Work at Any Cost? Lessons from the Archives

stone breaking bethnal green BORDER
The Stone Yard, Bethnal Green Workhouse, c.1880s

Last week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that the number of ‘workless’ households (that is, households where no working-age adult is employed) is at its lowest level for over 20 years, with only 14% of households in Britain containing no working adults. Unsurprisingly, this ‘good news’ story was seized on by the government as evidence of its success in tackling family and child poverty. “One of the best ways to tackle poverty and give children a better chance in life,” according to Work and Pensions Secretary, Esther McVey, “is to have a working adult in the house. It gives them a role model to learn from and brings financial security to the home”. She went on to assert confidently that “getting a job means more than just a wage, it’s a way out of poverty and welfare dependency” (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-45341733). It’s a well-worn mantra of governments of all stripes, of course, that all we need to do is to get people off the dole and into work in order to break the cycle of dependency and create a more affluent society. But is it really that simple?

Not according to research undertaken by the TUC in May of this year. By their calculation, the number of children growing up below the poverty line in working households (that is, where at least one working-age adult actually has a job) rose by 50% between 2010 and 2018 (https://www.tuc.org.uk/news/child-poverty-working-households-1-million-children-2010-says-tuc). In real terms, this means that there were one million more children with working parents living in poverty in 2018 than there were eight years previously. The TUC’s findings are in line with recent research by the Child Poverty Action Group, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Nuffield Foundation, all of whom highlight the growth of in-work poverty in the UK. The Nuffield even published a report in May 2017 which concluded that “60% of people of all ages living in poverty were living in working households – the highest figure yet recorded” (Hick & Lanau, 2017: 3).

Like so many issues surrounding poverty and its alleviation, this is clearly a question that polarises opinion. On the one hand, it seems that a rise in the raw numbers of those employed is sufficient evidence in itself to justify cuts in benefits and household support. On the other, campaigners have pointed out that ‘work’ and ‘wages’ do not always equate to subsistence in a fragile economy, and they point to the growth of food banks and charitable assistance as evidence. Yet the belief that work should equal subsistence for a large proportion of the population, and that those in work should not need to rely on welfare, seems axiomatic in early-twenty first century Britain. The post-war consensus casts a long shadow, and despite the growing reality of the gig economy, very few of those in positions of power would dare to advocate it publicly as a long-term solution.

In the nineteenth century, of course, politicians and welfare reformers were far less squeamish about forcing the poor into poorly paid, and even punitive, work in order to encourage ‘independence’. Often, it was explicitly a deterrent measure, a way of loosening the ties between hardship and public assistance, no matter what the cost to those in need; and in a sense, McVey’s belief that work – any work – is “a way out of poverty and welfare dependence,” taken together with ever-stricter rules governing entitlement to Jobs Seeker’s Allowance and Income Support, seems to take us straight back to the era of the New Poor Law and the workhouse.

Back then, paupers like Robert Graham of Manchester routinely complained about the ‘labour test’: a way of weeding out the so-called ‘undeserving’ poor. Graham had a wife and five children, and like thousands of labourers during the cotton famine, he found himself totally incapable of supporting his family through his own efforts. He was initially given a supplementary allowance of four shillings a week by the Manchester guardians, but when he complained that there was no paid work to be had and that four shillings was completely inadequate to keep seven people from starvation, he was denied any further relief “unless he goes & Picks Oakum” at the workhouse. Graham produced certificates from “eminent physicians of the Highest Character” to prove that he was unable to do the work, but still the relieving officers denied him further relief unless he worked at the hated task of picking oakum (MH12/6053).

oakum border detail
Oakum Picking, early-1900s

Sometimes, the zealousness with which the labour test was applied had tragic consequences. Mary Strahan lived alone with her three children, and explained that “It is nineteen years since I worked in a Factory and no one will employ me at my age”. She managed to negotiate five shillings a week in poor relief from the Manchester guardians, but she too was forced to pick oakum in exchange for relief. As a result, her eldest daughter Elizabeth, aged 10, was left alone all day to look after her five year old brother. On Friday 6 September 1850, neighbours heard screams from the cellar where the family lived, and quickly found the young boy engulfed in flames from the cellar fire. Hannah McCombs told the coroner’s inquest that “The little girl was crying but not trying to put it out. She only screamed,” and McCombs was in no doubt that had the mother “not been obliged to go to the oakum picking shop the child…would have been alive now” (MH12/6044). In Poplar, men as old as 80 years of age, “asthmatical and scarcely able to walk,” were “placed to work at Oakum beating & Picking amidst pernitious dust…from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.” Locals complained that “even the aged or afflicted…are classed together as able-bodied and consigned to the stone yard or labour yard,” but because “the work offered is such that they are utterly unable to do [it] if ever so willing, they are therefore left to starve” (MH12/7690).

Cases like these litter the Poor Law Commissioners’ correspondence from the nineteenth century, and they still have the power to cause shock and outrage. Yet it is hard not see parallels with our own post-welfare-state world where cuts in disability benefits and punitive assessments are deemed an “incentive” for the long-term sick to get back into work (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/05/year-disability-cuts-starving-sick-employment); where single mothers are forced to seek any kind of work as soon as their youngest child reaches the age of three or risk losing benefits (https://news.liverpool.ac.uk/2017/04/03/new-welfare-reforms-put-extra-pressure-single-parents-enter-paid-work/); and where more people than ever who are in work are living below the poverty line because of the reigning back of employment rights and the shrinking of in-work benefits. In this world, no less than that of Dickens or Charles Booth, the borderline between encouragement to work, deterrence from seeking relief, and even punishment for simply being poor, is, it seems, becoming increasingly blurred.

Further Reading

  • Hick, R. and Lanau, A. (2017). In-Work Poverty in the UK: Problem, policy analysis and Platform for Action (Cardiff University & Nuffield Foundation)

 

 

 

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