Pauperism versus Poverty

The Rt. Hon. John Burns, in the picturesque language characteristic of him, once said ”Figures never lie, but liars sometimes figure.” During the late election, however, in contradicting the figures of Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, Mr. Burns did a little figuring of his own.

He said

“In 1849, when the country had just emerged from Protection, there were 1,088,000 paupers, or 62 per thousand of the population, in 1900 there were 25 per thousand. In 1849 the able-bodied poor numbered 13 per thousand of the population, but to-day only 2 per thousand of the paupers were able-bodied.
“As to the cost of the Poor Law Administration, the increase was due to the fact that as under Protection the standard of comfort of the whole community was low, so under Free Trade it was correspondingly better. They had better workhouses, many of them almost palatial whereas formerly they were almost a cross between a penitentiary and a prison.” (The italics are ours.)

That the standard of comfort of a section of the community has improved is, of course, true ; but this cannot be said of the mass of the workers. They toil harder and can buy no more with their wages. Their employment is less secure and their out-of-work spells are longer. The average worker’s wage is barely sufficient to enable him to continue in working condition and reproduce his kind; whilst there are 12 to 13 millions of the working class who cannot obtain even that bare sufficiency. This too, in face of the fact that the labour of the people has increased the wealth of the “country” by leaps and bounds.

We have, it is true, if we have the misfortune to outlive our usefulness to our masters, permission to end our days in those palatial residences which Mr. Burns said are due to Free Trade.

But what of Mr. Burns’ figures ?

They only show an increase in well-being if the Poor Law administration has not been made more severe. Let us see whether the Poor Law regulations have been made stricter, for if they have, the veriest tyro would know that the value of the figures is thereby destroyed.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 abolished the grant of relief in aid of wages, and considerably modified the Act of Settlement, it also laid down the principle of the Workhouse Test. Parliament, however, left the gradual introduction of the principle in the hands of the Central Department. Nevertheless the refusal of relief in aid of wages and the partial imposition of the workhouse test in order to discourage applicants for relief caused a continuous decline in pauperism from 1834—twelve years before the inauguration of Free Trade.

The Poor Law was further strengthened by the Amendment Act of 1844 ; but it was not (says the “Encyclopaedia Britannica”) until 1867 that the local administrative bodies took the matter up with much enthusiasm. The Pauper Inmate Act of 1871, and the Casual Poor Act of 1882 made conditions of relief more onerous by increasing the compulsory stay of vagrants and by other means.

Regarding this, Ashcrott and Preston Thomas say in their work, ”The English Poor Law System,” p. 285,

“The marked increase of indoor paupers (accompanied, of course, by a still more marked decrease of out-door paupers until recently is due to the movement beginning about 1865 in favour of the workhouse principle.”

Again, p. 288,

“It is clear that in the case of this class of paupers (able-bodied adults) it was mainly by the rigid enforcement of the workhouse test that this improvement was secured.”

The facts clearly show that the statistics of pauperism for the past 70 years are in themselves no guide to the condition of the working class, but they illustrate that poverty is inseparable from capitalism, be it Free Trade or Protectionist. Indeed, in defiance of tests and restrictions there has been a marked increase in pauperism during the past decade.

In spite of Mr. Burns, decreasing pauperism has not been due to diminishing poverty, but to the application of the golden rule of capitalist poor “relief,” to give the poor exactly what they don’t want, so that they would rather starve than come again.

It is, indeed, in consistent application of this golden rule that Mr. Burns himself is being used. The fact that he provides an excellent means of decoying some with vague labour aspirations into the toils of Liberalism, is not the only merit he posesses in capitalist eyes. Few have made it more peculiarly their business to dilate upon those virtues which the capitalist desires in his wage-slaves that they may work cheaper and harder, and none have so vehemently championed the capitalist view of the poor as the new “Labour” minister.

No course moreover, leads so easily to popularity and patronage as the flagellation of working class vices, provided always the fact is blinked that these are the product of a vicious system. Nothing wins the applause of the interested and the superficial more easily than the loud-mouthed opprobrium of the loafer, the outcast and the unfortunate, so long as attention is diverted from the condition of things that created them. Mr. Burns has repeatedly disclaimed any sympathy for these victims of the capitalist juggernaut. He has “none to spare” for these. Even the “Pall Mall Gazette” was led to exclaim that he might be trusted to deal with the “whining wastrelism” known as the unemployed.

In the “Charity Organization Review” he said in 1894 and repeats it in varying phrases,

“Every man who has been out of work cheers the man who is in favour of out-door relief. Every loafer at the street corner who lives on it says: ‘Three cheers for a pound a week out-relief.’ I have always been against it except when administered with the greatest rigidity.”

No wonder, therefore, that the capitalist press proclaim him as the “Right man in the right place,” for as President of the Local Government Board he has found his vocation in the administration of the Poor Law in the interests of the master class.

We who know the utter futility of charity, know also that the only hope of the working class lies in Socialism, alid, therefore, concentrate our efforts on that, necessarily in hostility to the capitalist class and all who become its willing tools. The interests of the master class demand that the Poor Law shall be administered with the “greatest rigidity,” so that the poor may be compelled to submit to the most inhuman conditions rather than accept its “shelter,” and the ruling class have found a man after their own heart, one also who does not shrink, when juggling with their statistics, from concealing awkward facts.


Leave a Reply