New Poor Law
Riposte – By Sumner Burstyn.
In the 1980’s when I first became aware of the theory of welfare bludging I was a newly single parent with three small kids. I went from a socially acceptable wife and mother to that lower form of life known as the solo mother. Even while living though those days we solo mothers considered them the bad old days. If you had an issue to resolve with Social Welfare you knew to take your hanky because of course you were treated like rubbish.
Sure it was a time of ‘mixed economy welfare’ with some councils providing subsidized housing and Housing Corporation loans available even for people on the DPB (according to one report New Zealand Social Development Minister, Paula Bennett, got one) and there were even training incentive allowances (Paula got one of those too). But it was a difficult time. My kids suffered. Sometimes I skipped meals, a reliable car was a far off dream and we were not always warm. We talked about how change would come and how parenting would one day be valued no matter your financial status. But looking back those were the halcyon days for single parents.
Today our welfare landscape more resembles 1835 Britain than the better world we envisioned as our kids grew. In 1835 they were just introducing the New Poor Law. It was in large part influenced by the works of Rev. Thomas Malthus.
As an economist Malthus saw the old Poor Law and welfare in general as destroying ‘the love of independence’ in the lower classes. In his view welfare assistance and especially provisions for payments for children encouraged the lower classes to breed and eradicated inequalities between married and single men. He agreed that available housing was also part of the problem and supported the destruction of cottages.
Ultimately Malthus went as far as to advocate that no one had the right to any subsistence welfare because people caused their own poverty by having children. He even declared that famine and poverty were God’s way of preventing laziness and teaching the virtues of hard work and good behavior.
Malthus also felt that welfare caused the supply of labor to exceed the demand. In other words the poor were little more than a resource to service capitalism. On planet Malthus outside economic conditions such as a rapidly changing labor market, outsourcing commodity production, economic depression or the skyrocketing price of corn and food in general had nothing to do with poverty.
The New Poor Laws resolved all that. Outside relief was curtailed and entering a workhouse became the only way of gaining aid. The idea was for workhouses to offer conditions worse than living on the streets to discourage their use. It was starve on the streets on starve in the workhouse.
So you get the idea. Stigmatize relief so that it becomes an “object of wholesome horror”. And make welfare so onerous as to be not an option. As the theory goes this then enables wages to find their true level in a free market system and for men to find work.
Paula Bennett and her second stage welfare reforms may not yet have gone so far as the workhouse. But despite the mounting evidence of human misery right here and now in our land of plenty, clearly, there is serious Malthus channeling occurring inside the National Party. Charles Dickens wrote the character of Oliver Twist to protest the New Poor Laws. An author today could easily write a modern version. I wonder what role Paula Bennett would play?