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Were single mothers better off in the 19th Century?
March 4, 2012 11:07 PM   Subscribe

"As far back as the 1800s, single mothers were receiving benefits. At that time, they would be paid up front and in cash, but were they better off than today?" [via] [Spoiler Inside]

Spoiler: No.
posted by marienbad (23 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
Well, well well, whose side is the beeb on these days? One day it is the state propaganda arm, then next it has stuff like this.
posted by marienbad at 11:08 PM on March 4, 2012


The Welfare Reform Bill, currently going through parliament, is this government's attempt to introduce what it says is "a simpler and fairer" system. But proposed cuts will hit the poor hardest, argue opponents.
Right, you won't have to worry about figuring out how to spend so much money. Much simpler. Why would they even be bothering with this if it wasn't going to save cash, which has been their main goal lately?
posted by delmoi at 11:23 PM on March 4, 2012


"Better than 1834", a proud boast for a modern OECD nation.
posted by Abiezer at 11:23 PM on March 4, 2012 [17 favorites]


Why would they even be bothering with this if it wasn't going to save cash, which has been their main goal lately?
Because they think they have only a short period of time before losing the next election to do all they can to dismantle what's left of the post-war welfare state consensus.
posted by Abiezer at 11:25 PM on March 4, 2012 [11 favorites]


If a single pregnant mother wanted to claim poor relief before 1834, she had to go before two judicial officers and swear on the paternity of her child's father under oath. No other proof was needed. She would then receive benefits up front and the officials would try to reclaim money back from the father.

The "bastardy examinations" - as they were called -
Okay, I did have to laugh at that.
posted by delmoi at 11:25 PM on March 4, 2012


It also challenges commonly held beliefs that the poor in centuries past were universally left to flounder, often in crushing poverty.

Only amongst those willfully ignorant of the role of the church in centuries past would such beliefs be commonly held. The Catholic church provided alms for the poor throughout Europe since medieval times.

During the French revolution, the destruction of the French monarchy and the subsequent dechristianisation of France also removed the social safety net that the Catholic church provided. The alms bestowed by Marie-Antionette - before she was beheaded - made her particularly popular amongst the poor. The King and Queen were well-known patrons of la Société Philanthropique which provided relief for the aged, blind, and widows.

In one of their rare insightful moments, the Committee of Public Safety was forced to fill the void with state funds lest this sudden hardship give rise to any counter-revolutionary sentiment amongst the population.

It would seem, then as today, that state-funded alms exist less for reasons of charity than for purely political purposes.
posted by three blind mice at 1:49 AM on March 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


The UK has the lowest college graduation rate in the OECD iirc
posted by humanfont at 4:12 AM on March 5, 2012


But weren't the charity benefits provided prior to the 19th century extremely uneven and ideologically contingent? In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, IIRC, many were administered through guilds, which meant that the "masterless men", displaced peasants, etc, were left out. And what about all the elderly farm workers and laborers in the countryside that you read about dying in truly abject and shocking poverty? Then there's the ideological dimension - you only need a cursory reading of any 17th/18th century-ish history to tell that the hospitals, convents and workhouses were absolutely awful and miserable and abusive. When "charity" was doled out by the church and the rich, they could tell you that you had to sell everything - your winter coat, your pots and pans, your curtains, your spare dress - before they would help you, because to be deserving of help you had to be destitute. (For a vivid literary portrayal of this - by a conservative writing in the age of welfare, no less - you might read Doris Lessing's Diary of a Good Neighbor)

If the system worked so well before state benefits, why were even limited things like the Old Age Pension (greeted as a miracle among UK ag workers!) and Bismark's fascist arrangements taken as such wonderful things? It was because what went before was shitty.

The reason state benefits at least used be be popular was that they were for everyone, and you didn't have to be Christian or a guild member or have sold your boots to get them.

The democratic process in the UK is broken - even more broken than here in the US. With every strike or march or poll, it becomes really clear that the government (and from an outside perspective New Labor, Lib Dems and Tories seem pretty much an interchangeable bunch of elite product - they even look alike) has no interest in either the popular will or the popular interest. It doesn't seem to matter who you vote for - they're all pretty much in it for the upper classes/self interest, and they all have much more in common with each other than with regular people. It's really pretty terrifying to see that elites really don't believe any of the political principles of the late 19th/early 20th centuries; they're pretty much stuck at the "lord of the manor serves in parliament; lesser aristocracy sits on the bench, sons go to Eton and continues the cycle" mentality.
posted by Frowner at 4:26 AM on March 5, 2012 [7 favorites]


In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, IIRC, many were administered through guilds, which meant that the "masterless men", displaced peasants, etc, were left out.

In England and Wales (don't know about Scotland or Ireland), the administrative unit was the parish after the 1601 Poor Law act, which as I recall would mean you'd have to return to your native place to get relief so would exclude 'masterless men' looking for work in the growing cities unless they wanted to make the trip home (you would get sent home by the overseers sometimes IIRC).
posted by Abiezer at 4:40 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


The UK has the lowest college graduation rate in the OECD iirc

I'm afraid you don't (assuming we mean the same thing by college), UK tertiary education gradutes rates (Percentage of graduates to the population at the typical age of graduation) put the UK just below the median, at 38.7% (2007), ahead of the US, and with Greece the lowest at 17.7%.
posted by biffa at 5:18 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Which I have to say, does make me wonder about how the UK comes out so low for women in HE in the Independent figures in yesterday's FPP relating to International Women's Day, my understanding was that more women than men go to uni in the UK, indeed this BBC news article says 51% of young British women went to university in 2008/9, against only 40% of young British men.
posted by biffa at 5:28 AM on March 5, 2012


Sorry, this BBC article.
posted by biffa at 5:42 AM on March 5, 2012


Only amongst those willfully ignorant of the role of the church in centuries past would such beliefs be commonly held. The Catholic church provided alms for the poor throughout Europe since medieval times.

Yep, and the moral foundation of state welfare in England is the dissolution of the monasteries. The monarch's taking of what was essentially public wealth—to the extent that they used it to perform a public good—means that they morally also took on the liability to perform those goods. The Conservatives can destroy welfare if they please, but first they had better make the state pay back all the money it took from the poor's interest.
posted by Jehan at 5:51 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's wonderful to see the news FINALLY reporting on some of the excellent historical research which has been done on welfare and welfare policy under the Old Poor Law.

But when I got to the line "new research reveals..." I had to laugh. I read about most of the stuff they were talking about for ten years ago - and even then, many of those books had been published in the 1990s or earlier - like Hampson's book on poverty in Cambridgeshire from 1934. The Wikipedia page even has a historiography section, and a very extensive further reading.

By the way - King wrote a great book on regional differences in poor relief.
posted by jb at 6:23 AM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


would exclude 'masterless men' looking for work in the growing cities unless they wanted to make the trip home (you would get sent home by the overseers sometimes IIRC).

actually, when people were away from home, they sometimes were sent back or sometimes went without -

or sometimes they wrote these awesome letters saying how the overseers from home should send them a couple of shillings because they were in need or else they might be forced to come home and become a much bigger burden because there were no jobs. This worked - and these letters are one of our best (and one of very few) that tell us why poor people applied for relief and give us their side of the story.
posted by jb at 6:28 AM on March 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


they're all pretty much in it for the upper classes/self interest, and they all have much more in common with each other than with regular people. It's really pretty terrifying to see that elites really don't believe any of the political principles of the late 19th/early 20th centuries; they're pretty much stuck at the "lord of the manor serves in parliament; lesser aristocracy sits on the bench, sons go to Eton and continues the cycle" mentality

I think there's some truth in this, but I think it's a bit more complex than that. There are plenty of politicians in the UK whose motivation that accurately sums up, but at the same time I think part of the problem is that the Welfare State has become a victim of its own success.

By this I mean that, for effectively the first time, the country is being run by an entire generation who (and I never thought I'd say this with a straight face) don't realise how easy they've had it.

For the last sixty years the Welfare State in this country acted as a great leveler. It's waxed and waned, suffered its successes and its failures. Broadly speaking though - and particularly as the children of the sixties and seventies grew up - it meant that for the first time you didn't have to have rich or well connected parents to be successful. You didn't have to watch people in your community literally die from a lack of medicine and food, or be prevented from working simply because they'd had the temerity to question the safety of their workplace. You weren't confined to a job that "fitted your station" because you couldn't afford to go to University (or because your family couldn't afford to be without your support). These and a thousand other horrors (some large, some small) that have plagued humanity for generations were finally removed - or at they very least moderated.

Now obviously that's a good thing - and that's why the Welfare State really has to go down as one of the greatest things this country has ever done. By robbing a generation of those experiences, however, it's also meant that for far too many of the current crop of politicians those experiences only exist in the abstract.

Now that's fine for most of the Tory Party - for them that's always been the case. They never liked this whole Welfare State thing to begin with. Replace the words "Big Society" with "Church and Charity" and I bet the Conservative Manifesto of 2010 looks awfully similar to that of 1945.

For Labour (and to a certain extent the Liberals), however, it's a huge problem, because those experiences were arguably the very reason the Party was founded in the first place. More importantly, it's those very experiences that motivated many of the 20th Century's greatest Statesmen to bring about the Welfare State (and other reforms) in the first place. A theoretical understanding of Social Justice is important and great, but if you haven't seen the need for it first hand in full, brutal, technicolor then it can be tricky to understand what life might be like with out it and why its so important that it be defended.

Basically, Welfare is a high-stakes game. If you fuck it up, you kill some people and doom others to a life where they never even have the chance to live up to their potential. The architects of the Welfare State knew that, because they'd seen it first hand.

If you'd questioned the need for Housing and Social Services in front of Clement Attlee, he'd have dragged you down to the East End of London where he lived and given you a personal tour of the slums.

If you'd questioned the need for the NHS in front of Herbert Morrison he'd have popped out his fake eye and explained how he'd lost it to infection as a baby in Lambeth.

If you'd asked Ernest Bevin whether state education was really that important he'd have told you about how the little bits of village schooling he'd had in the West Country growing up had still been enough to leave him as the only person in his family who could read and write.

"Fire and Theory" Aneurin Bevan used to call it, during his brutal fight with the British Medical Association over just what would be covered in the new NHS. You needed to understand the theory to push for social justice, but you also had to know deep down that the alternative just wasn't an option (and people needed to see that in you too).

Sadly, in many ways the Welfare State has robbed Labour of that "Fire" part. The Milibands are no worse people than any of the men mentioned above, and indeed in their own ways have just as much ability. Hell, as the children of Polish-Jewish immigrants who escaped the Holocaust and settled in Camden (Old school Camden. A place that back then was decidedly not on the tourist trail) they are the very epitome of the people the Welfare State was designed to help. But they struggle to find - and more importantly communicate - that fire part.

I can't really blame them for that, but as a generation we need to do something about that pretty fucking sharpish. If not, then we're going to doom our children, and their children, to a life that is decidedly more shitty than ours.

And they will never forgive us for it.
posted by garius at 7:02 AM on March 5, 2012 [32 favorites]


Excellent stuff garius, I think I love you.
posted by marienbad at 9:07 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


By this I mean that, for effectively the first time, the country is being run by an entire generation who (and I never thought I'd say this with a straight face) don't realise how easy they've had it.

Garius, great comment. My grandmother was in the workhouse—a real living and breathing workhouse—for the best part of ten years. I won't forgive anybody who tears up the welfare state as though she deserved little better than prison for being poor.
posted by Jehan at 9:34 AM on March 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


But weren't the charity benefits provided prior to the 19th century extremely uneven and ideologically contingent?

Yes. People were routinely tossed out of charitable institutions for religious differences with the folks running the place, for instance. But that has been magically disappeared by the Scrooge 2.0 contingent.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:13 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Being "on the parish" was a recipe for starvation coupled with humiliation: the 16th and 17th centuries practiced the fine and noble tradition of carrying poor women in labour to the outskirts of the parish and dumping them beyond the boundary line to give birth, so that they could not claim relief.

The theory of social support before the rise of welfare/public education and public healthcare may not sound so bad, but when you look at practical examples in historical documents you see how it actually worked.

Begging was illegal, unless you had a permit. Up until the 18th century, leaving your home parish to look for work was illegal. The poor were fed with scraps from the tables of great houses. Anyone designated as able to work was ineligible for relief, even if there was no work to get.

Jehan -- *where* was the workhouse? That's remarkable -- I thought they were all gone by the 20th century?
posted by jrochest at 11:08 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


he 16th and 17th centuries practiced the fine and noble tradition of carrying poor women in labour to the outskirts of the parish and dumping them beyond the boundary line to give birth, so that they could not claim relief.

to be a little pedantic, they only carried unmarried mothers over the parish line - legitimate children inherited the "settlement" (which parish they had the right to claim relief in) from their father - and wives also took on their husband's - but illegitimate children had the settlement of whatever parish they were born in. This system of inheritable settlement did lead to the weirdness of women and/or being forced to move to parishes they may never have been to, to receive relief, or even people being moved to a parish that their family had left a generation or two ago. People could change their settlement by renting property worth more than L10/year (a lot of money), or completing an apprenticeship in a given parish, or by being hired as a servant for one year in a given parish. The people fulfilling the first two usually got to change their settlement; for those more likely to be servants (which included farm labourers), they got a lot of 364-day contracts instead. We know a lot about who had settlement where, because settlement examinations were made when people applied for relief. One excellent book based extensively on settlement examinations is Taylor's book on poverty, migration and settlement.

Anyone designated as able to work was ineligible for relief, even if there was no work to get.

The 1601 law did call for parishes to by materials (like wool) to put the able-bodied poor to work spinning or weaving, but this didn't happen too often.

The people most likely to receive relief in the 17th century were orphans, widows and the elderly - because due to age, gender or dependent children, these were the people least likely to support themselves. It was really more like family benefits, old age security and disability benefits than unemployment. There was a big concern about unwed mothers and their dependent children - thus the "bastardy examinations". I haven't read about fathers being forced to pay the bills for birth, etc - in the seventeenth century records I looked at, they were more likely to be forced into a "Bastardy Bond" - a promise to pay L100 if their child or its mother ever applied for relief. But things may have become more formal later.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, it seems that more poor younger men were receiving relief due to unemployment - this may be because parish elites acknowledged structural unemployment, especially in the southern arable areas; King's book points out that relief was much less generous in the North, though there was still considerable need there.
posted by jb at 11:53 AM on March 5, 2012


Jehan -- *where* was the workhouse? That's remarkable -- I thought they were all gone by the 20th century?

They were still open until 1948, just renamed "Public Assistance Institutions". But it made little difference: my grandmother was in for the terrifible crime of being a single mother with no other means of support. She entered, pregnant with her fourth child, in 1930. She worked every day for her keep, at first doing the laundry sent there from households and businesses, before becoming a day domestic for various households, where she would return to the workhouse after work. She could not maintain her children outside the workhouse, yet could not forsake them because the workhouse's duty was to minimize public expense and give them to any willing relative. My grandmother's father wished to take the children, but he was sexually abusive and she would not let them fall into his hands. She had to wait til he died in 1940 before she could officially leave.
posted by Jehan at 4:26 PM on March 5, 2012


Jehan -- *where* was the workhouse? That's remarkable -- I thought they were all gone by the 20th century?

I was a bit stunned to discover that there were the physical structures of workhouses still standing in Birmingham and that I regularly cycled past one of them. To me they were like these mythical things out of some sort of long gone Dickensian past. Knowing that I was regularly cycling past a collection of bricks that was part of this 'tradition' made it all that much more real, salient and conteporary seeming. It was no longer like King Arthur and became more like Grandpa..
posted by srboisvert at 5:06 AM on March 6, 2012


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