Health poverty and unemployment

In Britain as we know it today, during times of hardship or temporary unemployment it is possible to access public funds set up for this purpose. Through contributory schemes such as National Insurance, poverty in its most literal sense has been eradicated. During the 19th Century, however, the notion of welfare was very different. This paper will look at, briefly, the way that the poor were provided for during their lives and the changing attitudes towards those members of society that required help. It was the attitudes of reformers at the time such Bentham and Chadwick that led to extremely harsh governmental legislation such as The Poor Law Amendment Act. We may look back at this period in the Nation’s history as extreme: but it was the catalyst for further thought and laws that would ultimately benefit the population and their descendents as the problems of poverty, health and employment were addressed, albeit in the interest of the wealthy minority initially.

Traditionally, under the Old Poor Law, the poor were the responsibility of local parishes with funds being raised via rates collected from those members of the community who were land and house owners. According to Taylor (1988.p.239), the poor were classified according to their ability to work and physical state: those able to work were able-bodied paupers, whilst the ill or infirm were deemed to be impotent paupers. Help was administered in two ways: outdoor relief consisted of financial or material aid, whereas indoor relief meant that the individual had to enter an establishment to receive any help.

One of the problems associated with this system was the apparent disparities across the country. Some parishes were more generous towards their poor (Taylor. 1988. p.239) and this resulted in a more migratory pauper that moved to those areas where poor rates were better, putting additional financial pressure on local rate payers.

What was becoming apparent was the rising cost to the Nation in general. In the period between 1775 and 1832, the cost of looking after the poor had risen from �1.5 million to approximately 7 million (Watson. p.6). There was provision in place such as the Speenhamland system which gave relief to the poor. This was a system whereby financial relief was related to the price of bread and the size of a man’s family. This however, was not without problems: both social and, ultimately, financial.

As Taylor (1988.p.241) points out, critics of this type of relief believed that labourers, in the knowledge of parish subsidy, had learnt that regardless of their own effort, they would still receive help. On the other hand, those that were hard working and striving for a more honest living were still dependent on the system for part of their wages. This was due, in part, to the attitudes of local employers who exploited the system by keeping labourers wages artificially low, knowing that any shortfall could be made up from Poor Rates. The system of allowances, according to Watson (p.12), created laziness, dependence and increasingly large families: the larger a man’s family, the more he was likely to receive in benefit and less likely to make any concerted efforts to improve his lot independently.

This was a view held by many at the time and perceptions of and attitudes towards the poor were changing. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the Poor Law abolitionist Reverend T.R Malthus published the controversial Essay on the Principle of the Population. In its most basic form it highlighted the fact that the rate at which food was produced could not possibly sustain the population growth at the time of writing: and that, due to the procreation habits of the poor, encouraged by the current Poor Laws, starvation was an inevitable factor amongst the poor (Jones.1991.p8/9).

One way that an individual could help themselves and their family was through Friendly Societies. These were an offshoot from trade organisations set up for people to contribute into a central fund that allowed financial relief during times of hardship ( Obviously, these were only of benefit to those with the financial means to make the contribution in the first place. This did not solve the problems of the poorest of the population, and they were, as we have seen earlier becoming an ever increasing financial and societal burden.

According to Taylor (1988.p.242), the changing attitude towards the poor and the increasing expenditure culminated in a change of the old allowance system by certain individuals such as the Nottingham Reformers, around 1820. They believed, like others at the time, that parish cost to maintain the poor had risen to unsustainable levels and they abolished the current allowance system in their area, and administered in-house relief in workhouses. They made these establishments places of dread by running them along severe disciplinary guidelines and they became ‘…an object of fear and a deterrent to the poor…’ Taylor (1988.p.242).

The concept of making poor relief an undesirable option was highlighted in the theory of the pleasure/pain principle, advocated by the reformist Bentham. As Jones (p.11) describes, Bentham hypothesised that people ‘… sought pleasure and avoided pain…’ In brief, this equated to ensuring that poor relief became a stigmatised and unpleasant experience. This, thought Bentham, would result in pain for the recipients, which would lead to them making every effort to provide for their selves, and, in turn, result in a more pleasurable outcome for them and society as a whole.

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