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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 86

I—The Need for Poor Law Reform

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I—The Need for Poor Law Reform.

One of the most urgent needs for democratic social reorganisation is found in the existing system of Poor Law Belief. The present 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 a 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.

Nevertheless, such is the neglect of social reforms that neither the Liberal nor the Conservative Party so much as mentions Poor page 4 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 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 alike 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 mediaeval charities and the common lands,

See "Thrift and Independence," by Canon Blacklcy; Mackay's "The 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.