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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About Julia Wood

Julia Wood, (M.A., University of Warwick) is an author, Oscar Wilde scholar and personality. She has received extensive press and television coverage for her distinctive Edwardian lifestyle and designs all her own clothes. Julia is currently working on a novel - a ghost story - set in the Edwardian era. Visit www.julia-wood.com. Follow Julia on Twitter @edwardianspice
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