As the Government pushes through increasingly savage cuts to social security, it has been ideology along with cost cutting that been at the heart of welfare reform. And that ideology is based on the very same Victorian principles which underpinned the brutal and hated system of workhouses for the destitute.
In the early 1800s unemployment soared as 400,000 demobbed soldiers returned home from the Napoleonic Wars. This led to increased spending on the patchy system of welfare made up of workhouses and ‘outdoor relief’ – goods or money distributed to the poor – which had existed funded by local taxation since the late 1500s. Spending on welfare was out of control, and tough new measures were required.
In 1834 Parliament introduced the Poor Law Amendment Act which along with abolishing outdoor relief created a new, vicious regime in the workhouse. A belief had emerged that a feckless underclass were responsible for the rise in spending on poor relief. Unemployment was seen as being the fault of unemployed people, the undeserving poor, and new laws were required to force them to work.
It is easy to see why this became a popular idea amongst the ruling classes. Any attempt at creating a low wage economy must first start with ensuring that life without wages is as horrific as possible.
Therefore the changes to the Poor Laws were based on the principal of ‘less eligibility’ which meant that somebody who was poor and out of work: “on the whole shall not be made really or apparently as eligible as the independent labourer of the lowest class.”
This meant that life in the workhouse had to be worse, or more uncomfortable, than the life of the lowest paid labourer. Workhouses were intended as a deterrent to being poor, or pauperised as it was known, through unemployment. The new regime was as much a form of social control as an attempt at relieving poverty.
When Iain Duncan Smith insists that no-one on benefits should receive more than someone in work – despite the fact that no-one does – he is echoing the principle of ‘less eligibility’. Instilling social control and and keeping wages low is every bit as important to his welfare reforms as the stated aim of bringing down the benefit bill.
The problem for the workhouses was that wages were so low that the lowest paid labourers faced desperate poverty. This problem persists today, with many of the poorest working families dependent on in-work benefits to survive. The challenge for the Victorian workhouse, and Iain Duncan Smith today, is how to create a regime so oppresive that it is worse than a life of minimum wage work and poverty.
One way to fix this side of the ‘less eligibility’ problem is to drive benefits down to near starvation levels. Some people are now left with a just a few pounds a week after the bedroom tax, council tax reform and other cuts to benefits. Others have had benefits sanctioned, leaving them with nothing at all. A horrifying social experiment in just how poor can you get away with making some of the population, is well underway.
People in the workhouse could hardly be called well fed, but they were usually provided with three meals a day – more than many struggling families on benefits can afford today. Workhouses often had healthcare and educational facilities which were not available to the poor outside. Whilst conditions varied, and in some areas workhouse inmates were subject to the most appalling conditions, there was an attempt to control nutritional standards at a national level. Other means were created to ensure that life in the workhouse was ‘less eligible’ than a life of poverty wages outside.
Reluctant to use starvation as a weapon of social control, the Victorians turned to discipline, forced labour and shame to make the workhouse regime as unbearable as possible. Inmates had to carry out ‘irksome’ work, such as stone breaking, or bone crushing. Alcoholic spirits and tobacco were banned and food was kept as plain and unappetising as possible. Inmates were forced to wear a uniform and keep to a strict time-table of work. Usually they were not permitted to leave without permission and workhouses were built to resemble prisons; austere, uncomfortable and imposing.
By far the most severe element was the break up of families. Men who found themselves destitute and condemned to the workhouse were judged to have relinquished their responsibility for looking after their family and were separated from them. As their wives and children were essentially seen as property which the men had to forsake, they were punished with this separation almost by default. This casual collective punishment of families is not unlike the current impoverishment of children when benefits are stopped or sanctioned due to the Jobcentre invented crimes of their parents. Just like today, in Victorian times when it came to punishing parents for being ‘workless’ or promiscuous, almost no-one thought of the children.
Children in the workhouse were separated from their mothers from the age of 7 and sometimes even deported to the colonies, often without the consent of their parents. It was the horror of being separated from loved ones, and the shame that this brought, that fully enshrined the principle of ‘less eligibility’ and the popular terror of the workhouse.
Whilst this kind of draconian regime might appeal to the likes of Iain Duncan Smith, there is no money to pay for it today. Workhouses were expensive, more so than the system of poor relief they replaced. Therefore different means of establishing ‘less eligibility’ for those on benefits must be found in the present day.
The endless shaming of single mothers on benefits in the national media, egged on by the DWP, has been one way to meet this goal. The benefit cap, which means forced relocation for some families away from loved ones and into cities where they may not know a soul, is another method of punishing poor parents and their children. Tellingly the benefit cap does not apply to those in full time work. This is not about saving money, but making life ‘less eligible’ for single parents, usually mothers, who are forced to rely on social security.
Workfare is one of the more obvious examples of ‘less eligibility’ – a sort of workhouse on the cheap. This in itself meets the test of the workhouse principles – working full time for benefits is ‘less eligible’ than working full time for a wage, even if only just in some cases.
Workfare doesn’t quite provide the solution Iain Duncan Smith desires however. Just like in Victorian times, the main reason for unemployment today is simply that there isn’t enough paid work for everybody to do. This was the reason workhouses could rarely turn a profit and inmates were often left doing completely pointless, if back-breaking work. Today it means workfare shrinks the amount of paid jobs available as companies use unpaid workers to cut down on wage bills. This can be permitted on a small scale and it was probably assumed it would go unnoticed. The fact that it didn’t shows workfare is not a politically or economically possible solution if applied to over 2 million unemployed people.
The realisation of this is almost certainly one reason why the proposed Community Action Programme – six month rolling periods of workfare for everyone leaving the Work Programme – has been quietly abandoned.
With neither workhouses or mass workfare being a viable solution to Iain Duncan Smith’s attempt to morally educate and eradicate the poor, his attempts at achieving ‘less eligibility’ for those on benefits are becoming ludicrous. The latest weapon in his crusade is ‘conditionality’, meaning ever more draconian conditions for receiving benefits. Claimants are soon to be expected to spend 35 hours a week endlessly looking for jobs which don’t exist. People living in smaller towns could be forced to visit the same shops, every single week, to hand in CVs – a nasty trick which not just wastes someone’s time, but ensures they are continuously shamed for being unable to find a job.
In this context, Universal Jobmatch, the new government job seeking website, could be seen as the first virtual workhouse. This website gives Jobcentre staff the ability to remotely monitor claimant’s online job-seeking activity. The idea is that claimants can now be forced to sit at a computer for hours on end, clicking through job vacancies and sending off huge numbers of applications for jobs that they may not even be qualified to do.
It does not matter that the majority of jobs on Universal Jobmatch are part time, or flaky self-employed opportunities which often require cash up front. It doesn’t even matter that many of the jobs on the website don’t even exist and are simply employment agencies fishing for unemployed people’s CVs to keep on their files. The purpose of Universal Jobmatch is not to help people find a job, but to spy on claimants to ensure they are carrying out sufficient ‘work related activity’. Instead of breaking rocks in a workhouse yard, the poor are now to be kept in poverty at home, forced to pointlessly click away at scam and spam job advertisements on the internet with the intention of making their lives as uncomfortable and boring as possible.
In Victorian times the workhouses quickly filled up with the elderly, orphans, disabled people, and the physically or mentally unwell. The non-disabled and healthy feckless poor who the workhouses were aimed at, by and large did not materialise. It’s almost as if they didn’t exist, or at least not in any great numbers. Instead it was those who were genuinely unable to work who were punished by the austere and inhuman workhouse regime.
150 years later and it is disabled people who face losing their homes due to the bedroom tax and other benefit cuts. Single parents are soon to be forced to abandon their teenage children from dawn to dusk to attend workfare or other ‘work related activity’. Those who are unemployed because there are no jobs face workfare and sanctions. Welfare reforms are not just forcing people into poverty, unpaid work, or job seeking activity that won’t help them find a job, but increasingly people are losing their homes. Less eligibility in the modern world means homelessness, not a bed in the workhouse.
And once again an onslaught on the living conditions of the poor is being justified by lurid tales of an army of feckless scroungers who no more exist today than they did when they were first used to excuse the horrors of the workhouse.
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