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The Reform of the Poor Law.*
1.-THE NEED FOR POOR LAW REFORM.
NE of the most urgent needs for democratic social reorganisapresent administration of the nation's provision for its poorer citizens is, in many ways, scandalously harsh to those who have the misfortune to be driven to accept the pauper dole. The ruling classes have deliberately made the lot of these poorer citizens so degraded that the more sensitive will die lingering deaths rather than submit to it, whilst others prefer going to gaol. In the hope of getting rid of the burden of maintaining the poor, and of throwing every one upon his own resources, the comfort, self-respect and personal dignity of whole generations of paupers have been, since 1834, ruthlessly sacrificed. Although no instructed person would for a moment venture to run any risk of restoring the evil days of the Old Poor Law, it is time to recognise that the present system must be fundamentally reformed. After fifty years' trial it has failed to extinguish pauperism and destitution. It succeeds in obviating any but a few cases of direct starvation; but it does not prevent à widespread demoralisation. It often fails to rescue the children from a life of pauperism, and the aged from public disgrace. More important than all, it fails utterly in its chief and most important purpose, of encouraging the provident and the worthy, and discouraging the spendthrift and the drunkard. It is, indeed, now coming to be denounced by experienced philanthropists as the greatest of all the existing hindrances to provident saving, and an instrument of serious degeneration of character among the English people.t
Nevertheless, such is the neglect of social reforms that neither the Liberal nor the Conservative Party so much as mentions Poor
* The greater part of this Tract is reprinted, by permission of the proprietors of the Contemporary Review, from an article by Sidney Webb in that magazine for July, 1890, under the same title. Besides the authorities incidentally referred to, the
following works may be mentioned as dealing with the English Poor Law: Sir F. M. Eden's “State of the Poor”; Sir G. Nicholl's “ History of the English Poor Law Dr. F. Ashcrott's “ English Poor Law"; Rev. T. W. Fowle's " The Poor Law" (a convenient manual); and, above all, the great Poor Law Report of 1834, republished by the House of Commons in 1885 as “ H. C. 347," price 2s. 5d.
+ See “ Thrift and Independence," by Canon Blackley; Mackay's English Poor"; the Charity Organisation Society's publications, passim ; Fawcett's “Pauperism”; and the evidence given before the Select Committee on National Provident Insurance, H.C. 270 of 1885.
Law Reform. The sufferings of the paupers, the degradation of the class from which these are mainly drawn, and even the neglect of the children among them, fail to interest either Mr. Gladstone or Lord Salisbury. For, indeed, the paupers have no votes.
Socialists, who object to an industrial system which condemns to pauperism one-tenth of the population, believe that the greater part of the need for Poor Relief would cease if the owners of land and capital were compelled to restore to the workers collectively the tribute of rent and interest which is now exacted from them individually. Nevertheless, in a land of accident and sickness, poverty cannot be wholly extinguished until a complete Communism is reached. Some system of relief of the destitute must therefore continue to exist for a long time to come. This cannot be left to private charity. Socialists assert, with Bentham, that all such Poor Relief should be administered under the fullest public responsibility by freely elected public bodies. They believe that any attempt to substitute the organisation of voluntary charity for public relief must prove even more disastrous than a bad Poor Law.
Moreover, it must not be forgotten that no scheme which aims at the abolition or diminution of the present revenue from Poor Rates can gain the support either of the public or of the political economist. These ten millions sterling, virtually a share of the rental of the country, are as much the property of the poor as their wages, and no proposal can be for a moment admitted which contemplates the absorption of this tribute by the landlords or the middle class. National Insurance or Poor Law Reform can aliko be but suggestions for the better administration of the collective revenues of the poor-all that is left to them in place of the monastic endowments, the mediæval charities and the common lands.
II.-THE NUMBER OF OUR PAUPERS. Those who talk glibly about the abolition of the Poor Law can hardly have any adequate conception of the extent and character of the pauper class. It seems to have been assumed by the authors of the Act of 1834 that real destitution might fairly be regarded as an exceptional and accidental state, and that the awful permanence of the pauper class was merely the result of the demoralising old system. This idea is encouraged by the optimistic statistics reiterated by the Local Government Board, which show : “That the mean number of paupers relieved in the parochial year ending at Lady Day 1889, was smaller in proportion to the population than in any other parochial year included in the table. It amounted to 795,617, or a thirty-sixth of the estimated population."* Including Scotland and Ireland, the total becomes over a million.
A million of our fellow-citizens in pauperism is more than a trifle. But that is not the whole tale. It has been pointed out over and over again that the Local Government Board statistics of pauperism, and especially the references to “one thirty-sixth of the population," are misleading. They record merely the number of persons in actual receipt of Poor Law relief on one particular day. But Poor Law relief is now usually given for short periods at a time; and a large proportion of those who become paupers during any one year are not in receipt of relief during the whole of the year. The plan of granting relief only for short periods at a time is steadily becoming general.
* P. lxi of C-5813.
In 1857, a careful computation was made in various ways of the number of different persons who, during the year, were paupers at one time or another. The total was found to be 3} times the number for one day, and this calculation has since usually been accepted.* Hence, instead of 2.8 per cent. we get nearly 10 per cent of the population, or at least 3,500,000, as the class actually pauper during any one year.
Nor is this the worst aspect of the case. While a man or woman is in the prime of life, and free from sickness or accident, it may be assumed that pauperism is relatively exceptional. The appalling statistics of the pauperism of the aged are carefully concealed in all official returns. No statistics are given by the Local Government Board as to the percentage of aged paupers. No information was given on this point, even in the census of 1881. Although the occu. pations at each age were then obtained, the Registrar-General discreetly and humorously merged all paupers over sixty in the class “retired from business," so that the enriched army contractor and his aged workpeople were combined to swell this one category.
In 1885, Canon Blackley found that in his parish, 37 per cent. of the deaths of persons over sixty, during fifteen years, had been those of paupers. He obtained returns from twenty-five other rural parishes, and found that 42.7 per cent. of deaths of persons over sixty were those of paupers.+ Returns obtained from twenty Unions in England, selected entirely at haphazard, and including metropolitan and provincial, urban and rural districts, show the following results :
Indoor. Outdoor. Total.
2,728 4,728 7,456
26 If we may assume these Unions to be fairly representative of the whole--and the results coincide closely with those given by other tests-it would follow that out of the 817,190 persons simultaneously in receipt of relief in England and Wales, on the 1st of January, 1889, there would be at least 250,000 over 65, and 200,000 over 70 years of age. At the census of 1881, the percentage of persons over
* See Dudley Baxter's “National Income,” p. 87; and Mulhall's “ Dictionary of Statistics," p. 346.
| Report of Committee on National Provident Insurance," p. 159 of H.C. 208, 1886.
# See House of Commons Return, No. 36 of 1890.