From colonial times, American strategies for dealing with poverty were shaped by ideas and policies that originated in England. The strong connection between American and English poverty policies is a result of several factors. The United States was created from a British colony and many of the nation’s founders were Anglophiles. Second, Western Europe, especially England, industrialized before America and consequently had experience in developing policies that addressed some of the difficulties associated with industrialism. When the U.S. first industrialized, it was only natural for American leaders to look across the Atlantic for pertinent ideas.
In the 16th century, Western Europe began to undergo a series of changes that started it down the road toward industrialization. For several centuries, the feudal system had been the dominant social and political order. The feudal system was a simple set of social and political alliances between workers and landowners and was largely managed by the clergy. It offered most of the population security and stability. Most economic transactions were based on bartering. Peasants, representing by far the most people, were tied to the land. Work was what you did to survive. There were few incentives to accumulate wealth; poverty meant starvation or near starvation and visited or threatened almost everyone in times of duress. The state of being poor held little stigma and remained separate from judgments about morality. Programs designed to help the truly destitute were typically funded through private donations and managed by the church.
In the early 1500s, the feudal system began to break apart, and its fracturing created new problems. Western European regions that were struggling to become nations began to explore ways to create wealth by adopting more advanced economic systems. Simply put, new nations realized they needed armies, and armies required money. MERCANTILISM emerged as the preferred economic system that encouraged early forms of trade, which created more wealth and financed armies and navies.
The last element in new more modern economic order took the form of a value change. Sometimes called the protestant ethic, this new set of values encouraged the accumulation of wealth and private property while dramatically changing attitudes towards poverty. This value shift is often also linked to the political and philosophical ideas that were advocated by leaders of the ENLIGHTENMENT who introduced such concepts as individualism and personal responsibility. Locke, Voltaire, Hume and Rousseau are a few of the more influential thinkers who helped shape a new view of the world.
The new world-view stressed hard work, individual initiative, liberty and the power of reason. The accumulation of wealth was regarded as proof that God approved your work and that God was on your side. Conversely, the absence of wealth was regarded as proof that God did not bless your work. Poverty suggested that the poor were poor because they were lazy, sexually loose and generally immoral. Gradually, this view of poverty became a commonly held value among European elites. The attaching of economic status to morality or immorality is a key concept in the development of our welfare system and explains why virtually all poverty programs reflect suspicions about dependency, laziness and personal irresponsibility. This fear remains prevalent despite evidence that most poverty is caused by larger events, such as the general state of the economy, unemployment, low wages, wars and disease.
As England began the process of industrialization, obtaining the necessary raw materials and cheap labor became major challenges. Textiles, the dominant early industry, encouraged landowners to push their peasants off the land, making way for sheep and the production of wool. That action disrupted the social covenant between landlord and peasant that had existed for hundreds of years. Conveniently, the landless peasants became another essential resource that textile industry needed, low income workers. The policies responsible for moving people off the land and into the new textile mills became known as the ENCLOSURE MOVEMENT and continued in England for several hundred years. Unfortunately, economic instability is a feature of newly industrializing economies, and the newly emerging enterprises were unable to provide workers with a consistent source of income.
While these new forces were placing greater pressure on society, particularly the less well off, the role of religion in mitigating the problems was diminished by the rise of the nation-state. The clearest example of religion’s failure to alleviate these new social pressures occurred in England when, in the 1500s, Henry VIII confiscated the wealth and lands of the Catholic Church. As a result of economic instability and the failure of religion, large number of peasants – now labeled as tramps, vagrants and beggars roamed the countryside and were viewed as a danger to the prevailing social order. In an attempt to restore social order, local communities passed poor laws. In the late 1500s, pressure began building for the passage of a poor law covering all of England, a national poor law.
The English Poor Law (ELP) of 1601 echoed several important realities of the times. First, it reflected the attitudes and values of the times. While it was the first national poor law, it built on local poor laws that had been in existence in English municipalities and towns for decades. Second, the poor law was at least as much an instrument of social control as an expression of altruism. England, in the 1500s, had experienced several political and social upheavals including the reign of Henry VIII. Shortages of food coupled with several poor harvests resulted in bread riots throughout the century. In the last few years of the 1500s, the riots became particularly threatening to the ruling class and were a major incentive for the creation of a national law.
ENGLISH POOR LAW(s) 1601-1834.
The English Poor Law (ELP) is an essential landmark in the study of poverty policy. To begin with, the English Poor Law was English, and because it was English, it became a model for virtually all the colonies as they began to face similar challenges. Additionally, it recognized that society had a responsibility to care for the poor, particularly those who were deemed “worthy” (women, children and the disabled). Finally, the ELP introduced some general principals that are reflected in current American poverty programs. Here are some of the more important general principles embodied in the laws.
1. Local administration. This concept reflects a general attitude of suspicion toward the poor. They need to be watched closely. In England the local administrative unit was the parish. In America it became the county.
2. Less Eligibility. This concept holds that relief should never be more than the lowest wages available. Again, an idea that is still a part of modern policies.
3. Classification of the poor into two major categories. The deserving and undeserving poor. Correspondingly, deserving poor people should receive a kinder and more benevolent form of relief, while the undeserving get very little if any relief. Related to this classification was the creation of two kinds of relief. Indoor Relief or pauper houses and Outdoor Relief which consisted of subsidizing people outside the poorhouse, usually with neighbors.
4. Relative Responsibility. A needy person’s family is primarily responsible for that person. Public relief is only available if the relatives cannot. The Elderly should live with their children and dependent children should reside with their grandparents.
5. Residence Requirements. A local relief system is not responsible for those who are not members of the local community. Send them back where they came from!
While core concepts of the EPL were laid out in the 1601 act, the poor law was subject to modification over the course of the next two hundred years. One key 18th century modification was the SPEENHANLAND system. This policy was a reaction to a period of falling wages accompanied by rising prices of key commodities. In essence, the SPEENHAMLAND plan subsidized low wages. Although it was a progressive idea that enjoyed considerable support, Malthus and Smith criticized it for being inconsistent with good economic principles. They claimed it encouraged laziness, discouraged employers from paying a livable wage and encouraged unwanted population growth. (Those complaints still resonate among conservatives whenever similar ideas are debated in the U.S. Congress.)
The most important change to the EPL was an even greater emphasis on “indoor relief”. Indoor relief, or the establishment of workhouses as the primary anti-poverty strategy, reached a zenith in the New Poor Law of 1834. That act emphasized the dreaded workhouse and was so punitive that some scholars claim it produced a reaction called the chartist movement, a radical working class movement that demanded an end of the workhouse and acceptance of working class suffrage. It should be noted that the poor laws were a direct response to the problems of dire poverty and an indirect method of controlling the working poor by threatening them with the more punitive aspects of the poor laws.
THE DANGEROUS CLASSES
Led by the landowners and early capitalists, The English government searched for ways of controlling and pacifying the peasants and laborers. However working people, who were often labeled the dangerous classes, were not entirely submissive. Even before the French Revolution, peasant uprisings were not taken lightly. Such disturbances were somewhat common throughout Europe in the 15th 16th and 17th centuries, especially when prices of essential commodities such as bread and wheat grew beyond the reach of the common worker. While the term “bread riot” elicits images of hungry housewives attacking bakeries, such disturbances were often violent and could easily grow into broader uprisings that challenged the ruling classes and demanded broader privileges.
After the French Revolution, which completely overturned centuries of tradition and was fueled by the blood of the aristocracy, any resistance sent chills of fear through the nobility and was met with suppression. For example, one of the most famous resistances in early 19th century England was that of the LUDDITES. The Luddite movement was aimed directly at the building forces of industrialism and technology.
The Luddite revolt illustrates many of the early labor problems in a society that was in the throes of transitioning from a rural to an industrial based economy. The early 19th century was difficult for workers. The country’s economy was suffering from the effects of the Neapolitan Wars that put a blockade on English goods. Agriculture too had suffered from a series of crop failures that resulted in soaring grain prices. While manufacturing was still mostly located in small towns, technological advances in the manufacturing of textiles posed a threat to skilled workers. Specifically, the new weaving technologies encouraged manufacturers to hire more unskilled -as opposed to skilled- workers. In 1811, when manufacturers began lowering wages, a group of textile workers in Nottingham sabotaged the knitting frames. Similar attacks spread through the industry and continued to be a threat for the remainder of the year. Some groups claimed to be led by a General Lud, and the uprising came to be known as the Luddite revolt. Finally, Parliament sent an army of 35,000 soldiers to put down the rebellion. In 1812 a number of Luddites were arrested. Seventeen men were hung and hundreds exiled. Since that time the term Luddite has been used to describe anyone who is against technology.
While the poor laws are important, one should not assume that they were the primary source of support for England’s poor. The “laboring classes”, workers who owned nothing more than their own labor, utilized a number of strategies to deal with the constant threat of destitution. Informal supports were far more important than the formal systems embedded in the poor laws. Neighbors supported each other economically as well as socially. Relationships between landlord and tenant farmer often included loans and other forms of financial support. Even the relationships between master and servant, a substantial form of employment during this time, sometimes included financial support when servants were sick or having difficulties. Apprenticeships often extended financial as well as professional supports.
Institutions such as hospitals and other charitable institutions often owned rental property and regularly postponed or canceled payments during bad times. Godparents are another example of an informal relationship that often served as support for the working poor. It was common for a godparent to be picked from a social class above that of the parents. There is considerable evidence that those relationships assumed fiscal as well as social responsibilities. Another important anti-poverty strategy was immigration. For example, between 1660 and 1700 more than 100 thousand people immigrated to the American colonies. While some were looking for religious freedom many more were vagrants and petty thieves who were being deported or who were trying to escape poverty.
Professional guilds were another source of support in most townships; some even stored grain against the eventuality of widespread unemployment. An offshoot of the guilds, and a resource that became much larger than the guild movement, was the development of “friendly societies”. The Odd fellows, Masons, Knights of Pythias and many similar groups were obvious substitutes for the rural based extended family. These associations provided a variety of basic social services that included labor contacts for the unemployed and direct aid for injured workers and to widows. The integration of these groups into the mainstream of British urban society is thought to be a result of both the fear of the workhouse and the pauper’s cemetery. Especially after the changes in the poor law of 1834, working people were terrorized by the threat of these two institutions. Consequently, the friendly societies grew rapidly in the 19th century. By 1870, membership in friendly societies had grown from a half million in 1800 to more than 4 million.
Last, but certainly not least, was the extended family. Many records exist documenting cousins, nephews and nieces living in extended arrangements and, of course, households composed of grandchildren and grandparents were quite common. Census data from the 18th century suggests that working class families were far more likely to contain extended living arrangements than households of the upper classes.
The roots of our contemporary welfare state reach at least as far back as the Italian city-states of the 15th century. With the emergence of capitalism, industrialism and the Protestant Reformation, attitudes towards the poor changed dramatically. Poverty became directly associated with immorality and anti-poverty strategies were aimed at changing the individual with particular emphasis on work. Those changes were especially rapid and striking in England, where the development of industry and early capitalism were most dramatic. England developed the first set of nationally codified poor laws that were based on a set of generally accepted principles and were designed to solve some of the more serious problems being created by the economic and social changes.
Only during periods of crisis, famine, or economic collapse does the modern mind seem willing to view poverty as a systemic problem demanding responses that extend beyond changing individual behavior. Only at such times are we willing to view poverty as a systemic problem generated by forces or misfortunes beyond the control of the individual. Such values, placing most of the responsibility for poverty firmly on the shoulders of the poor themselves, are so pervasive that they remain the core of most welfare policies in spite of an abundance of evidence to the contrary.