As early as 1601, the British government has been providing relief for the poor by way of allowances. The candidly named Elizabethan Poor Law served as the lifeline for Britain’s ballooning lower class. By the late 1700s, the Speenhamland system took effect, providing a larger stipend for able-bodied workers not earning enough to sustain their families. Soon enough, this supplement to the Poor Laws began cutting a sizeable share of the national budget, and the upper class cracked down on poverty: by declaring it as a moral failure.
Stepping back more than two centuries, the Poor Laws of 1834 was a betrayal of the supposedly humanitarian nature of the government. Unemployment had hit rock bottom, with workhouses functioning at capacity, unable to compensate the services of the paupers dumped by the government into them. Impoverished individuals, young or old, sick or healthy, criminally insane or just plain criminal, was what the British workhouse labor force consisted of –growing hungrier, weaker, and more dissatisfied by the day.
Lecturers from TaxSpeaker note that during this time, a third of the UK population was living beneath the poverty line. They say that the implementation only succeeded in promoting squalor, idleness and criminality among citizens, more so than before. They add that it took the country several humanitarian campaigns to budge, up until the formation of Britain’s first formal social security system in 1908.
A Hard Day’s Night
Earning money at a workhouse was no cakewalk before, and the physical, social, and psychological weight dropped by the 1834 Poor Laws only made the UK’s lower class work conditions even harsher. Labeled as a moral failure otherwise, the country’s poor flocked to the degrading, newly unionized labor houses. These rickety structures were near indistinguishable from prisons; workers were even referred to as “inmates” as a formal designation.
People had to live where they work if they wanted to earn, as the government had now forbade all parish relief for able-bodied citizens. It took several decades for workhouse conditions to improve, and several more for social welfare services and the social security systems to be accessible to the impoverished workforce.
The Poor Laws of 1834 spelt the end of charity for those who need it most. The UK did not achieve its status of being one of the world’s most advanced countries by staggering collective progress. Social security is far from charity, but it serves as a future for people facing hardships in the present.