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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Assistance for the Poor

There are those who might today agree with the views below; I am not one of them. What do you think?
1798: In his essay on population, Malthus said that the poor have no right to support, and the death of the poor would help keep the population in balance. He also considered that if given money, the poor would simply use it for ale, and that being poor was a disgrace. And in 1835, the U.S. Supreme Court added its voice and authority to the damning of the poor:

"We think it as competent and as necessary for a state to provide precautionary measures against the moral pestilence of paupers, vagabonds and possibly convicts as it is to guard against the physical pestilence which may arise from unsound and infectious articles."

This view gave rise to the poorhouse, both in England and in America and to laws which regulated the movements and activities of the poor:

In 1834, the poor laws were reformed in England, so that only indoor (poorhouse) relief was to be given. This set up a real test of poverty and would deter indolence. Indeed, Disraeli said that the new law "announced to the world that in England, poverty is a crime." The laws were reformed also to ensure that the poor were never better off than the lowest paid workers. The Royal Commission put it this way:

"Nothing but extreme necessity will induce any to accept the comfort which must be obtained by the surrender of their free agency and the sacrifice of their accustomed habits and gratifications."

Just a few decades earlier, the Articles of Confederation (Art. IV) stated that all citizens except paupers shall have free ingress and egress from one state to another. This exception was eliminated from the Privileges and Immunities clause of the Article IV of the US Constitution. One of the key ways in which the poor were controlled was by laws requiring them to stay where they were born. The residence requirement for public aid goes back to the mid-13th Century, to a time when the plague had made farm labor quite scarce, and so, workers were not allowed to travel about. It is not an exaggeration to sum up the English/American view of poverty thusly: "A willing pauper is near to being a thief."

Reform movements in both countries in the early part of the twentieth century did improve the circumstances of poor people somewhat; for one thing, the poorhouse was discarded in favor of aiding the poor in their own homes and by treating them as normal, productive members of society. Indeed, one of the core concepts of the Social Security Act of 1935 is that poor people should have control of their lives by being given cash assistance rather than in-kind benefits. even as late as 1934, in thirteen states poor people could not vote or hold office. In 1968, a lawsuit had to be instituted in order for people not owing real property to gain the right to vote in a school board election in Ossining, New York.

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