Sunday, January 10, 2010

Welfare History

I just started reading A Christmas Carol today. It doesn't even belong to me, but my 13 yr old daughter. I don't know where she got it but she sure didn't buy it with her own money. She's written her name inside the front cover or I wouldn't even have known where it came from. I had forgotten that it was even a book, not a movie, and that it was written by Charles Dickens. I once started reading his book Hard Times and found it extremely boring. That being said, I remember the beginning with the evil teacher refusing to address little girl by Sissy, saying it wasn't a real name. It's strange that a small section of a book that I quit reading should be so burned in my memory.

I was only through a couple of pages in the first stave (he calls them staves, not chapters, keeping with the "carol" theme of the title) but something caught my eye: "Poor Laws". And yes, he capitalized them, making me think these were government laws about the poor. "Welfare laws in the 1800s England? Nah," I thought. I kept reading the book but, in the middle of the rising action, as Marley's ghost haunts poor Scrooge, bells ringing, chains banging, all I could think about was those dang Poor Laws.

I'm such a boring person that I looked them up to tell you about them.

It seems the Poor Laws were in fact, welfare laws. Charles Dickens wrote his book in the 1840s and they were already well established. The first Poor Laws were passed as far back as the 1500s.

From The Victorian Web:

1563 — Justices of the Peace were authorised and empowered to raise compulsory funds for the relief of the poor and, for the first time, the poor were put into different categories

those who would work but could not: these were the able-bodied or deserving poor. They were to be given help either through outdoor relief or by being given work in return for a wage.

those who could work but would not: these were the idle poor. They were to be whipped through the streets, publicly, until they learned the error of their ways.

those who were too old/ill/young to work: these were the impotent or deserving poor. They were to be looked after in almshouses, hospitals, orphanages or poor houses. Orphans and children of the poor were to be given a trade apprenticeship so that they would have a trade to pursue when they grew up.

I can't help but laugh at the relief given to the idle poor.

A flurry of laws passed in the 1500s were consolidated into the Elizabethan Poor Laws of 1601. The Law authorized the raising of funds, opened alms houses and orphanages, and gave relief to people out of work. The idle poor weren't whipped though the streets anymore, but sent to workhouses. It also put responsibility on families.

Part of the 1601 Law said that poor parents and children were responsible for each other, so elderly parents were expected to live with their children for example.
I'm glad to say that my family still holds to this. It is an aberration of our society that children don't want to take care of their parents and that seniors think that they can get by on their own.

But the history of welfare goes back even further than the 1500s. In False Economy, I read about the grain welfare distributed by the Roman Empire. The grain was bought cheaply from the Egyptians, sailed across the Mediterranean to Rome, and distributed to poor Roman citizens. The cost of transporting the grain overland was astronomical and welfare was restricted only to those in the city. This, of course, led to the city suddenly surging with population of poor folks from the country. I can't remember exactly but I believe that the statistic presented was that at one time 300,000 of a city population of 1,000,000 were on grain welfare. It's simply astonishing how the Roman Senate failured to recognize the ramifications of their law.

I did ask myself "Where is the Church in all this? Wasn't the church the one that took care of the poor?" I've never really studied the transition of the care of the poor from the church to the government. Historically, the church has been in charge of the poor and The Victorian Web points out this change:

Before the Reformation, it was considered to be a religious duty for all Christians to undertake the seven corporal works of mercy. These were deeds aimed at relieving bodily distress: in accordance with the teaching of Jesus (Matthew 25 vv. 32-46) people were to

feed the hungry
give drink to the thirsty
welcome the stranger
clothe the naked
visit the sick
visit the prisoner
bury the dead

After the Reformation and the establishment of the Church of England, many of the old values and moral expectations disappeared so it became necessary to regulate the relief of poverty by law.
A change in morals, values disappearing brought about new laws and taxes to take care of the poor? That sounds strangely familiar. The great Roman Empire setting laws that cause a flood of immigrants to the city? Hmm, I've heard this song before. The fact is the Bible treats this very simply: "Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" 1 Corinthians 1:20. All our wise programs fail to the simplicity that God asked of us.

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge and his unnamed clerk receive two visitors in his business before heading home: his overly happy nephew and two gentlemen collecting donations for the poor. The nephew is the family, still taking care of, still loving his crotchety old family. The two men represent charity. The nephew puts up a great defense,

"And therefore, Uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my
pocket, I believe it has done be good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless
When confronted by the gentlemen asking for charity, Scrooge hides behind the law saying:

"Are there no prisons? ... "And the Union workhouses, are they still in
operation? ... The Treadmill and Poor Law are in full vigor, then?"
As we all know the ending already, Scrooge learns to love again. He learns to love his family, both his nephew and the lowly unnamed clerk, Bob Cratchit. He learns to give charitably, the giving of ourselves above and beyond the call of the law. We need to take care of our family, no matter how hard, and yes, good things will come of the work. We can't hide behind our social security and fica taxes, saying that we already give to charity. It seems we all have a bit of Scrooge in us and so this small book becomes a great lesson to us even today.


Celestial Elf said...

Appreciate the research you did and sharing the details of the Poor Laws :D
thought you might like my short mahinima version of A Christmas Carol

Celestial Elf said...

Oops wrong link apologies, my machinima version of A Christmas Carol