The Slippery Slope/"The Slippery Slope"

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The principle of "acceleration" has been referred to in a former chapter. The expression used by Dr Chalmers hardly requires explanation, but it may be well to cite his own words: " Every known charity for the relief of indigence," he says, "multiplies its objects … it tells, and with great practical certainty, upon all their habits of indulgence and expense … and hence it is that a public charity necessarily creates more poverty than it provides for; that a feeling of pressure or deficiency haunts every footstep of its operations; and that the evil which it tries to overtake swells and magnifies upon all its advances." This is only to say that the forces that make for public relief acquire additional momentum as they travel. The principle has been illustrated historically: it may be well to trace its effects in our present social economy.

And first with regard to expenditure, though this is by no means the most important aspect of the question. If the social question could be solved by public expenditure no one would ever wish to economise, but otherwise we can only view with great alarm the enormous increase in recent years. A quarter of a century ago the total public expenditure for relief of all kinds was about eight millions; it is now approximately thirty millions. Relief under the Poor Law has nearly doubled itself. The last Annual Report of the Local Government Board was over,£15,000,000, and since 1908 another,£13,000,000 has been added for old age pensions, with the certainty of a considerable increase in the near future. In 19 10,,£183,000 were spent for the relief of the able-bodied under the Unemployed Workmen Act. To this must be added an unascertained sum for the relief of school children by the Education Authorities, whilst the Insurance Act is eleemosynary to the extent of "ninepence for fourpence." Yet, a feeling of pressure haunts every footstep of our eleemosynary legislation, and the supply creates a demand of ever increasing insistence. The Majority Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Law points out that notwithstanding our enormous expenditure, amounting to nearly sixty millions a year upon poor relief, education, and public health, we have now an enormous army of paupers quartered upon us unable to support themselves, an army which has recently shown signs of increase rather than of decrease: to what, it says, is this retrogression due? It cannot be attributed to lack of experience (Part II., p. 152). No indeed; the reply to this ingenious question may be that the contrary is the case. We all know the well-worn sayings that "you may have as many paupers as you choose to pay for," "the plaister is never as large as the sore."

The increase in expenditure is serious, but the increase in the dependence of the people is far more alarming, and this applies to all departments of public relief. Up to 1886 there was no public relief outside the Poor Law, but in 1886 Mr Chamberlain's Circular gave the first impulse to the "break-up" of the Poor Law. That Circular made provision for the relief of certain classes of workmen "ordinarily in employment but temporarily employed" by public bodies other than Boards of Guardians, and gave the first official sanction to the relief of any class of the poor outside the Poor Law. The Circular was specifically stated to be only intended for times of exceptional distress, but "exceptional distress" was not defined, and the Circular was issued again and again by successive Presidents and its operation became continuous. This was followed in 1905 by the Unemployed Workmen Act, which like the Circular was intended for times of exceptional distress, but the provision of State relief work became thenceforward a normal feature of the winter months. We see, therefore, the accelerative forces in regard to the relief of the able-bodied which began by taking them outside the limitations of the Poor Law, and which have since carried us on from a Local Government Circular issued for a special occasion to a permanent system of public relief embodied in an Act of Parliament. But the process of acceleration has continued since the Act itself came into force. For it was originally intended that public money should be used for machinery only and that the actual work should be provided by voluntary subscription, a "safeguard" which disarmed much opposition. Mr Long indeed, when he promulgated his scheme upon which the Act was based, assured us that under no conditions could a Treasury grant be made. But voluntary funds disappeared after the first year; Mr Burns was compelled to promise a Treasury grant within a few months of his accession to office, and since then all work has been provided by public money. The checks and safeguards originally inserted in the Act have been abandoned one by one. So far from being reserved for an exceptional class of workmen, it has been almost monopolised by the casual labourer. It has done much to aggravate the evils of casual labour by creating nurseries of casual labour throughout the country. It has been unanimously condemned by the Royal Commission on the Poor Law. Yet no one has had the courage to put an end to it because a large section of the political world believe that they see in it the germ of further extension. Both Mr Ramsay Macdonald and Mr Crooks have hailed it as a recognition of the "right to work," and the Fabian Society welcome it as a recognition of the principle of the break-up of the Poor Law. And so we see acceleration at work with the prospects of further acceleration.

In 1895 another step was taken towards the break-up of the Poor Law when Mr Chamberlain propounded his scheme of deferred annuities in order to make provision for the aged poor outside the Poor Law, and Old Age Pensions were then for the first time brought within the range of practical politics. His scheme was contributory and strictly limited, but the limitations were pronounced to be impracticable. It paved the way, however, to a host of similar contributory schemes, and over a hundred of them were considered and reported upon by Lord Rothschild's Committee in 1898. None were recommended, but by this time "the principle had been accepted," and Mr Charles Booth published his universal non-contributory scheme which ultimately became the basis of the present Act. But the Act itself had hardly been passed before the process of acceleration again set in. It was at first intended that Poor Law relief should disqualify, and there were many prophecies that this would stimulate to self-support until the pension age was reached. But this provision led to such obvious injustice that the idea was soon abandoned, and in 191 1 the Poor Law disqualification was swept away altogether.

In 1906 the first step towards removing children from the province of the Poor Law was taken by the Provision of Meals Act, and the accelerative process in regard to them has been even more remarkable. It is interesting, indeed, to go back as far as the Education Act of 1870 and to trace the course of events since that time. First of all a cheap and efficient elementary education was provided for all poor children; their education was made compulsory, and then it was made free, and it was argued that the remission of fees by which some two or three millions was returned to the pockets of the labouring classes would enable them to feed and clothe their children. But this argument was soon forgotten, and within a few years the question of the feeding of school children became acute. For some time the need was met by voluntary action through the London School Dinners Association and other similar bodies, but the Socialist pressure for State action became stronger and stronger. That pressure culminated on the Provision of Meals Act of 1906, which gave power to Education Authorities to charge school meals upon the rates. For a time an attempt was made to maintain the voluntary system, but in 1908 the London County Council yielded to irresistible pressure and threw the charge upon the rates, and other education authorities followed their example. Since then acceleration has set in fast and furious. The average weekly number of children fed in London has gone up from 29,000 to 42,000, and the number of meals provided from 74,000 to 203,000 (Ann. Report L. C. C. 19 10, Vol. IV., p. 38). At first the hope was held out that a large part of the cost would be recovered from neglectful parents, but last year only £510 was recovered out of £88,000 spent. There is now a strong agitation to continue the meals during the school holidays. But lately a further movement has set in: it is argued, quite irresistibly, that the ailing school child is often suffering from causes other than that of lack of food, and in 1907 the (Education) Administrative Provisions Act was passed which provides for the medical inspection of all school children, and where necessary for their medical treatment. Following the precedents of the Unemployed Workmen Act and the Provision of Meals Act, the London County Council are at present trying to provide this treatment through the voluntary hospitals and dispensaries, but there is already strong pressure for the establishment of rate supported clinics, and there can be little doubt that this will be the ultimate result. The Act provides for the recovery of part of the cost from the parents, but last year only £329 was so recovered, and it is clear that this provision cannot operate as an effective check. Meanwhile the London County Council, who "have found considerable difficulties in this part of the work" (ibid., p. 44), have adopted a maximum charge of is. and a minimum of id., but "arrangements are being made for remitting the charge in necessitous cases." If we ask what are "necessitous cases," the answer is "No hard-and-fast rule for determining necessity has been adopted by the Council" (ibid., p. 35). If we ask what is the test of the need of the child, the answer is, " There is no absolute standard of what or what is not healthy nutrition … necessitous children are not necessarily ill-nourished at the time of application, though they would become so were relief withheld" (ibid., p. 35). It is clear, therefore, that the Council are not disposed to be at all exacting either as to the means of the parent or the needs of the child. If the following sentence from the report of the Education Officer is to be taken as an indication of the opinion of the Council, it is clear that they consider that education is synonymous with the entire State maintenance of children. "Formerly education," he says, "was in the main confined (1) to the growth of character, (2) to the growth of the mind. Now it looks increasingly at the social problems that present themselves for solution in the case of the individual child, the problem of physical deterioration, of under-feeding, of impoverished homes, and unsuitable employment. The State has come to see that it is not sufficient to impart knowledge, but that it must also see that the child is capable of assimilating that knowledge." It is noticeable that not a word is said as to the duties of the parent. The process of acceleration has, in a word, brought us in forty years from State education to State maintenance.

It has always been argued that the various measures of "social reform" which have been referred to would reduce the pressure upon the Poor Law and perhaps altogether do away with the necessity for a Poor Law. They have shown no signs of doing this up to the present. The Unemployed Workmen Act was intended to prevent able-bodied workmen from coming upon the Poor Law, yet the statistics of able-bodied pauperism show no reduction.

The figures for quinquennial periods are as follows: —

1892 9,245
1897 101,829
1902 94,681
1907 111,503
1912 120,217

Annual Report L. G. B,, 1911, ii., p. 153.

There are many who urge that the Old Age Pensions Act would do away with the necessity for workhouses, yet the figures of indoor pauperism continue to rise.

The figures are:—

Jan. 1, 1892 175,341
  „  1897 198,750
  „  1902 209,280
  „  1907 245,945
  „  1912 260,206
Ibid., p. 151

In spite of the feeding and medical treatment of children by the Education Authority, as large a number of children as before continue to receive relief of all kinds from the Poor Law.

The figures are:—

Year. Children returned under the Poor Law.
Indoor. Outdoor.
1892 50,282 177,245 
1897 52,270 178,186 
1902 52,864 159,143 
1907 60,421 171,497[* 1]
1912 70,698 181,139 
  1. Annual Report L. G. B., 1911, ii., p. 151.

There is good reason indeed to believe that some at least of these measures tend to feed the Poor Law rather than to atrophy it; any measure which creates pauperism outside the Poor Law must ultimately tend to create pauperism within the Poor Law, which has to deal with the wreckage. A very large proportion of those who have been inadequately dealt with by the Unemployed Workmen Act undoubtedly come back ultimately upon the Poor Law. A return presented to the Royal Commission from a single district showed that of 437 cases assisted by the Distress Committee, 234 were previously known to the Guardians, whilst 81 of them had already reverted to the Poor Law, and these figures may probably be taken as fairly typical of the conditions elsewhere. The Act had at that time only been in operation for about three years, and the number of similar cases must now be very considerable. So, too, with the Old Age Pensions Act. Not only do a large number of old age pensioners continue to receive poor relief, but the Act is actually bringing upon the Poor Law a number of people who would otherwise have been maintained either by themselves or by their relations. When the pauper disqualification was removed there was, of course, a large transfer of outdoor paupers from the out-relief lists to the pension authority, but this led at once to a marked increase in out-relief to those under seventy. The Local Government Board call attention to this in their half-yearly return for 1st January 1911, and it is strongly corroborated by a recent return from the Lambeth Union, showing that there were 200 more outdoor poor under seventy than at the corresponding period of the previous year. It may be added that almost all recent returns show a marked increase in outdoor relief to those under seventy. In other words, the places of those who have been transferred to the pension authority are being gradually filled by younger people. This is not at all to be wondered at. Formerly, the older people were given preference in out-relief, which is a charge upon the rates, and the Guardians had the fear of the ratepayers before their eyes, so far as younger people were concerned. Now the older people have been transferred to the imperial taxation, and they can safely put the younger ones on the list without serious increase of local charges. But, in addition to this, the fact that an old age pension is due in a year or two is now used as an irresistible argument for giving outdoor relief in the interim. It will be remembered that the argument used when the Old Age Pensions Act was passed, was that the prospect of a pension at a certain age would be a strong inducement to people to keep off the rates up to that time; but, instead of this, we see that relief is made a reason for more relief.

Formerly, the greatest stress was laid upon the condition that the old age pensioner should be dissociated altogether from the Poor Law, and for that reason the administration of the Act was assigned to the officers of excise, who, of course, are entirely unversed in such administration, whilst the very name of the relieving officer was anathema. For the same reason, strict rules were laid down that all the information obtained by the excise officers regarding old age pensioners should be treated as confidential, and there was to be no touch between old age pensioners and the Guardians. But, in fact, a very large number of old age pensioners continued to receive Poor Law relief, often simultaneously with their pension, whilst the Guardians are unable to recover any appreciable part of the cost. The Committee of the Central Poor Law Conference have recently made some inquiries into the matter, and have received definite answers from about 134 Boards of Guardians. The result is very striking. At least 100 of these Boards report duplicated relief, which usually takes the form of infirmary treatment plus the old age pension, whilst they are in most cases entirely unable to recover anything from the pensioner. In West Derby, for example, in a single year 301 pensioners received duplicated relief of this kind, and only £10 was recovered. In Bethnal Green the number was 240, and all but six of these continued to receive their pensions; practically nothing was recovered.

There is similar evidence from a number of other Unions. The pension authority, in most cases following instructions from headquarters, refused to give any information to, or to co-operate with, the Guardians. We have thus the singular spectacle of a public body administering relief from the rates and taxes adopting a semi-hostile attitude towards another body also administering relief from public money. The Local Government Board, when appealed to by the Sudbury Guardians for an opinion as to the power of recovery, give a guarded but extremely discouraging answer. It is not surprising that Poor Law relief, under these circumstances, shows no tendency to decrease. It was reported to the writer that, in another Union, old age pensioners have discovered that they can supplement their pensions by obtaining continuous outdoor medical relief in kind, and that, in fact, they frequently do so. And so the snowball of pauperism continues to roll onwards, acquiring additional momentum as it travels, and picking up all those who come in its way.

Finally, by the break up of the Poor Law, we are fast losing the power of gauging our economic position by facts and statistics. So long as the Poor Law was the sole relief authority we could ascertain, by a glance at its statistics, the exact position of the country in regard to the public relief of the poor, and could answer, with some approach to certainty, the vital question as to what proportion of the population lives by its labour, and what proportion by some form of public subsidy. But this is no longer possible. The official statistics now cover only a portion of the ground, because some four or five other bodies, whose finance and accounts are quite separate, now administer relief, whilst there is no attempt to bring either the relief that they administer or the number of people that they relieve into a common account. In former times, the greatest importance was attached to the keeping of accurate statistics under both heads, in order that the nation might at any time take stock of its economic position. But this is no longer possible. Everything is becoming confused and chaotic, and we are throwing away our last check upon the onrush of pauperism by burying public relief in the statistics of other branches of public administration, and disguising it as education, public health, or the reward of industry.