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Thursday, January 10, 2013

'Talk of Shirkers Echoes Victorian Past'

What causes poverty?:

Talk of ‘shirkers’ echoes Victorian past, by Tristram Hunt: ...the debate about how to cut back Britain’s spiraling social security system is ... replete with echoes of the past. The language of “workers” versus “shirkers” is a straight lift from the mid-Victorian moralism of deserving and undeserving poor. Yet the most unfortunate rhetoric involves the return of “character” as the critical determinant of poverty. ...
This was the prejudice that first spurred Charles Booth, the Liverpool shipping magnate, to investigate the causes of poverty in 1880s London. Dismissive of socialist claims of mass unemployment, he established a network of researchers to pick over the lives of the poor.
It was a pioneering sociological investigation designed to prove Booth right: that poverty was limited and the poor were poor because of their alcoholism, lust or dislike of work. ... In fact, Booth’s study revealed that circumstance not character dictated poverty. ...
Booth’s study formed an important part of that New Liberal moment when Victorian laisser faire was exchanged for an interventionist state. In its wake came national insurance and the old-age pension. ...

From a post in November, 2007 on this topic:

 ...During 1817 ... a group of prominent New York merchants and professionals (many of them having formerly been the principle supports of such institutions as the New York Hospital and a variety of other worthy causes) officially and quite publicly began to rethink their habit of giving. Such previously generous philanthropists as DeWitt Clinton, Thomas Eddy, and John Griscom took their cue in this from British reactionaries. In so doing, they succumbed to the rhetoric of several hard-nosed British social thinkers, most notably Thomas Robert Malthus, Jeremy Bentham, and the Scottish conservative Patrick Colquhoun.

Twenty years earlier, all three of those gentleman had been instrumental in the founding of the London Society for Bettering the Condition and Increasing the Comforts of the Poor. Despite the burden of its long-winded name, the London Society specialized in the cutting off of funds for social welfare rather than the distribution of charity. Men like Malthus, Bentham and Colquhoun believed that a distinct line must be drawn between the "deserving poor" (those hit with hard times resulting from unfortunate histories) and "undeserving paupers," the latter being the drunk, lazy and whorish of society, to whom the provision of any form of aid was a reprehensible act of facilitation.

Another key concept underpinning the logic of the London Society was the presumption (for lack of a more accurate term) that paupers outnumbered the deserving poor by a factor of about 9 to 1. In reform meetings and from church pulpits, politicians and clerics again and again cited this astonishing though unverifiable statistic, which soon became accepted as fact. In time, the public mind became convinced that a mere ten percent of London's poor were the crippled and the orphaned, while 90 percent were degenerates. For every one individual in London's slums who genuinely needed aid, popular wisdom held that there were nine who required something else entirely: intolerance, punishment and correction. As a corollary to this line of thinking, logic dictated that 90% of the charitable aid previously offered was superfluous. In turn, wallets closed, and checks stopped being written.

The London Society remained a venerable body and dominant force in British life for decades: influential in the development of such institutions as workhouses and debtors prisons. It was likewise influential, through its example, in New York and other American cities. By the end of 1817, Clinton, Eddy, and Griscom, joined by hundreds of other New Yorkers, had formed a clone organization on the banks of the Hudson: the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism (SPP).

Several months before the founding of the SPP, New York's Humane Society (which at that time specialized in helping humans rather than dogs and cats) announced rather forlornly the result of recent research revealing a startling fact: no less than 15,000 men, women and children - the equivalent of one-seventh of the city's total population - had been "supported by public or private bounty and munificence" the previous winter.

In their book Gotham, historians Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace have eloquently described the SPP's point of view, expressed in response to the above data. In the grand tradition of the London Society, the SPP said it believed that "willy-nilly benevolence" only made things worse. "Giving alms to the undeserving poor not only undermined their independence but also drove up taxes and sapped the prosperity of the entire community." Thus, "for their good as well as everyone else's … the SPP recommended that all paupers in the city be cut off from all public assistance forthwith." Soon the Humane Society itself announced its intention to disband, in the wake of its realization that the very act of giving charity had "a direct tendency to beget, among [the citizenry] habits of imprudence, indolence, dissipation and consequent pauperism."

"Tough love" was in. Cruelty equaled kindness. Frugality equality generosity. And all three were not only cheap, but easy. A few ministers sang out against the reverse-logic of the SPP, but far more praised the organization than damned it. God himself, it seemed was on the side of self-reliance. A generation later, Social Darwinists would express a similar point of view: that the strong must be allowed to flourish, and not be hamstrung by the needs of the clawing weak. Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species would not see print until 1859. Indeed, Darwin himself was but eight years old in 1817, and would not depart on the voyage of HMS Beagle until 1831. Nevertheless, the seeds of what was to become the philosophy of Herbert Spencer (born 1820), not to mention the nearly identical philosophy of the 20th century's Objectivist saint of selfishness, Ayn Rand, were quite evident in the grand pronouncements of the London Society and its New York equivalent, the SPP. ...

I'm always amazed at how little the debate, generated in large part by ideology and the belief in false facts about the poor, has changed since the 1800s.

This is from a post in June, 2007. It's an earlier history the deserving/undeserving distinction:

... In the early mercantilist period there was an ideological continuity between the intellectual defenses of mercantilist policies and the earlier ideologies that supported the medieval economic order. The latter relied on a Christian paternalist ethic that justified extreme inequalities of wealth on the assumption that God had selected the wealthy to be the benevolent stewards of the material welfare of the masses.[4] The Catholic church had been the institution through which this paternalism was effectuated. As capitalism developed, the church grew weaker and the governments of the emerging nation-states grew stronger. In the early mercantilist period, economic writers increasingly came to substitute the state for the medieval church as the institution that should oversee the public welfare. ...

The people could no longer look to the Catholic church for relief from widespread unemployment and poverty. Destruction of the power of the church had eliminated the organized system of charity, and the state attempted to assume responsibility for the general welfare of society. ...

Poor laws passed in 1531 and 1536 attempted to deal with the problems of unemployment, poverty, and misery then widespread in England. The first sought to distinguish between "deserving" and "undeserving" poor; only the deserving poor were allowed to beg. The second decreed that each individual parish throughout England was responsible for its poor and that the parish should, through voluntary contributions, maintain a poor fund. This proved completely inadequate, and the pauper problem grew increasingly severe.

Finally, in 1572 the state accepted the principle that the poor would have to be supported by tax funds and enacted a compulsory "poor rate." And in 1576 "houses of correction" for "incorrigible vagrants" were authorized and provisions made for the parish to purchase raw materials to be processed by the more tractable paupers and vagrants. Between that time and the close of the sixteenth century, several other poor-law statutes were passed.

The Poor Law of 1601 was the Tudor attempt to integrate these laws into one consistent framework. Its main provisions included formal recognition of the right of the poor to receive relief, imposition of compulsory poor rates at the parish level, and provision for differential treatment for various classes of the poor. The aged and the sick could receive help in their homes; pauper children who were too young to be apprenticed in a trade were to be boarded out; the deserving poor and unemployed were to be given work as provided for in the act of 1576; and incorrigible vagrants were to be sent to houses of correction and prisons.[8]

From the preceding discussion it is possible to conclude that the period of English mercantilism was characterized by acceptance, in the spirit of the Christian paternalist ethic, of the idea that "the state had an obligation to serve society by accepting and discharging the responsibility for the general welfare.”[9] The various statutes passed during this period "were predicated upon the idea that poverty, instead of being a personal sin, was a function of the economic system.[10] They acknowledged that those who were the victims of the deficiencies of the economic system should be cared for by those who benefited from it. ...

However, as noted above, the view that the poor "were the victims of the deficiencies of the economic system" died out, and was replaced by the idea the character problems are the main reason people are poor. This variation in attitudes about the poor -- it's the system, it's the individual -- goes back and forth over time, and we are currently seeing an attempt from the right to re-impose older Victorian attitudes -- and with some success (I recently wrote about the blame the individual versus blame the system distinction and how it has changed during the recession, see the end of this post).

    Posted by on Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 03:25 PM in Economics, Politics, Social Insurance | Permalink  Comments (30)

          


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