The government's planned welfare cuts are the latest attempt by authorities to root out the idle and inactive and set them to work, writes Jeremy Seabrook
David Cameron's latest attack on the poor has a longer history than he seems to know. "We" have not created a culture of dependency; the animus against the poor, and the remedies proposed, go back at least to the consolidation of the Elizabethan poor law in 1601, and even further: one of the post hoc justifications for the destruction of the monasteries was that these had offered alms and relief to the idle and undeserving, who had dissimulated themselves among the widows and orphans fed and sheltered by religious houses.
One of the principal aims of the Elizabethan poor law, apart from the relief of the "aged and impotent" was "to set the poor on work". Houses of industry, provided with supplies of hemp, flax and other materials, were to train to habits of industry the idle and inactive who were sound in body and mind.
This project has haunted the rulers of Britain ever since, despite having repeatedly proved impracticable. In the late 17th century, the idea seized the imagination of administrators of the poor laws that a profit could be made out of the labour of the poor. Commentaries on the shamelessness of valiant beggars and idle rogues were accompanied by practical schemes for using their labour for useful ends. John Locke thought the increase in numbers of the poor a consequence of "the relaxation of discipline and the corruption of manners", a diagnosis eagerly repeated down the generations ever since. Parishes combined their resources to construct "houses of industry" and, if some briefly made a profit, the impossibility of co-ordinating the highly variable skills of the poor to spin, weave and produce lace or linen for the market soon became clear.
That did not prevent a stream of ingenious devices for keeping the noses of the idle poor to the grindstone. The idea of contracting the poor out to private entities became all the rage in the 18th century, anticipating the extensive privatisations of today. The maintenance of the poor of a parish could be contracted out for a lump sum, or on a per capita basis, in the workhouse of the parish or in premises of the contractor's own choosing. Contracts were made with the owners of carts for the forcible repatriation of the poor to their legal place of settlement, with clothiers for paupers' uniforms and shrouds, and with carpenters for coffins. As a result, conditions in workhouses deteriorated. Filthy and overcrowded, they were described as "receptacles of misery". A majority of parish infants died before their sixth birthdays.
As part of the alternating process throughout our history of severity and leniency, towards the end of the 18th century, a more humanitarian spirit prevailed, and out-relief was more usual. In fact, topping up wages became the norm in the counties of the south of England, a system whereby the parish made up the wages of labourers according to the size of the family and the price of bread. This meant that, no matter how little work was done, income was assured, and however little a farmer paid his labourers, the deficit would always be made good by the parish. This gave rise to what can only be described, in Cameron's words as "a culture of entitlement"; at the same time, women were blamed for giving birth to bastards, for the maintenance of each of whom the parish rewarded her with 1s 6d a week. Observers continued to fulminate against the poor, claiming that hunger was the best goad to make them work.
The Poor Law Amendment Act was passed in 1834. This made relief available to the able-bodied only within the workhouse, in conditions "less eligible" (that is, worse) than those enjoyed by the poorest labourer who earned a living by his own efforts. Despite mitigation of its worst rigours, this system remained in place until the 1948 National Assistance Act, with its preamble, "The poor law shall cease to exist," which lifted the shadow of punitive detention, which for over a century had threatened the poor in times of sickness, incapacity, old age and bereavement.
No sooner had the welfare state come into existence than the clamour against it was heard: it sapped character, reduced independence, feather-bedded and cosseted people. And this, as they say, is where we come in. The profligate and improvident have been sheltered by the welfare state; the opportunists and idlers have used the deserving poor as human shields against the asperity designed to banish welfare cheats and raiders of the public purse.
The wasteful and wanton poor have always been in the sights of authority, because it is through them that more general campaigns against the poor can be waged. The improvident are obviously culpable: they give poverty a bad name, and are responsible for their own condition. Unfortunately, they are never removed, no matter how punishing the legislation or intensive the effort to flush them out of their hiding places. They remain, a frieze of incontinent and picaresque humanity, wenching and pilfering their way through the 18th century, standing shamelessly before the parish pay-table in the 19th, living behind closed curtains in overheated front rooms watching television from dawn to dusk in our time.
The feckless poor have been neither legislated out of existence nor drowned in prosperity. They have not been set to work, because the labour they perform profits no one. They continue their relentless march through time, unabashed and indifferent to the fury of politicians and the odium of the public. All efforts to bring them into the fold of respectable society have failed, and the only ones to suffer from the continuing efforts to set them to work are the timid and the helpless. The words of David Cameron and the rest of them are truly conservative, for they have been formulated by every generation for at least half a millennium.
Written by Jeremy Seabrook & published by The Guardian