The ‘Scandal’ of In-work Poverty Revisited

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A vague sense from discussions around the minimum wage that an increasingly large number of families remain in ‘poverty’ notwithstanding the fact that one or both parents is in work has been given a substantial empirical boost. Separate reports by the Department for Work and Pensions in March 2019 and the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) in June 2019 both confirm that stagnant wages, rising prices and a freeze on in work benefits have combined to leave millions in what they label ‘relative poverty’. Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, noted that:

It’s one of the biggest social changes we’ve seen in the past 25 years. Poverty, long associated with being out of work and with old age, is now mostly a phenomenon experienced by people who are actually in work or who are living in a household where someone is in work. Back in the mid-1990s, just under 40 per cent of those in poverty, as measured against the semi-official definition of having less than 60 per cent of median income, lived in working households. Today nearly 60 per cent of those in poverty live in such a household. Of course, we can disagree about exactly what level of income constitutes a poverty line, so, if you prefer, we can just ask why it is that so many more of those towards the bottom of the income distribution now live in working households.

His comments are interesting on many levels, but for us at In Their Own Write what is most striking is the remarkably constrained timeline of the history of in-work poverty.

Johnson infers that before the mid-1990s the core of poverty was associated with old age and unemployment and he sees radical change since that point. This view is historically untenable. For much of the history of the welfare state from 1601 to 1929 and beyond, most welfare recipients worked at something and in-work poverty was the normal experience for a very significant proportion of the population. Even if Paul Johnson is right, and the later twentieth-century saw the rise of old age poverty – and there are many reasons to doubt this – the changes he traces post-1995 are merely the return to a status quo that has lasted many hundreds of years. Constructed in this manner, both the ‘problem’ of in-work benefits, and some of the potential alleviations of that situation, look different to the gloss reported above. In this sense, history really does matter.

At In Their Own Write, the intertwining of the benefit system and labour market architecture is something that is ubiquitous. Let us take, for example, the poor law union of Reeth in North Yorkshire. Reeth was a mixed rural and industrial union, and a significant proportion of its labour force was involved in mining activities. On 10 December 1847 the acting clerk for the union wrote to the poor law commissioners in relation to an informal enquiry they had made earlier in December. The Commission feared that Reeth was giving outdoor relief to the able-bodied poor in direct contravention of the principles of the act of 1834. The clerk reported the position of local guardians at length:

I forward you a list of the able bodied paupers to whom at the different periods therein mentioned they have administered out door relief under the following circumstances. The paupers therein mentioned are all, or  the very much greater majority of them Miners employed in the Lead Mines which in the Mountainous and moor Land Country in question afford to all but a very small proportion of the labouring population the only means of employment and subsistence; – The proprietors of these mines do not pay their Labourers stated wages by the week or month or by the piece, but, by what is styled amongst them trial bargains, that is one or two or a gang of men take of their employers a length of ground out of which they are to raise so much metal, at so much a bin or given quantity – three trials after the men have worked at them for probably 2, 3 and 4 months together (I have known cases of 6 months and longer) frequently turn out complete failures, and the men receive nothing for their labor in such cases having no other means of subsistence save the trifles earned by their wifes and larger children by knitting and occasional days at washing the metal[.] [I]t is manifestly impossible but that the men when after a long continued and apparently unsuccessful trial their credit at the small provision shops becomes exhausted, must apply to the union for assistance and it is almost impossible but that the Union must in such cases infringe the rule against out door relief to able bodied pay[ments] since the expense by bringing them and their families into [the] Workhouse rarely containing more than 20 Inmates would [be] ruinous as well to the Townships to which they respectively belong[,] as to the paupers themselves would thereby in all probability by being obliged to leave their working, lose any benefit they might derive from their long labor (TNA MH 12/14588).

 

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North Yorkshire Lead Miners, ca.1900

The sharp practices of employers, unremunerated labour, the inadequacy of wages and the precariousness of family economies because of the precariousness of work, are colourfully reported here and to all intents and purposes mirror the rhetoric surrounding the modern minimum wage and in-work poverty. The moral integrity of the people who could not make ends meet despite hard work, so much a feature of modern commentary, is also to be found here, with the acting clerk commenting that ‘The men themselves are an industrious and careful class of people and anxious so long as they can to avoid being burthersome to their Parishes[:] indeed I have known instances where any[thing] more than ‘bread’ alone was far beyond their expectation’. Equally, the union pointed to the lack of easy solutions, as do the IFS and DWP reports noted above. ‘The Board of Guardians’, their letter stated, ‘have long been fully alive to the desirableness of a change in the system of paying the Miners but they are utterly powerless to alter it.’

While allowing that the expenditure on such able-bodied men was reasonable, the ultimate solution envisaged by the central authorities also carries with it distinctively ‘modern’ undertones. Inspector Hawley wrote to his superiors that:

It is the custom in this part of the County for the proprietors of mines to let out the work to the miners upon (what they call) “trial bargains” which assist in the miner undertaking to look for ore at his own risk – if he is successful he sometimes [earns] good wages – if otherwise he is plunged into an utter state of destitution, and looks at his parish to support him till the next [spe]culation turns out more profitably – it is in face a game of [hazard] between the employers & their labourers and is the cause of constant distress of unsettled habits.

Hawley’s solution was to transfer the risk and costs of underemployment and inadequate wages on to the employers themselves:

The parish of Askengarthdale complain of the expense the man & his family are likely to cause the parish if they come into the Workhouse. This is precisely the fear which it is desirable to create, & it will cause the employers to find more constant and remunerative employment.

The current debate over the desirability and impact of companies adopting and then raising the living (as opposed to the minimum) wage resonates powerfully with this viewpoint.

Our corpus of letters and enquiries is replete with instance like this. In-work poverty – whether that work was full- or part-time – constituted a substantial core of both relative and absolute need in the period of the New Poor Law. The ‘new’ trend that the IFS and DWP report post-1995 is thus not new at all. It represents a return to the traditional overlap of work, wages and welfare. Looked at in this way, the solution to the ‘problem’ of in-work poverty might lie, not just in raising wages and insisting on a living wage, but in a much closer and more substantial understanding of the essential links between the welfare system and labour market architecture.

 

 

Re-imagining the Workhouse for the Welfare State: Thoughts on the Alston Report

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  • This month, we present a guest blog from our very own Professor Steve King of the University of Leicester, who gives us his personal perspective on the recently published Alston Report on poverty in the UK: 

Earlier this month, Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, delivered a highly publicised and damning report on the way that national and local austerity had consigned a significant proportion of the British population to unending misery. We learned that 14 million of our fellow citizens were in poverty and that 1.5 million of them were destitute, defined by Alston as being unable to buy ‘basic essentials’. He ascribed this situation primarily to government cuts put in place, not just for reasons of fiscal austerity, but as a deliberate ideological measure to dissolve the bonds of citizenship and fellow feeling that had shaped welfare since Beveridge. He is not alone in feeling both that poverty is increasing, and that different shades of Government since the financial crash have meant it to increase. The argument would be familiar to many of the readers of the Journal of Social Policy, for instance, where much detailed and rather more nuanced work than Alston’s has appeared.

Readers of his report will of course make up their own minds on its value and accuracy. From my perspective, though, it is littered with factual, conceptual, methodological and philosophical errors, not least when it comes to defining destitution and the regionality of welfare/poverty problems. Above all, Alston demonstrates an extraordinary ignorance of the history of British welfare – not unlike the British politicians he takes to task!

Let us explore three aspects of that ignorance. First, Alston suggests that the cuts to welfare since the financial crash represent a drastic (and negative) reshaping of the relationship between the State and its citizens, a fundamental attack on the collective principles of Beveridge and others who framed the post-war welfare state. The remotest grasp of British welfare history would have led him to a more cautious and nuanced approach. By the early 1950s it was already clear that the financing of the National Health Service was, and was going to remain, extraordinarily painful. Since then, Britain has experienced perhaps nine periods when fundamental attacks were launched on welfare broadly defined, each of which was represented at the time as catastrophic and unprecedented, and a direct threat to the collective principles established not, as it happens, after 1945, but during the Liberal Welfare Reforms of the early twentieth century. Whatever one’s personal take on those periods of welfare reform and austerity, the fact is that they happened. Had Alston grasped this basic point – that austerity was part of a long term post-1950s trend – then he may (arguably ought to, if he wanted to gain traction) have written his report with a different tone and sense.

Second, Alston fundamentally misunderstands the deep history of British welfare. Nowhere is this clearer than in his rather facile discussion of the drive to get people into work and the rise of working poverty. These trends he portrays as somehow ‘new’. In fact, the briefest discussion with a welfare historian on his two week trip around Britain would have revealed that the intersection of work and benefits has been central to the national welfare system since it was first developed for England and Wales in 1601. Such conclusions apply even more keenly to Scotland, which had its own welfare system and applied it with an eye more sharply focused on austerity before the 20th century. The United Kingdom has always had a residual welfare system linked to the need for everyone to work as hard and for as long as possible. Labour (notably Blair, Brown and Balls), Conservative and Coalition governments have always put work – whether it pays or not – at the heart of their welfare policies, as did the parishes and Unions that ran the welfare system between 1601 and 1929.

Finally, Alston claims that: ‘British compassion has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach designed to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping’. The Department for Work and Pensions, he argues, ‘has been tasked with designing a digitised and sanitised version of the nineteenth century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens’. We can (and should) debate whether the British welfare state has ever been compassionate, either in the post-war time-frame that Alston is confined by or in the deeper history of state welfare. I doubt that my father, grandparents and great grandparents, all of them poor working class people from immigrant stock, would have recognised such compassion. But we can also confront the hyperbole of the workhouse. Turned on its head and read against the rest of Alston’s report, his statement says: workhouses were a key component of a philosophical drive to smash the poor, to strip them of their dignity and power, and to force ordinary people into a sustained cycle of destitution. If, however, we reflect on recent writing on the New Poor Law, and in particular on the initial findings emerging from the In Their Own Write project, a very different picture emerges.

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Plan of Plymouth Workhouse

There were plenty of workhouse scandals under the New Poor Law, though their number had almost certainly declined by the time Dickens was co-ordinating his attacks on the poor law to which Alston refers. We can find evidence of paupers – men, women and children – being mistreated, punished, and given poor food and inadequate clothing. Yet the surprising thing about the true history of the workhouse is not that we can find scandals, but that we do not find a lot more of them. If we believe Dickens – and Alston – then an ideological attack on the poor through the New Poor Law should have generated much more harshness. Here, then, are some useful correctives for Professor Alston:

  • Almost all welfare was paid to people in their own homes, who would not see the inside of a workhouse, much as we see today. If modern Governments really are trying to create a digitised and sanitised version of the workhouse and its regime, they have not chosen a great model given its subordinate place in the historical execution of welfare. Nor has Alston chosen a great reference point, either.
  • There is compelling evidence that workhouses rapidly became places where the sick, kinless, aged and abandoned were concentrated. These are not the people by-and-large that Alston was talking about in his report, not least because the aged have generally been insulated from the worst effects of the financial crash by the growth in the real value of their benefits.
  • There is equally compelling evidence that those who were resident in workhouses were not a sub-group of the poor squashed under the ideological yoke and related welfare practices of the state. They had agency: they could rebel, appeal, resort to the law. And, what is more, they did. As we hear more of their voices through In Their Own Write, we need to rethink the sense that workhouses and welfare more generally inevitably disempowered recipients and inmates. Modern benefits claimants and recipients are also not powerless, something that Alston fails to acknowledge in his hyperbole. A quick look at the way in which changes to disability benefit are being rolled back through coordinated advocacy and resort to the law, much as would have happened in the nineteenth century, would have shown this.
  • There is some evidence that workhouses were actively used by people who sought to construct an economy of making do (or ‘makeshifts,’ as historians prefer to call it). Parents might leave some of their children there while looking for work. Kin might put their sick relatives in the workhouse as a way of avoiding contagion, and thus wider unemployment in the family. And so the examples could multiply. Many benefit recipients in a modern sense also construct around them an economy of making do.
  • In the nineteenth century, the state, through its variously constituted central inspections, did not simply let localities punish the poor for their poverty. In most places and at most times, egregious practice was confronted. Alston is right to argue that in a modern sense obvious flaws in the welfare system have taken time to correct – the benefit delay in Universal credit for instance – but this has also been true throughout the political history of British welfare going back to 1601. To lambast modern Governments for something with a history this long is simply naïve.
  • Finally, and since Alston refers to Dickens, we need to confront the issue of public opinion. In the mid-nineteenth century Dickens was one (very small) part of an emerging sense that the New Poor Law in general and the workhouse in particular required reform. The welfare system needed to become more attuned to the fact that most of those captured by it were ‘deserving’, rather than benefit scroungers. Alston’s negative inferences regarding workhouses are simply taken out of this important context. Fast forward to today, and public opinion is decidedly not on the side of a more elastic and softer welfare system. We can be entertained by the outrage of Conservative Ministers about Alston and his report, but opinion polls are very clearly on their side – and they have been for a very long time! The sense that somehow we have moved on from an age of compassion is fundamentally misplaced.

Professor Alston’s report will no doubt be consigned to a box somewhere in Whitehall to gather dust. In this sense it is a missed opportunity. Perhaps another time he could add some welfare historians to his itinerary and we could, collectively, help him to understand modern welfare policy and the prospect of further welfare reform in its proper context.

 

Cold Hearts and Red Tape: Public Opinion and the New Poor Law

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What did contemporaries really think about the New Poor Law? It may seem a strange question given what we know about early protests against its adoption, about the resentment that was directed towards workhouses (those ‘Pauper Bastilles’), and about the many accounts of scandals and maladministration that litter the mid-Victorian press. But excavating the real feelings of contemporaries towards the poor law system overall is a surprisingly tricky business. On the one hand, it is hardly controversial to suggest that tales of workhouse cruelty, sexual predation and the incompetence of officials fed a growing appetite for sensationalism in the mid-Victorian press, and provided a rich vein of ‘scandals’ that newspapers and periodicals were only too happy to mine. On the other, shifting sentiment towards, but also among, the poor meant that pauperism, however blameless, carried a heavy burden of shame in Victorian England, so that paupers themselves rarely voiced their feelings in open forums.

It is also becoming clear in our work on letters written by, and on behalf of, paupers to the central authorities in London that even these were highly strategic documents. Just as under the Old Poor Law (and, often, in common with those sensational accounts in the papers) paupers rarely, if ever, passed judgement on the poor law or the workhouse system per se, instead concentrating their energies on specific instances of malpractice, maladministration and the contravention of rules and regulations. This means that their attitudes to the overarching framework of poor law policy – and those of the public at large – tend to get lost in the thicket of comment and condemnation relating to its day-to-day practice and administration.

Occasionally, however, we do find examples in MH12 of individuals who were prepared to cut through the detail and shine a light on the principles that underpinned the New Poor Law, and Isaac Ironside’s letters from Sheffield are a fine example of this. Ironside could hardly be described as an ordinary member of the public; in fact, he was in possession of a very large and sharp-bladed axe which he ground to considerable effect in mid-Victorian Yorkshire. He was a Chartist and Owenite socialist and, by the 1850s, he had risen to a position of considerable influence on Sheffield City Council. He was instrumental in establishing Sheffield’s Mechanics’ Institute and its Hall of Science, the first of its kind in England. Nonetheless, when Ironside wrote to the Poor Law Board on behalf of William Hodgson of Barnsley, he did so as a private citizen and an advocate for a poor man who found himself in a difficult, though far from uncommon, situation.

Hodgson was a widower who had been left with six children and suffered considerable ill health. His youngest child, an infant, was being cared for by Hodgson’s sister who received two shillings a week in financial support from her parish. Between March and May 1850, however, Ironside was moved to write three letters on their behalf because the Board of Guardians had stopped the child’s relief, and his aunt – Emma Mitchell – was unable to continue his care without it. She and Hodgson found themselves in an impossible situation, wanting to do their best for the child but lacking the means to do so. Ironside’s first letter was a polite enquiry, asking whether the Board could use its influence to get the child’s relief reinstated. His second was a response to the replies of both the Board and the local guardians, in which he assured them again that neither Hodgson nor his sister were able to provide for the child without assistance, and explained that Mitchell was now looking after two of her brother’s children, because their father had taken a turn for the worse.

But it is Ironside’s third letter that really catches the eye. By this time his patience with the local and national administrators had run out. He had witnessed first-hand the obfuscation and pettifoggery of the local Board of Guardians and the high-handed unwillingness of the Poor Law Commissioners to hold them to account, and he had also seen the devastating impact their actions had had on Hodgson and his family. Not a man to mince his words, Ironside’s final letter is a masterpiece of passionate polemic and it gives us a brief insight into how the ‘system’ of the New Poor Law was viewed – by some sections of mid-Victorian society, at least.  It also has a surprising resonance for the welfare politics of our own era, and in its clarity of thought and expression it deserves to be quoted in full.

My Lords & Gentlemen,

I duly received yours of the 23rd ult in reply to mine of the 18th ult. Poor Mrs Mitchell comes to me and I am forced to see that “hope deferred maketh the heart sick”! She wept bitterly this morning, and said she feared her brother would not live many days and then, said she, “he will be out of their way; they will have finished him”. She heard a few days ago that he was very ill; unattended except by his poor neighbours who were in his house expecting his death. She has 2 of his children as I have before informed you and she still provides [for] herself and them and struggles, but it is very hard.

You may not be aware that I hate the centralizing tendency of the legislation with a most perfect hatred. I do not believe in Malthus nor do I wish to see the poor people starved to death by law. This case is not likely to lessen my hatred. If I could see any thing like moral responsibility on behalf of the central authorities, I should be inclined to view centralization with more favour. But there is nothing of the kind. Stump orators make perfect laws, and legal responsibility is all that is ever thought of. For instance you have acted legally, I suppose, in this case, Lorimer [a local poor law official] would no doubt say the same, ditto the Board of Guardians at Barnsley etc. My first letter to Lorimer [was] on the 18th Jany. My first to you was on the 1st of March, the poor wretch starving all the time – more than 16 weeks. You breakfast every morning and transact your business with the perfect consciousness that you will also dine in due course. Not so the poor who have not sufficient interest to get an appeal to you. Those who have discover what a task they undertake. Carlyle is not far wrong in his description of what has to be done in Downing St.

Good Heavens how I shudder at the cold hearted official red tapism which governs this country.

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Universal Credit: The New, New Poor Law?

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The UK’s stance on poverty has recently come under the scrutiny of the United Nations, who argue that austerity measures have inflicted huge misery on the poorest in society. The number of those who live in poverty has reached 14 million, with 1.4 million of these being classed as destitute (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-46236642). The misery of many families has been exacerbated by the move to Universal Credit, the government’s new benefits system. Under this system a single monthly payment is made to people out of work and replaces many of the old benefits which were paid separately, such as housing benefit, child tax credit, income support, working tax credit, income jobseeker’s allowance and income-related employment and support allowance. When a claimant makes the transition to the new scheme, new assessments are necessary, regardless of any previous decisions which were made. People who in the past have been classed as unable to work are now being classified as fit for employment, and as a result many people’s benefits have been cut. As an indication of a system in turmoil, more than fifty per cent of those who appeal against their decision win.

In June, the New Statesman published Alex Tiffin’s Universal Credit diary, entitled ‘With six days to go, I have nothing left’ (New Statesman online, 11 June 2018). In it, Tiffin highlights one of the biggest problems with the new system: the time it takes to process the first payment. In his case, it took a whole seven weeks, and even the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) acknowledges that it will take at least five weeks for most claimants. That means five weeks with no food, and no money for electricity, transport costs, rent and other essential services. It also means that claimants are in arrears from the very start, yet some essential payments, such as rent, of course, are almost always demanded up-front. The DWP’s solution to this conundrum is to offer advance payments which are then clawed back from an already inadequate monthly sum. Tiffin literally begged for his repayments to be reduced, but to no avail. His diary reveals the reality of poverty in twenty-first century Britain: he lives in the rural Highlands, so ‘extra’ services like broadband are absolutely essential, especially as he needs to check into his Universal Credit Account regularly or face losing it. He confronts a daily decision whether or not to switch off the heating and lie in bed to keep warm; to feed himself adequately he resorts to parcels from a local church-run foodbank.

The language of Alex Tiffin’s diary mirrors that of many of the paupers under the New Poor Law, who were often disabled or too unwell to work, and who faced similar decisions about whether to feed themselves or their children, whether to buy food or fuel for the fire.  George Briggs, an inmate of the workhouse at Great Yarmouth, wrote in 1853, ‘I suffer so much from Cold and as to food & Clothing are so miserably scant it past endurance with me I cannot bear it’; and he finished, ominously: ‘please God [I] prefer Death [rather] than remain here’. Another pauper, Frances Land, argued that the workhouse food was so inadequate that women in the laundry would ‘stand at the tub faint and hungry’. This is precisely the kind of rhetoric that is being used once again by Britain’s neediest, thanks to Universal Credit. A manager for West Everton Community Council, for example, described it as ‘the slow killer, that’s what we call it round these parts’, and she went on to say that ‘it feels like they are trying every way possible to kill the poor’ (Huffington Post, 23 September 2018: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk).

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Gustave Doré, ‘Waifs and Strays’

In many ways, the language behind Universal Credit is reminiscent of Samuel Smiles’ theories of self-help and perseverance. The government argues that the aim is to represent conditions closest to being in work, so that those in poverty learn to manage their money better; but, of course, the levels of ‘pay’ under Universal Credit are far below those of any remunerative employment (‘less eligibility’, anyone?). The system places a responsibility for paying rent and other housing costs on to individuals who, by definition, have no money and no credit, and then blames them for getting into arrears.  In other words, it all starts to feel like a new New Poor Law, and the discussions around it are very familiar to those who know anything about the original version. The aim is to ‘control spending’, to ensure that people are better off in work than on benefits, and to ‘simplify’ the system by enforcing a bewildering array of bureaucratic checks and balances through which the poor have to navigate an uncertain path. Under the old New Poor law, it is clear that many paupers learned to work with the system as best they could, and there is every reason to believe that this will be the case with Universal Credit, too. But for every pauper who made it work for them, of course, there were others who fell victim to a harsh and uncaring system. Is this what is in store for Britain’s poor in the twenty first century?