Please, sir, may I have some more?
September 18, 2006 7:44 AM   Subscribe

Victorian Workhouses
I sometimes look up at the bit of blue sky
High over my head, with a tear in my eye.
Surrounded by walls that are too high to climb,
Confined like a felon without any crime...

posted by Miko (14 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
The 1697 Act also required the "badging of the poor" — those in receipt of poor relief were required to wear, in red or blue cloth on their right shoulder, the letter "P" preceded by the initial letter of their parish.

And I thought that free school lunch card was an emberassment.
posted by sourwookie at 7:50 AM on September 18, 2006

Does this qualify as Victorian Hyperrealism?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:52 AM on September 18, 2006

George Orwell wrote a fine piece about workhouses in the early twentieth century in his book Down and Out in Paris and London.
posted by parmanparman at 8:20 AM on September 18, 2006

Thank you for this post - the section on the Poor Laws rekindled my interest in the subject. The arguments are prescient of the discussions over today's welfare state - in particular the Speenhamland System under which the distinction between those out of work and those in work was abolished. Under that system both 'paupers' and labourers were given money up to a subsistence level when bread prices rose (the amount was a function of prices and family size). The system is now generally thought to have been misguided and a cause of a signifcant drop in labour productivity. Some observers quickly noticed what's now called the 'dependency culture' as well as the fact that the system allowed landowners to pay artificially low wages because they'd be made up via the parish poor rates.
"One of the effects of the Speenhamland System was that ratepayers often found themselves subsidising the owners of large estates who paid poor wages. It was not unknown for landowners to demolish empty houses in order to reduce the population on their lands and also to prevent the return of those who had left. At the same time, they would employ labourers from neighbouring parishes: these people could be laid off without warning but would not increase the rates in the parish where they worked. Farmers often were the same men who paid low wages and laid off workers; consequently, subsidising wages through poor relief drove wages down even further. What was intended as a safety net ended up causing many more problems."
Now the idea is fashionable again in the general form of tax credits for people in work but on a low income and (more radically) as a "living wage".
posted by patricio at 8:33 AM on September 18, 2006 [1 favorite]

This is absolutely fascinating. I grew up in Pembury, which is where the Tonbridge workhouse (top-right link on the page) was based. In fact I used to live not far from Bo Peep corner which is where it would have been situated were it not for the cost of getting the land. I had no idea what was later to become the hospital was originally the workhouse. My mother nursed there for 20 years, I was born there - and still no idea despite spending the first 22 years of my life living in the village. It's incredible how something that was part of the economic landscape of the country for nearly 400 years can turn so quickly to other uses.

The one thing the site misses for me is the religious dimension to the New Poor Laws in 1834 - it wasn't just Benthamite utilitarians, but the new style of evangelicals who threw their weight behind the legislation. To them poverty was a divine judgement and the workhouses were as much about saving the poor's souls as they were keeping them off the streets. But still, a minor niggle with a really interesting site. There is a phenomenal amount of material there. Thanks for posting!
posted by greycap at 8:34 AM on September 18, 2006

Very nice site.

It reminds me how often I should recommend (for the US) Trattner's book From Poor Law To Welfare State, which does a great job of describing the system of our broken way of 'helping' poor people. It's particularly salient in the Bush money-for-the-churches era when social problems are explicity turned into moral issues.
posted by OmieWise at 8:34 AM on September 18, 2006

There's a fascinating (and unfortunately out-of-print) book by Deborah Stone that reviews the history of the English, German, & U.S. "deserving poor," the deserving "disabled," and how that connects to current welfare and disability benefits policies. The book really helped me to understand certain appellate court decisions re "disability" that had previously seemed counter-intuitive to me.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 8:40 AM on September 18, 2006

Great site. I see it includes the original version of 'Christmas Day in the Workhouse', but sadly not the rude version. Happily, this site supplies them both.
posted by verstegan at 9:03 AM on September 18, 2006

ditto that: "And I thought that free school lunch card was an embArassment."
posted by chemchic at 9:50 AM on September 18, 2006

ClaudiaCenter, thanks for the book link. I plan on reading it. We all deal with disability issues (handicap parking spots come to mind) and I've always been curious how we ended up with the views and systems we have that are everywhere invisible. BTW the book appears to be in-print from the link you gave.
posted by stbalbach at 10:03 AM on September 18, 2006

...helped me to understand certain appellate court decisions re "disability" that had previously seemed counter-intuitive to me.

Care to expand a little.. I'm intrigued.
posted by econous at 12:37 PM on September 18, 2006

...helped me to understand certain appellate court decisions re "disability" that had previously seemed counter-intuitive to me.

I learned that much of society's understanding of "disability," including especially the judiciary's understanding of "disability," is rooted in these centuries' old distinctions from poor laws between the deserving disabled (who are "truly disabled," truly needy, who would work if they could) and the undeserving fakers/malingerers (who are claiming disability so as not to work).

Stone gives a history dating back to the English poor laws of the ways that different systems have attempted to separate persons claiming disability into these two groups. The basic idea is that the welfare systems use different tactics/tests deemed to be objective (though they aren't necessarily objective) -- Stone calls them "validating devices" -- to ferret out cheating.

In the modern example of disability benefits administered by the Social Security Administration, such devices include the home visit of the applicant, analysis of medical records/medical criteria/medical tests, interviews of family members, investigations, an adversarial legal process.

The eligibility criteria for SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) is itself considered a validating device -- to get SSDI, the applicant must have a work history of a certain length. This work history is considered evidence that the applicant would work if they could. By contrast, SSI (Supplemental Security Income), a later-adopted program, does not require such a work history, and persons receiving SSI are far more likely to be viewed with suspicion, as likely malingerers.

This history helped me understand certain appellate court decisions. I work in the area of disability civil rights/ Americans with Disabilities Act (supposedly not a zero sum game) as opposed to SSA disability benefits (dividing up money, more like a zero sum game). I was taken aback by appellate court decisions that repeatedly ruled against persons with substantial chronic and episodic conditions who needed relatively modest reasonable accommodations in order to successfully work. (The cases ruled that the plaintiffs were not "disabled" under the ADA, even though the definition as adopted by Congress was intended to be very broad, much broader than the SSA definition.)

At first, I construed the hostility as simply a political belief in the perogatives of management. I still think that is one factor. But after reading the Stone book, and thinking about the background and generation of most federal court judges, I think it is more that the judges are viewing "disability" through the lens of charity, benefits, dependence. (As opposed to a more civil rights view of the disability experience being framed/shaped by societal views, barriers, discrimination.) In other words, while the disability civil rights frame is about whether the person can do the job, with nondiscrimination and reasonable accommodation (if needed), these judges are applying a completely different frame -- prove to me that you're not faking.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 4:43 PM on September 18, 2006 [2 favorites]

That is all fascinating. I always found those overtones in the welfare debate of the deserving or 'good' poor needing to be sifted out from the shiftless quite disturbing. Thanks for adding this perspective and connecting it to history.
posted by Miko at 7:28 PM on September 18, 2006

"As the tramps have lost heart so have the officials." -- former Oxford MP Frank Gray
posted by bigbigdog at 11:53 PM on September 18, 2006

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