ATD Fourth World: Empowerment, Change & Community

ATD Fourth World offers activities for all ages

ATD Fourth World operates in twenty-five countries worldwide, championing the cause of the most vulnerable and impoverished with dedication, compassion and a human rights based approach. From its 100,000 members worldwide to its permanent delegation to the European Union, ATD Fourth World addresses the challenge of poverty on every level. ATD Fourth World believes it is crucial to allow those individuals affected by poverty to have a voice and perspective whenever and wherever poverty is discussed. Providing a platform for people to influence the national debate on poverty is at the very heart of their work. Here in theUK, ATD Fourth World works with the poorest of the poor. They work with families of hardworking and kind individuals who, brought together by hardship, strive daily to improve their lives and the lives of those around them. Paul McDonald summed up the experiences of the many families and individuals ATD Fourth World has helped by saying, ‘ATD Fourth World is a second home, an occupation, a community, a group of friends.’ It is an enduring testimony to their compassion that even as the families work to change their lives, they remain with ATD Fourth World, constantly learning and developing new friendships and skills.

Their open lunches have become something of a tradition. It’s a welcome chance for old friends and new to gather, to offer encouragement, advice, a joke or a hug. Some of the members have been coming for over thirty years, watching as people come and go, growing older and having children of their own. Bunched into one small room in theirLondonoffice are ATD Fourth World team, the ATD Fourth World families, the volunteers and a delicious spread of food. Sitting down with them is like joining a big family at the table; everyone speaks at once, food goes round and round, children knock over glasses, grandmothers laugh at each other’s complaints. From enduring spells of homelessness to custody battles, each of these people has overcome great odds to create this family. Time and time again, it’s referred to as ‘my chosen family.’ And like the best families, it’s one that has seen them through all the hardships that just keep coming.

In addition to influencing policy on national and international levels, ATD Fourth World offers families assistance with housing, legal problems, education and more. Families helped by ATD Fourth World are actively encouraged to campaign for their own change, and have spoken in Parliament on the very issues closest to their hearts. As ATD Fourth World member James Riley puts it, “You do matter and your voice is important to someone out there. And if you put your point of view across in a constructive way you will be listened to. It’s important because, that way, the people in poverty through social reasons or whatever else feel that they are a valued member of a community or organisation. And if they feel their opinions matter to someone, at least, they will constantly grow and evolve. I think that if you have enough voices in anything [then] you’re going to get heard no matter what, so I do think it makes a difference.” It is an active, participatory approach to poverty cessation which benefits everyone.

ATD Fourth World offers respite time in its Frimhurst Family House in Surrey. For many, the houses in London and Surrey have been a life-line in hard times. It may meet as basic a need as a non-judgmental environment or be the retreat which allows them to re-connect with their children away from the stress of everyday life. Long time ATD Fourth World participant, Denise Smith said at one lunch “ATD Fourth World have helped me a lot. I have changed for the better. I enjoy meeting the new volunteers and I have made new friends. ATD Fourth World help through phone calls, filling forms that sort of thing. I heard about them through a social worker around 35 years ago.” Poverty can have a hugely detrimental effect on family life and the retreats are a crucial opportunity for families to be together, for parents to hone parenting skills and children to enjoy time in the great outdoors.

ATD Fourth World offers individuals the vital opportunity to develop life skills through workshops, volunteering and organized activities. In recent times, participants have enjoyed everything from carolling to photography to respite breaks. Each of these activities offers more than merely the opportunity to develop new skills; it gives people the chance to develop confidence, self-worth, friends and regain the dignity poverty diminishes.

Inspired to find out more? Visit ATD Fourth World’s website or email to find out about volunteer opportunities.

Want to donate today? Visit for ways to help!

Workhouse or Workfare? Attitudes Haven’t Changed – Part 2

Julia Wood, author and scholar, continues her discussion of “the undeserving poor”, workhouses and today’s attitudes to the unemployed.

dole street

Throughout the nineteenth century, workhouses became places of refuge for those who were vulnerable, either because they were ill – mentally or physically – or because they were disabled. These people were made to work to earn their provisions, which were negligible and sparse, a type of watery gruel served with bread being the staple diet, though sometimes meat and potatoes were provided and supper would usually have consisted of bread and cheese and if they were lucky, some kind of broth.

Workhouse conditions were extremely harsh, and sanitation often negligible, a far cry, one might think, from conditions for the poor in England today.

Yet it is in their attitudes to the poor that the Victorians bear a striking similarity to today’s politicians and tabloid press. Just as today’s benefit claimants are characterised by the media and the Government as work-shy, good-for-nothing scroungers, so in the nineteenth century, the Victorian underclass – ‘the undeserving poor’ – were comprised of those generally regarded as ‘beggars and cheats.’

Indeed, a pamphlet published in 1862 by Henry Mayhew describes itself as A Victorian Guide to Those That Will Not Work and talks about a class of, ‘beggars, thieves, drunkards, gamblers and prostitutes’ not dissimilar to the underclass identified today.

The Victorians divided the poor into two categories: deserving and undeserving. The former term included anyone hard working and diligent who was a victim of circumstance, and who, through illness of loss of earnings was forced to throw themselves onto the mercy of the state.

The latter – the undeserving poor – was the term used for those regarded as work-shy and idle, those who did not want to work, or who refused to do so, preferring instead to live off the public purse (then, as now, poor relief was subsidised by taxpayers).

It is this latter category which describes today’s attitudes to those on state benefits. The media continues to perpetrate histrionic propaganda about ‘scroungers’ who live like royalty at the taxpayers’ expense and is full of stories abound about families – often immigrants – with multitudes of children, who reside in luxurious houses, along with a detailed breakdown of what this costs the taxpayer per annum.

People claiming sickness benefit are depicted as work-shy and ‘faking it’ and an exception – maybe a small handful of people conning the system – is taken as the norm and used as an excuse to denigrate the vulnerable poor.

The new and controversial Workfare scheme, in which benefits claimants are forced to work for their benefits or risk losing their entitlement, is similar in principle to the Victorian workhouses and utilises the same opportunities for labour exploitation amongst the vulnerable, the disabled and the mentally ill.

In conclusion, social conditions may have improved a bit since the Victorian era but attitudes have not. At a time of economic recession, when an angry nation is hungry for a scapegoat for its financial woes, the benefit-claiming poor are as vulnerable to public opprobrium and scorn as they were in the nineteenth century.

And although we are a secular culture, the Christian Work Ethic of humility, frugality and diligence still has the power to shape public attitudes to the unemployed.

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Workhouse or Workfare? Attitudes Haven’t Changed – Part 1


The Workhouse

Few people would dispute that social conditions and standards of living for the poor have improved since Victorian times. Yet, the Government’s draconian measures against benefit claimants suggest that conditions may have improved but attitudes have not really changed.

The poor, especially those unable – some would argue unwilling – to work, are regarded with a similar vitriolic contempt as they were in the nineteenth century. The Victorians called those too ill or sick to work ‘the undeserving poor;’ referred to these days as the underclass.

The relationship between the poor and work has always been complex, having its roots in the Christian belief in the redemptive power of work. The Protestant Work Ethic, as it has been described by social historians, was founded upon the belief that humility, frugality and good old fashioned hard work were steps along the road to salvation.

The Victorians strongly believed in the notion of work, as a means of keeping the poor out of trouble and keeping them humble so that they could be unitised as cheap labour, about which the Christian Work Ethic was adamant that they should not complain, since they would gain their reward in heaven.

During the Victorian period there was of course, no benefits system and the only means of support for the very poor, was to enter the workhouse, where they would have to endure hours of tedious, menial work for little pay and negligible nutrition.

Workhouse inmates were put to work in jobs such as picking oakum with a spike (workhouses were colloquially known as ‘spikes,’ perhaps because of this) – breaking stones, and bone-crushing for use in fertiliser. Some were so hungry and malnourished that they would suck the marrow from the bone before crushing it.

Of course the Victorians did not invent the workhouses, though the inexorable link between the workhouse and the nineteenth century is due in part to Charles Dickens’ Oliver, in which the workhouses are depicted as corrupt and filthy and their inmates as malnourished, starving and desperate.

The workhouses go as far back as the fourteenth century, to the Poor Law Act of 1388, when the labour shortages due to the Black Death meant that the movement of labourers needed to be restricted and so the poor were put into workhouses and became the responsibility of the state.

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, there was mass unemployment, a fact that was not helped by the invention of new agricultural technology that made many farm labourers redundant and therefore reliant upon state support. Poor relief was becoming difficult to sustain and maintain.

Thus, in 1834, a new Poor Law Act was introduced that attempted to tackle the problem of an ever-burgeoning state-dependant poor. This act has been heavily criticised for its harshness, since its chief objective was to discourage or refuse poor relief to those who would not enter the workhouse, thus forcing many people to do so against their will.

Many authorities saw the opportunities for cheap labour and exploited it to its hilt. As we know from Charles Dickens, whose harsh experiences with poverty shaped much of his early life, the workhouses were designed to be harsh and unbearable in order to ensure that those who were able-bodied did not enter them, and that only the really desperate applied.

Join us next Thursday when Julia continues her discussion of the attitudes to the poor in Part 2 of Workhouse or Workfare?

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