Saturday, February 15, 2014

Saturday morning musings - the workhouse and the age of entitlements

My main post today is on another blog, Friday Economics - implications of the changing Australian labour market. While it has Friday in the title, it actually came up this morning.

My focus in that post was as the name says, but there was also a bit of a back story.

Just at the moment in Australia, there is a running debate about entitlements, Commonwealth Treasurer Joe Hockey in the forefront. This is a recent example of reporting, Joe Hockey warns Australians the age of entitlement is over. Mr Hockey is consistent. This is a speech he delivered in 2012: “The end of the Age of Entitlement”. This matter of entitlements has also worried our fellow blogger, Winton Bates

Just at the moment, my reading has drawn me into looking at the derivation of certain words and attitudes such as the deserving poor or entitlements. This provides the back story to the Friday economics post.

I don't have time for a proper history post; my focus was a narrow one limited to an immediate purpose. However, as I browsed I couldn't help be struck by just how much current Australian politics is still influenced by discussions dating back to the the English poor laws

Keeping the history very simple, the problem of the poor had exercised minds over a very considerable period. The system of relief that developed out of late-medieval and Tudor-era laws before being codified in 1587–98 was parish based and provided for indoor and outdoor relief.The term the deserving poor dates back to Eliazabethan times.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth century, there was an explosion in demand because of the side-effects of the economic changes taking place. On top of that, the British Government ended up with a debt to GDP exceeding Greece's recent level because of the costs of the war against Napoleon.

In 1832, a commission of inquiry was appointed. The commission concluded that there must be uniform national (in this case read English) standards. Conditions must be set such as to discourage anybody entering the system. The word entitlement was used for the first time that I can find to indicate something that must be discouraged.

These recommendations were taken into account in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. One result was the emergence of the nineteenth century English workhouse whose evils were described by Charles Dickens and others.

There are no easy answers to these social problems, but watch the language used for it can disguise.          


Noric Dilanchian said...

Jim, a recent book I finished discussed extensively the Poor Laws Amendment Act of 1834. It is a huge and complex story, I was left with numerous approaches for its interpretation. One thought was that when in High School history I first learned about the Poor Laws reform I came away with a shallow understanding, largely putting poor law reform into a narrative about England's extension of voting and political power to a broader base of people during the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Your mention of the reform put the poor laws, with the Wikipedia link, into a very broad historical context (stretching before and well after the industrial revolution), which makes them have more sense in some ways as part of English history. So thanks.

Inspired by your post, in browser tab jumping I landed on the Jeremy Bentham page in Wikipedia where this nutshell appears, providing one additional layer of understanding for the reforms:

"Bentham was the first person to aggressively advocate for the codification of all of the common law into a coherent set of statutes; he was actually the person who coined the verb "to codify" to refer to the process of drafting a legal code. He lobbied hard for the formation of codification commissions in both England and the United States, and went so far as to write to President James Madison in 1811 to volunteer to write a complete legal code for the young country. After he learned more about American law and realized that most of it was state-based, he promptly wrote to the governors of every single state with the same offer.

During his lifetime, Bentham's codification efforts were completely unsuccessful. "

Jim Belshaw said...

I think I was first taught it in that way, too, Noric. I found it all very boring and also remote from my Australian experience.

Interesting about Bentham and amen for the second para in the quote.