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Poor Law Amendment Act 1834

The Poor Law began in 1601 during the time of Elizabeth I. The aims of the poor law, according to Golding and Middleton were work, discipline, deterrence and classification. The poor law was the most important policy development dealing with poverty up until the end of the nineteenth century and it was a development, which focused in particular upon control and deterrence. In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed, it hoped to change some of the principles of the old poor law.

Previously the parishes were too small and too poor a unit to support a workhouse so the parishes were required to group together into poor law unions, with workhouses to be built in every union. An elected board of guardians ran each union. This was hoped to be a more cost-effective way of providing care for the poor. Ratepayers in each union had to elect a Board of Guardians. Guardians were elected triennially; their job was to supervise the workhouses, to collect the poor rate and to send reports to the Central Poor Law Commission. This Central Poor Law Commission would be appointed by the government and would be responsible for supervising the Amendment Act throughout the country.

Evans states.
We recommend … the appointment of a Central Board to control the administration of the Poor Laws, with such assistant Commissioners as may be found requisite; and that the Commissioners be empowered and directed to frame and enforce regulations for the government of workhouses, and as to the nature and amount of the relief to be given and the labour to be exacted in them, and that such regulations shall, as far as may be practicable, be uniform throughout the country …

So it was seen that local control led to inefficiency and corruption and so a centralised and uniform system was advocated. As a result control of the poor law was vested in the three-man Poor Law Commission based in London.

The Poor Law Amendment Act also stated that no able-bodied person was to receive money or other help from the poor law authorities except in a workhouse. Burke states,
One of the principles of the new poor law was the refusal of poor relief to the able-bodied. If an able bodied person had no means of support whatsoever he would no longer receive any form of outdoor relief from the parish, but would have to take himself and his family into the workhouse. This came to be known as the ‘all-or-nothing principle’ because the recipient either got total provision for himself and his family in the workhouse or nothing at all.

Another principle of the poor law amendment act was to abolish out-door relief, like giving alms to the poor in return for their work. In the amendment act it was determined that external relief for the poor was to be stopped within two years leaving those who were poverty stricken with the choice of the workhouse or starvation. Despite this people where still offered out-door relief. Fraser (1984:51) states, Approximately five out of six received ‘outdoor’ relief in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Blakemore states.
Perhaps this was something to do with the fact that the workhouse test was never applied comprehensively because many local areas refused to build the number of workhouses envisaged in the original policy because of the costs involved.

So then rose the problem of making the workhouses repellent to the poor. To do this they devised the principle of ‘less eligibility’. It meant that the condition of a pauper in the workhouse should not be as attractive as that of the poorest labourer outside the workhouse. Effectively a person who was able-bodied had to be destitute in order to qualify for poor relief. The application of these two principles in practice became known as the ‘workhouse test’. Blakmore states, The workhouse test was a chillingly simple one. To qualify for assistance under the new law, the individual had to be prepared to lose his or her freedom and civil rights, and enter a Poor Law institution.

Burke states, With the workhouse test in operation the poor law administrators believed that they would not have to worry about the poor defrauding the parish because in future destitution, not poverty, would be the criterion for eligibility.

In order to stop those who were not totally desperate from entering the workhouse it was decided that the work within them was to be horrendous. The care there was meant to be harsh, in return for food, clothing, shelter and medical care those in the workhouse were given strenuous work, such as breaking stone, cutting wood, grinding corn or oakum picking; that was to unravel old rope that was sometimes tarred or knotted. Women had to do domestic work such as washing, scrubbing and cleaning. Also during this period of time children were still working down the mines and in factories, so they too were expected to do heavy work in the workhouses. Blakemore states, The workhouse was to be an institution to correct laziness and to reform the character. It would also serve as an example to others, acting as a harsh reminder of what could happen to those who turned too the public authorities for help.

It was almost impossible to shape workhouses to be both a deterrent to the able bodied poor and a humane refuge for the sick and helpless. Workhouses’ functioned as schools, asylums, hospitals, and old people’s homes, refuges for the homeless and a last resort for the unemployed. The poor law commissioners, as representatives of authority, felt that those who were poverty stricken deserved some sort of stigma. Blakemore states.

Under the ‘New’ Poor Law, individuals were expected to submit to degrading and shameful procedures to receive any benefit. Thus only the truly deserving, the completely destitute who were considered worthy of help, would be prepared to come forward for help. It is for this reason we link the poor laws with stigmatisation for to be seen as a pauper or – in the old language- to ‘go on the parish’, was a permanent scar or blight upon one’s reputation and that of one’s family.

A question we must ask ourselves, is what prompted this Poor Law Amendment Act? Perhaps it had something to do with its predecessor. Burke states,The Elizabethan poor law had lax administration, high costs and it had a relatively generous approach to the poor, which was not serving the greatest good of the greatest number in nineteenth century England.

The act of 1834 was rather to restore the scope and intention of the statue of Elizabeth by placing its administration in the hands of responsible persons chosen by the ratepayers, and themselves controlled by the orders of a central body, than to create a new system of poor laws. Before 1834, the cost of looking after the poor was growing more expensive every year. The middle and upper classes in each town through their local taxes paid for this cost. There was a real suspicion amongst them that they were paying the poor to be lazy and avoid work. After years of complaint, the ‘new’ poor law was introduced, it was to reduce the cost of looking after the poor, prevent scroungers and impose a system which would be the same all over the country.

Evans states,

As poverty increased, poor law expenditure rose dramatically. Under such pressure, the viability of the old system of poor relief was called into question. Influenced by the Rev. Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) that increasing population pressure would destroy the delicate balance between people and available food supplies, resulting in famine and death, the political economists began their attack. They believed the old poor law encouraged both procreation and idleness, thus exacerbating the problem it was designed to alleviate.

Blakemore states,

Not only did it seem to reformers that relief of poverty was leading to ever-rising and unmanageable public expenditure, but also the rising laissez-faire orthodoxy in economics suggested that it was wrong to interfere in the labour market by subsidising poorer worker’s wages. Such subsidies were encouraging employers to pay their workers a lower wage because they knew that the parish would make up each labourer’s income to subsistence level.

So the problem facing the poor law reformers in the early 1830’s (as it is today) was how to provide for the poor without at the same time encouraging people to become dependent on the state, rather than on their own responsibility to work and provide for themselves.

The poor law amendment act therefore was designed to reduce expenditure on paupers, ensure that conditions within the workhouses were worse than those of the independent labourer. Ensure that relief would only be given on entry to the workhouse and that outdoor relief would cease. It also ensured that parishes were grouped into poor law unions to enable expenditure on adequate workhouses.

However as Blakemore so rightly puts it, The 1834 legislation provides a classic example of the gap between a stated policy and outcomes. Not only did the policy raise questions about the cost and practicability of workhouses, but also it appeared to be designed for a rural and a parish-based world rather than the new industrial age. To expect masses of labourers to submit to the workhouse test, with possibly permanent effects on workers’ family, stability, earning power and respectability, was simply unrealistic.

Perhaps one of the most interesting principles of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act is that of ‘Less eligibility’. At the time it was to mean that the condition of a pauper in the workhouse should not be as attractive as that of the poorest labourer outside the workhouse. Edwin Chadwick (1800-90) and Nassau Senior largely dictated the 1834 amendment act. Both men were largely influenced by Jeremy Bentham, who is associated with Utilitarianism and the principle of ‘The greatest happiness for the greatest number’. Also at the beginning of Bentham’s Introduction to the principle of Morals and Legislation he writes ‘Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. From this we can see how the dictators of the 1834 amendment act came up with the idea of making the workhouses so unpleasant that people would avoid them at all costs. Bentham suggested that people seek things that bring them pleasure therefore if something causes us pain we avoid it i.e. the workhouses. This principle however has grown throughout the twentieth century. For example in Britain from the mid-1970’s the rate of unemployment began to rise. Blakemore states,
Between 1976 and 1986 it rose from 5 to almost 12 per cent of the work force. The steepest rise took place in the early 1980’s, during Mrs Thatcher’s first period in office. Her government abandoned the economic strategies used by previous Labour and Conservative governments to assist struggling industries and to use public spending to stimulate employment.

Thatcher famously said that there is ‘no such thing as society’, only individuals and families. Her government’s policies tore holes out of the basic support system that the welfare state provided for working-class people.

For example the right of 16- and 17-year-olds to claim benefits, all this and more was taken away. Millions had been left with only the frailest of safety nets. The inevitable result was a huge increase in poverty. Thatcher believed those who suffered from poverty had brought it upon themselves, it was up to them to go and find work.

A major theme of the Thatcher revolution was the need to cut back public expenditure and reduce levels of taxation. One way of doing this was to target social security benefits on those in most need and hold down the cost of benefits. Means tested benefits would do exactly this, targeting those in most need is the cheapest way of helping the poor, and so keeps down government expenditure and taxation. How and ever when it comes to means tested benefits there is poor take up rate, reasons for this may be the complexity of filling in forms, being asked questions, which to you seem to have no relevance what so ever. Many people are also reluctant to claim such benefits due to the stigma attached to them. They require people to identify themselves as being poor. People are made to think that society looks down on them because they depend on the welfare that they are entitled to receive. This is definitely a legacy that the poor law has passed on, the stigma of receiving benefits. People such as Charles Murray believed that the welfare state left the poor worse off than they were before. He believed that those receiving benefits were the people who did not want to work. Today’s governments are trying to give people the incentives to work for example New Labour’s New Deal.

They are trying to achieve to broad aims, which may not be compatible. They are seeking to be of benefit to the substantial majority of the unemployed who are anxious to find work while at the same trying to prevent the abuse of the social security system by a minority who are not looking for a job or who are working while claiming benefit.

Even though all these different governments have passed through power have any of them eradicated the problem of poverty? No, poverty has never been eliminated, that is because poverty is a deep seeded symptom of social and economic distress. Most governments have failed here because they didn’t address the structural problems of poverty. They were addressing the reasons for poverty but not the symptoms. All this makes me question if poverty will ever be eradicated from our society, is it even possible to come close to a solution or is it an enigma people are predestined to live with?

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