labour, and certainly not good for the hands. Dickens painted a kind of tragi-comic caricature of everyday workhouse life which was even more romanticised in Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!” and I wondered what happened to him in the end. Lionel Bart, I mean, not the Twist boy.
I know he went on a downward spiral from fame to bankruptcy, via alcoholism, drug dependency, and all kinds of associated illnesses; eventually dying of liver failure in 1999. A prime candidate for the workhouse if ever there was one, but it had long gone by then, and Universal Credit wasn’t even a glint in the relatively new MP, Iain Duncan Smith’s, Tory eye.
“Beware the quiet man”, IDS had warned when he was Tory leader. Spot on mate! Nice to see him described as a “despicable Victorian oaf” by Peter Stefanovic, @PeterStefanovi2, after his claims about the benefits of raising the pensions age to 75! Still, for all his faults, he did at least resign over the “above and beyond” benefits cuts imposed by Cameron and Osborne; two of the odious Bullingdon Boys.
But there is an immediate and obvious point of comparison between now and then:
Give them what I want, what I really, really, want…
Basically, all sorts of people wanted to get different things from the system.
Some just wanted to punish the idle feckless poor. These were the benefit bashers then as now;
Some wanted to feed the destitute. There have always been a few good and charitable types;
Some just wanted to make a name for themselves as patrons. They wanted their names on the honours board. These were the philanthropists, keen to be seen to be making generous gestures;
Some wanted to save money by whatever means possible. They didn’t want to support anyone who wouldn’t enter a workhouse, they wanted to move vagrants on, or to have them thrown in gaol. These were the pre-Thatcherites.
Others wanted to turn a profit using cheap or free labour. These were the villainous capitalists;
But almost all wanted to provide a harsh comparison between those in poverty and the more industrious members of society to discourage malingerers. These included the ” There but for The Grace of God” poor, the “Holier than thou” crowd. They are still with us. It seems we need someone to look down on, to vilify.
Of course, there are those who were the subject of this parsimony who just needed food and shelter when times were hard, but they didn’t count unless they featured in pious prayers or public displays of largesse.
The unchanging benefit dilemma
Screw the poor? Or Screw the poor and get them back to work?
There was still a bit of a dilemma for the proponents of the Poor Law as it developed. Did they want to punish the able-bodied poor, or rehabilitate them? They had to make living in a workhouse compare unfavourably with working outside, or people wouldn’t leave but would just stay on, reaping the benefits, so to speak. On the other hand, they wanted to give them the skills to get them back to work. Ring any bells?
However, while the poor struggled to make their meagre resources stretch from one day to the next, and the better-off struggled with their even more meagre consciences, the nature of the Workhouse was changing. The institutions were increasingly shunned by able-bodied men, and were becoming homes for orphans, abandoned children, the elderly, and the infirm. People who simply could not work. This rather blew the model.
Even so, the last vestiges of the workhouse didn’t disappear until 1948 with the National Assistance Act. I was shocked to hear a man on Radio 4 talking about his experience as a very young child in a workhouse in that year, aged four. He was separated from his parents, who were also kept apart from each other by the segregation policies of the day. He slept on two chairs, with coats as bedcovers, and was always hungry. It was pretty grim. However, children are living like that in our affluent society today, and that is frankly disgraceful.
What was the level of deprivation like in the mid-1800s?
Well, it was pretty severe but let’s pick up some of these issues.
There was a philanthropist, William Rathbone, who was also Mayor of Liverpool, who was well placed to see the problem in terms of conflicting claims:
- justice to the community ,
- severity to the idle, and,
- mercy to those made poor through no fault of their own.
He also saw grinding poverty among the honest poor, with starvation, squalor, and misery; with children going hungry, and mothers working themselves to death.
Rathbone nailed it!
But maybe his most significant take-away was that the authorities just didn’t get it. They either didn’t, or couldn’t, understand the struggles that these people were facing. This was in 1850, and one would have hoped that we would have moved on a bit since then.
Interestingly, the Guardian DATABlog site reports ONS statistics for life expectancy at birth, for men born in Liverpool, as 74.5 years. This means that they should have died before they come into state pension payment under the IDS pension proposal of 75. Now that certainly is a radical way of reducing the pension bill and co-incidentally, they weren’t going to vote Tory anyway!
It would seem that the UN Rapporteur’s observations about our government being in denial still ring true today.
Thinking about societal attitudes, encouraged by the bulk of our “News” media, the general idea of blaming those in poverty for their condition seems prevalent. The concept of the undeserving poor hasn’t died, even though some of the individuals caught in the poverty trap almost certainly have.
The Universal Credit environment seems deliberately designed to be harsh at the point of entry, to discourage and deter anyone from applying. You have to be pretty desperate to jump through the required hoops, assuming you remain fit enough to jump.
The whole benefit system certainly upset the UN rapporteur who commented that our children are still going hungry, particularly during the school holidays.
Rightsinfo.org estimate that 25% of children are now in poverty, and Shelter’s research indicates that 128,000 children are homeless. This has been backed up by various fact checking outfits.
Thinking further about inequality, 52% of our wealth is held by the top 10%, and 20% of our national wealth by the top 1%. Now that sounds fair doesn’t it, eh?
More than that, OECD data shows that the UK is the only developed economy in which wages fell despite overall economic growth, and that one in eight workers live in poverty, and 1.3 million people (including children) rely on food banks.
Still, if our undernourished parent population can’t feed or house their children, the State will take them into “Care”. Now that is another modern-day euphemism. We like to dump them onto charities these days, or put children into poorly controlled, underfunded, “Care”. We extend this approach of poorly-funded care facilities to any elderly, or infirm people without private means.
Not much has changed here since 1850, apart from our state’s wilful determination to define anyone that isn’t actually either dead, or in a permanent vegetative state, as able-bodied. Actually, given Capita’s recent performance, even these conditions would not necessarily guarantee compliance or otherwise.
So, having been smart about this, by outsourcing the evaluation exercise to a number of incompetent private sector providers, HMG can claim that it isn’t their fault and they will review the matter.
Note to self: Purchase shares in whitewash company.
There was a feeling about in the mid-1800s that poverty and an underclass was necessary to support and benefit the wealthy and powerful. Well whoopee doo! No change there then!
We need to wake up and seize the profit
Every time some great benefactor makes a magnificent donation to a worthy cause, we should be asking ourselves, if not them, where did this money come from? Whose effort generated it? Who gave these people the right to determine how it is spent?
I have a different idea. Why don’t we tax it as it is generated and maybe redirect it to where our communities would like it to go?
Why don’t we force them to pay adequate wages to their staff, rather than having the state begrudgingly top-up the shortfall in income for those working in poverty in our society, making it possible to characterise some hard working people as benefit scroungers? Surely the concept of benefits should be supporting the employees not subsidising the life styles of low pay employers?
Why don’t we force those who exploit our need for services to keep their funds in places where we can ensure that they make a proper, commensurate, contribution to our society rather than just to their own personal wealth?
Ships? I see no ships, only hardships.
I know that many of these ships may have sailed and that they probably only sail under our flag because it is convenient for their builders, owners and operators, none of whom are actually us, but we have to try.
Note to self: Buy shares in people preparing to crash the economy because they know how to profit from it.
Note to self: NO, ignore that. Let’s just try to find a way to Fuck them over!