How did the “Poor Law” became a poor law for the poor?
Economic liberalism insisted upon judging the social events engendered by the Industrial Revolution as it began in England in the eighteenth century from the economic viewpoint; and thus failed to understand the situation.
In 1607 the Lords of the Realm placed the problem in stark relief with this momentous pronouncement “The poor shall be satisfied in his end: Habitation; and the gentleman not hindered in his desire: Improvement”.
This view takes for granted a purely economic progress achieved at the cost of social dislocation. The citizens must leave the land to achieve a great economic success for the nation. This view only hints at the tragic poor clinging to his hovel as the rich achieves public improvement and thus profits greatly in the process.
Enclosures has been christened as the “revolution of the rich against the poor”. “The fabric of society was being disrupted; dissolute villages and the ruins of human dwellings testified to the fierceness with which the revolution raged, endangering the defenses of the country, wasting its towns, decimating its population, turning its overburdened soil into dust, harassing its people and turning them from decent husbandmen into a mob of beggars and thieves. Though this happened only in patches, the black spots threatened to melt into a uniform catastrophe.”
The Tudor and early Stuart statesmen fought constantly to create and modify laws that would attempt to facilitate this economic progress while comforting the weak and poor during this revolution of dramatic change. The rapid rate of change was afforded through the destruction of the underclass despite the law making efforts of the ruling aristocracy.
If the Tudor and early Stuart statesmen had not maintained a policy directed at alleviating the pain of the transition, the rate of that progress might have been ruinous, and have become degenerative instead of a constructive event. It is this rate of change that determined “whether the dispossessed could adjust themselves to changed conditions without fatally damaging their substance, human and economic, physical and moral; whether they would find new employment in the fields of opportunity indirectly connected with the change.”
Quotes from The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of our Time by Karl Polanyi
The following is a condensation of the “Poor Laws” developed by the Tudor and Stuart administrations as delineated in Wikipedia:
The Poor Law was the system for the provision of social security in operation in England and Wales from the 16th century until the establishment of the Welfare State in the 20th century. It was made up of several Acts of Parliament and subsequent Amendments.
For much of the period of the Poor Law, the dependent poor were classified in terms of three groups:
The impotent poor could not look after themselves or go to work. They included the ill, the infirm, the elderly, and children with no-one to properly care for them. It was generally held that they should be looked after.
The able-bodied poor normally referred to those who were unable to find work - either due to cyclical or long term unemployment in the area, or a lack of skills. Attempts to assist these people, and move them out of this category, varied over the centuries, but usually consisted of relief either in the form of work or money.
The 'vagrants' or 'beggars', sometimes termed 'sturdy rogues', were deemed those who could work but had refused to. Such people were seen in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as potential criminals, apt to do mischief when hired for the purpose. They were normally seen as people needing punishment, and as such were often whipped in the market place as an example to others, or sometimes sent to houses of correction. This group was also termed the idle poor.