The Slippery Slope/Poor Law and Charity
POOR LAW AND CHARITY
"The quality of mercy is not strained."
Merchant of Venice.
What is the attitude of the public towards the question? So far as one can gather from the tone of the Press and of public speakers upon questions connected with the relief of the poor, it is one of indifference. There seem to be very few people nowadays who recognise any distinction in principle between Poor Law and charity. So long as relief of some kind is forthcoming it matters little whether it comes from the rates or from the pockets of private individuals. Cooperation between Poor Law and charity is understood to mean a small sum granted by the Guardians, supplemented by smaller and more casual amounts from private charity. Outdoor relief is usually based upon the hypothesis that "some little thing of which we don't know" is coming in from some other source, and casual charitable help, which may or may not exist, which may or may not be suppressed, is relied upon to supplement Poor Law relief admittedly inadequate. So long as the people themselves are content to live upon the parish half-a-crown, plus income denoted by x, no questions are asked.
The obliteration of the distinction between Poor Law and charity has been greatly accelerated by the recent flow of the tide in the direction of "collectivism," as it is called. The evils of poverty are to be conjured away by State action. The "State" is to be invested with all the attributes of Christian charity. The "civic conscience" is to take the place of the individual conscience, and the civic conscience is to "find itself" in material relief and again more material relief—at least all the practical suggestions that are made from time to time appear to be in that direction.
Of course, if we are convinced that the improvement of the condition of the poor is to be found in the extension of material relief, then all questions of distinction between Poor Law and charity sink into insignificance. Our duty is plain. We have by all means in our power to bring about that condition, and to augment the volume of relief from every possible source.
No one probably will assent to the suggestion that material relief is the cure for poverty. On the contrary, every one appears to recognise—in theory at least—that material relief may do great harm. But theory is a slippery thing, and difficult to fix. Sometimes those who most vigorously denounce one form of relief as "indiscriminate" are foremost in advocating another form of relief differing only in name. There is possibly some rather loose thinking upon the matter, and a good deal of unwillingness to face facts. Above all, there is a sort of general feeling that it does not much matter what we do so long as our aims are right. The suggestion that we should be guided by experience is received—like most truisms—with ill-disguised impatience. We are told, for instance, that there are many paths to the same end; that the old economic ideas, hitherto universally accepted, are obsolete, and that new factors have come into existence; that "experiments" which have failed repeatedly in the past will succeed now because of new conditions. At the same time no one has sufficiently defined what these new conditions are. No one has shown us that human nature has changed in these days in such a manner as to obviate old difficulties. What we need most, perhaps, is to realise that it does matter very much both to the poor and to the nation what we do, what line we adopt, and that it is therefore of supreme importance that we should each of us think the question out as clearly as possible for ourselves by the light both of the history of the past and of the experience of the present.
For the problem of poverty is no new one; neither are we, of this generation, the first who have tried to solve it. It is a question which has always become acute in ancient and highly complex civilisations in which classes have drifted apart from one another. There are plenty of object-lessons in history of attempts to mitigate poverty by large and sweeping systems of material relief, sometimes originated by the State, sometimes by great and powerful organisations.
In the Middle Ages the great abbeys supported vast hordes of poor, "dispensing," says Fuller, "mistaken charity, promiscuously entertaining some who did not need it and many who did not deserve it; yea, those abbeys did but support the poor whom they themselves had made." Later again we see the question in a different aspect. Defoe, in his celebrated petition to Parliament, entitled "Giving Alms no Charity," speaking at a time when there were all sorts of schemes on foot for the establishment of parish stocks, or as they would be called in these days " municipal workshops," holds up for imitation the example of Queen Elizabeth, who endeavoured to solve the difficulty by the encouragement of trade and not by relief. "Pauper ubique jacet," said our famous Queen Elizabeth when in her progress through the kingdom she saw the vast crowds of poor thronging to see her and bless her, and the thought put Her Majesty upon a continued study how to recover her people from their poverty, and to make their labours more profitable to themselves in particular and the nation in general, and " the wise queen found out the way how every family might live upon its labour."
We have all heard of the old Poor Law which brought this country as near to the brink of ruin as it ever has been brought; perhaps some may say we have heard of it too often, but the truth cannot be told too often, and reiteration does not make it any the less true.
It is not necessary, however, to go back very far for illustrations of the effect of wholesale and highly centralised material relief; there are many of us who have not yet forgotten the Mansion House Fund of 1885 and the effect that it had upon the poorer population of London. It may be seen to-day in London and elsewhere where Boards of Guardians have, with the perfectly honest conviction that they are doing what is kindest to the poor, removed so far as they are able all restrictions and limitations upon public relief. In London, after ten years of unexampled commercial prosperity, we have ten thousand more people chargeable to the rates than we had ten years ago. That increase is due to the action of a comparatively small number of Boards of Guardians. The richest West End parish has increased its pauperism in the ten years from 22 to 26 per thousand of the population, and actually has more paupers per thousand than several of the poorest East End parishes. A North London Board has increased its pauperism from 19 to 21 per thousand; a Central London Board from 65 to 83 per thousand; a South London Board from 32 to 51 per thousand; an East London Board from 17 to 26 per thousand. Yet these Boards are no nearer to the solution of the problem of poverty than other Boards which have adopted a contrary policy.
The worst of it is that a policy of lavish relief may go on for a few years, and then comes inevitable reaction. No rates nor even imperial taxation can cope with the increased demand or the wastage which is the result of such a policy. The State, or in other words, that section of the population which maintains itself independently, cannot stand the drag upon it indefinitely, and has to shake itself clear before it is itself submerged. But meanwhile it has taught the poor to look to it in all contingencies, and to live from hand to mouth, and when the crisis comes, as come it must, their suffering is ten times more acute because they have no reserves to fall back upon.
In the last ten years the expenditure on the relief of the poor has gone up from £8,600,000 to £11,500,000, or about 30 per cent., though they have been ten years of great prosperity. It has touched the highest point ever known in the history of the country, and is still growing. Meanwhile all sorts of proposals for further expenditure are in the air. A large section of the London School Board recently proposed to charge the rates with the feeding of school children. There is a tendency to turn Poor Law Infirmaries into municipal hospitals. Many would charge public bodies with the duty of finding work for the unemployed. Many more would throw the entire maintenance of old age upon the rates and taxes, and pension schemes varying in estimated amount from ten millions to thirty millions a year are in everybody's mouths. In fact the possibilities of State action are regarded as almost unlimited. Apart from questions directed towards the actual relief of the poor, there are all sorts of other proposals in the air. The State is to house the poor, and, in its attempts to do so, finds itself upon the horns of a dilemma. Either it must let at unremunerative and eleemosynary rents, or it must house those who were sufficiently well housed before. It is to buy up and work all sorts of commercial undertakings; it is to pay high wages to those whom it employs, and to supply the consumer—cheap. The municipal debt last year amounted to £270,000,000 or about one-third of the National Debt. The increase over the previous year was £14,000,000, a sufficiently rapid rate of progress.
Of course Poor Law administrators have nothing to do with all this except to remember that their expenditure is only part of a much wider question. The modern idea of the State as an omnipotent charitable agency is quite at variance with that which the older generation were taught and believed in. The matter is one so vital not to the poor alone but to the whole country, of which the daily wage-earners are the basis and foundation, that it affects, possibly more than any other question foreign or domestic, the future of the nation.
We have travelled far from the teachings of the older economists often enunciated, seldom accepted. They believed that the true line of progress was to be found in the adequate payment of labour and in the self-restraint and self-reliance of the industrial classes themselves. They regarded relief by the State with the utmost jealousy because they believed it to be antagonistic to both these conditions. They believed that whilst no civilised country can allow any of its citizens to perish for the want of the necessaries of life, whilst in other words food, shelter, clothing, and warmth must be provided for every destitute person who applies for it, yet that the position of those in receipt of public relief should be "less eligible" than that of the independent labourer. The words "less eligible" do not mean that it is to be harsh or inhuman; on the contrary, the maintenance provided is to be good and sufficient, but it must not attract those to it who can by any means support themselves without it. They did not consider, moreover, that legal relief was to be a substitute for the obligations of personal charity, and, in the development of their idea, charitable action has been assigned a definite place.
The outward expression of this doctrine has always been understood to be the offer of institutional relief by the State. Of course it has been widely departed from in many cases, and we may admit at once that it would be harsh to apply it suddenly and rigidly in any district where the contrary practice has long prevailed, unless at the same time some steps are taken to deal with the "hard cases" by voluntary action. The utmost that even those who believe in it can wish is that it should be gradually and humanely applied. This much, however, is certain, judging at least from all the experience that we have ready to hand, that the more widely we depart from this principle the greater become the difficulties of State relief, the more numerous and more miserable the poor.
The leading feature of State relief as compared with charitable relief is that it is compulsorily levied. Next to this come its centralisation, its indefinite ownership, its indefinite limits. Owing to its centralisation it has the same sort of attraction for the very poor and those whose lives are spent in shadow as a lighthouse has for birds, moths, and other winged things which are drawn to it and beat themselves to death against the glass. The poor get to measure their lives by it from the cradle to the grave. They look on it as a right either as a compensation for the wrongs of "the social system" or as an insurance because they have paid rates. It is idle to explain that if it is to be looked upon in that light every one would have the right to draw upon it in proportion to their contributions, and the whole system would have to be rearranged upon an actuarial basis. They have no notion where it comes from or what are its limits. It is a sort of purse of Fortunatus into which every one dips. The Socialist uses it, quite candidly, to advance his doctrines. The ambitious local administrator uses it to win popularity. The clergyman dips into it for his parish poor. The employer of labour—not unfrequently—uses it as a means of pensioning an old and worn-out employee. It is the prey of every one. "Where the carcase is there are the eagles gathered together." Meanwhile those who administer public relief are administering that of which their own contribution represents so small a part that the personal motive for economy and restraint is practically non-existent, and the number of those who have sufficient faith to bear unpopularity and reputation for harshness is exceedingly small.
But even if there were none of these difficulties, State relief remains as far as ever from charitable relief. The essence of charity is personal feeling, and it implies much more than the mere gift. But how can we say this of public relief? So far as the poor are concerned they learn to look upon it as a right, the withholding of which is an injury. "Why don't some one make 'em act honest?" said an old lady outside a certain Board Room not long ago after she had been refused outdoor relief. So far as the administrators are concerned, what real personal feeling can there be between a Board of Guardians and a host of recipients of relief most of whom are personally unknown to them? In country districts applicants for relief are not even seen by the Guardians as a body. All that they know of them as a rule is that they are "recommended" by a local Guardian or the relieving officer, coupled with a sort of tacit log-rolling which says, "Vote for my man to-day and I will vote for yours to-morrow."
The abstract love of the poor which is so much in the air nowadays, cannot be held to be a substitute for this personal feeling. Abstract love of the poor is sometimes quite reconcilable with concrete indifference for a poor person. The gun scatters so widely that it hits nothing.
How, again, can we reconcile Christian charity with the idea of a tax levied by the arm of the law, with the voting by A of B's money to the use of C, with the usual penalties if B fails to pay? The feelings of the man who finds his demand notes rising year after year are very far from Christian. He who does not pay his rates finds bailiffs in his house, and perhaps eventually retires to Holloway to ponder in seclusion upon the mysteries of the civic conscience and civic benevolence.
Again, we have heard much of late of the difficulty of housing the poor and of the prohibitive rents in great towns. It was calculated the other day that in a certain part of London, upon a house rented at 8s. a week, 7d. of that 8s. represented the amount levied for the relief of the poor. Undoubtedly some part of the housing difficulty in London is due to the ever-increasing incidence of rates. The odd 7d., regularly put by, would provide an old age pension.
The reason, therefore, why the older economists looked upon legal relief as a dangerous expedient—a playing, as it were, with edged tools—is clear. On the other hand they believed that they saw in voluntary effort a force involving infinitely less danger, and yet one which, if fully developed and wisely directed, would be capable of meeting all emergencies not provided for by the Poor Law. For charitable relief, whatever form it takes, or whatever its effects, possesses at least this broad distinction from State relief, namely, that it is voluntarily provided, and usually comes from those who can best afford it.
It may be at once admitted that there is much charitable relief in these days which is as devoid of the real spirit of charity as any public relief can be. The fact is that "charity" nowadays has come to be identified almost exclusively with the giving of money or some form of material relief. There is, undoubtedly, much so-called "charity" which is not only formal and unreal, but which even has mixed motives in the background. Charity of that kind blesseth neither him that gives nor him that takes. It certainly would not pass muster with St Paul. For instance, we see a beggar in the streets. A passing emotion, or the desire to get rid of him, prompts us to give him a small coin. Probably most of us have done it. When he is out of sight we forget all about him. Charity of that sort neither "suffers long nor is kind." Or again, charity "doth not behave itself unseemly." Has any one ever been to a big society bazaar, or even read an account of one in the newspapers? We all know the familiar headline, "In the Sacred Cause of Charity," followed by a description of the great people present (and some little ones) and of their dresses, of cafés chantants and lady palmists and raffles, all of which is, possibly, harmless enough in itself, but hardly recognisable as "the sacred cause of charity." Again, "Charity vaunteth not itself … is not puffed up"; but the idea of humility is the last thing that suggests itself when we read the reports and advertisements of many charitable institutions of the present day. The percentage of success upon a huge scale claimed in these reports strikes dumb those who have been attempting similar work upon a more modest scale, and who have found the enormous difficulty of achieving real success even in a single case. There is, to say the least, a looseness of statement which it is impossible to justify. How well we know the phrase, "so many benefited." "Benefited" may mean anything from a free meal, or a pair of boots, to social salvation. But charity is supposed to "rejoice in the truth."
Perhaps it is too strong to say, as was said recently in a sermon in the West End, that some of these reports would "put to shame the fraudulent prospectus of a joint-stock company." Probably these statements are often made because their authors have not followed up sufficiently the results of their work, and really believe that if they have given somebody something they have relieved poverty. In other cases there is undoubtedly a tendency to think that exaggeration is necessary, and even justifiable, in appealing for public support.
Or again, looking at it from another point of view, is the "charity" which rejoices in being taken in, the charity which "rejoiceth in the truth"? We all know the phrase, "I had sooner be deceived ninety-nine times than send one deserving person away unhelped." We send cheques to begging-letter writers with a sort of comfortable assurance that we are being deceived. We forget that for the one person whom we have "helped or benefited," that is to say, to whom we have given something, we have dragged ninety-nine people a little lower into the slough of fraud and mendicancy. We forget that most of them have wives and children whom they are dragging down with them into the abyss.
Then again, there is the "charity" of mixed motives. At election time in some places it rains coals and blankets and free dinners; a parliamentary candidate is judged by the size of his cheques to local societies and institutions. If a rich man, he has very possibly his tongue in his cheek; if a poor one, he gives with groans and mutterings. In any case, rich or poor, they both look upon it as part of the exigencies of our representative system, and regard it as a sort of blackmail. It makes very little difference to them whether their subscriptions are given to cottage hospitals or village ping-pong clubs. Rich men, again, not infrequently give big cheques with an eye upon political or social advancement—cheques which may be called "Pilkerton peerage" cheques. A newspaper starts a fund, and gets copy and circulation. Not long ago a new weekly paper was started in life with a charitable fund. The paper only lasted for three or four weeks, and there is no record as to what happened to the charitable fund; but its object was sufficiently clear. Is that the charity which "seeketh not her own"?
Of course, the cheque of the millionaire, the fund of the newspaper, even the subscriptions of the M.P., may be as much above suspicion as Cæsar's wife. Everything depends upon the motive. An old writer says that "well-doing is to be judged by the intention," and "to judge a man we must a long time follow and very curiously mark his steps." Charity will, of course, give its money as it will give much besides. Money is all that some people can give, and if it be given from a sense of duty it is true charity, though it carries with it the further duty of seeing that the money is rightly applied. Speaking generally, however, the giving of money is the easiest thing for those who have plenty of it, and it involves, per se, the minimum of personal feeling, the minimum of personal sacrifice; but we live in a commercial age, and no one who watches the signs of the times, or directs his attention to the utterances of public men and of the Press, or takes note of the references to the subject in modern drama, can fail to be struck by the fact that, so far as the public mind is concerned, money-giving has monopolised the whole landscape of charity.
Again, we have all read our Dickens, and remember the "telescopic" philanthropy of the immortal Mrs Jellyby and the "wholesale" philanthropy of the equally famous Mrs Pardiggle. Mrs Jellyby, as we all know, was so wrapt up in the affairs of the natives of Africa, of "Borrioboola Gha," and of the "brotherhood of man," that she found no time to look after her own family. "'It's disgraceful,' said poor Miss Jellyby; 'the whole house is disgraceful. The children are disgraceful, I'm disgraceful, Pa's miserable, and no wonder. Priscilla drinks—she's always drinking. It's a great shame, and a great story of you if you say you didn't smell her to-day. It was as bad as a public-house waiting at dinner, you know it was.'" And again—"'I wish Africa was dead,' she said on a sudden. 'I do,' she said. 'Don't talk to me, Miss Summerson, I hate it and detest it: it's a beast!'"
We may ask ourselves whether there is no "telescopic philanthropy" to-day? whether there are no rich people who pay starvation wages and give big cheques? or who draw their income from dilapidated house property or shady financial undertakings, bringing ruin to hundreds, and figure prominently in the philanthropic world. Possibly there are, at the present moment, workpeople in factories, weekly tenants in poor districts, small shareholders in joint-stock companies, who would say with Miss Jellyby, "I wish philanthropy was dead; I hate it and detest it: it's a beast."
It has been necessary to dwell at some length upon this dubious sort of "charity," because we must clear our minds upon the subject. It is, however, after all, only the froth and effervescence which is on the surface, and which, though much greater in volume than it need be, or ought to be, yet is quite insignificant in comparison with another sort of charity which lies deeper down, a charity much more in accordance with the ideals of St Paul.
That charity is not much recognised, certainly not advertised at all, but it is the charity which is felt. It is the sort of charity which takes trouble—which helps lame dogs over stiles, which goes out of its own way to lead blind men over crossings—a thing we may see done almost any day in the streets of London. It may have no money to give, but it does not spare either personal sympathy or personal effort. It begins at home because it believes that its first duty is to itself, the duty, namely, of self-respect. What it considers essential for itself it tries to promote in others. Its next concern is with those immediately around it, those of its own house, its neighbours, its employees, its friends. When it has dealings with those previously unknown to it, it makes neighbours and friends of them, and is satisfied with nothing less. If it has money to give, it does not give simply because it is asked, but because it has satisfied itself that the gift will be of real service to him who receives it. It constitutes an undercurrent of spontaneous and natural charity, the depth and force of which is seldom realised because it flows unseen. It keeps in motion some of the most essential machinery of the social organism, and generates, so to speak, a repairing force of enormous potency. It has its perennial springs in all that is best in human nature, and flows weaker or stronger as these springs rise or fall.
It manifests itself chiefly in the mutual affection and helpfulness of family life; after that in the sympathy of friend and friend, neighbour and neighbour, employer and employed. It comes into play quite naturally and when it is most required; there is no compulsion, no ostentation or shadow of unworthy motive on the part of the giver, whilst it can be accepted without loss of self-respect. This sort of silent charity pervades all our social relations, and tends to fill up their gaps almost insensibly. Parents support their children in infancy, and children help their parents in sickness and old age. Relations less closely connected help one another to an enormous extent. Who is there who would allow a relation to go to the wall if he could do anything to prevent it? The charity of poor neighbours to one another is proverbial. The "friendly lead" is the commonest feature of the workshop. Every friendly society has its benevolent funds. There are all sorts of social ties or "clannishness" too various for enumeration—membership of the same profession, inhabitancy of the same village or country town, old schoolfellowship or membership of the same college, all of which cement a mutual obligation to help in time of need.
With regard to employer and employed, it is often the fashion to say that the old feelings of mutual respect and affection have disappeared, and that there is now only—to use an academic phrase—a "cash nexus" between them. Of course that may be the case in some instances, but if it is to become universal it is much to be deplored. One may even be sufficiently optimistic to believe that it is impossible for people to work together long, in the relationship of employer and employed, without the establishment of a very real mutual respect and affection. We must all of us know some old employees, old servants who have been and are some of the best friends we have ever had. The writer has, in the course of his own experience, often had to appeal to employers of labour to help an old servant in time of trouble, and he has almost always found that the sense of obligation—when the service has been good service—has been freely recognised.
If it were possible to tabulate any statistics as to the extent to which this spontaneous and honourable sense of obligation operates as a repairing force in society, I think it would surprise some of those who talk glibly about a "cash nexus." The old age pension fund alone, for instance, which is the natural outcome of this feeling, must be of enormous proportions. There is hardly any firm of size or standing that has not its list of pensioners. The number of those pensioned by smaller firms or private employers is almost innumerable. Then there is a form of quasi pension which, as Mr Charles Booth says, is met by the provision of "suitable light work at wages which are based upon the needs of the recipient rather than upon value of the services rendered," and "is based upon a kindly social usage." Almost every firm in London has a few old employees retained upon these terms. In the country upon a great number of farms, upon almost every estate, it is still the custom to maintain this "kindly social usage."
The repairing force, again, which consists in the performance of family obligations is of even more importance to the poor. It is at present widely recognised as a paramount duty, and has become of an increasing strength since the reform of the Poor Law. Under the old Poor Law it had almost disappeared, and it will disappear again if we entertain the idea of transferring its responsibilities to the State.
For that the assumption of responsibility by the State means the throwing off of responsibility by the individual is a mere truism. All Guardians must be aware of the constant struggle that exists even now between the two forces. Of course no one will do that which he believes it to be the duty of some one else to do. Children will no longer help to support their own parents if they are taught that the duty devolves upon the State, and they are at the same time taxed to maintain other people's parents. Under the old Poor Law they actually claimed payment for sitting with their old parents when ill. And so on throughout the other natural obligations indicated above. Extensions of State relief in any form must lead to the contraction of voluntary obligations of all sorts, because no one will do the same thing twice over, and will tax himself voluntarily for that which he is already taxed by the State.
At the back of this great volume of "natural" charity which some believe to be of such enormous importance as a repairing force in society—but a force which is extremely sensitive and not difficult to displace—comes a reserve force which, for want of a better name, may be designated as the charity of the public; the charity, that is to say, of those whose sympathies go out towards mankind in general; who are distressed at the suffering and misery that they see daily in the streets, or read of in the newspapers, but with which they themselves, for want of opportunity, are not brought directly into contact. This sort of charity—which is very real charity—often fails for want of knowledge. It too often becomes the prey of the professional mendicant. It seldom knows much of the result of its action. It is spasmodic and uneven. It ebbs and flows according to circumstances frequently quite accidental. A picturesque report in a newspaper causes it to overflow. The fact that it has been imposed upon in an individual case causes it to recede almost out of sight. It is a very true charity because it proceeds from altogether the best motives, and it is of almost unlimited volume. If it were only possible to inspire it with greater knowledge and greater sense of responsibility it might become, as indeed it sometimes does become, of the greatest value as a supplementary force to the charity of natural obligations, and might serve to fill up its deficiencies. As it is, this sort of charity too often supplements irregularly small doles of Poor Law relief. Charity tries to throw part of its responsibility upon the Poor Law, and the Poor Law tries to throw part of its responsibility upon charity. Neither knows with any certainty what the other is doing, and their unfortunate victim falls between two stools. Many believe that Poor Law and charity should be kept quite distinct, and that the Poor Law, being a compulsory obligation, should not be regarded as charity at all. But those who think otherwise, and believe that charitable relief can legitimately supplement Poor Law relief, should at least feel the responsibility of being sure of their facts.
The position, then, is this. We have a great inert mass of poverty to deal with, the existence of which we all admit and we all deplore. In which direction does the remedy lie? Does it lie in the further increase of material relief or does it lie elsewhere?
As has been already pointed out, the tendency of the present day is towards such increase. Both Poor Law and charitable relief have greatly increased in the last decade, and all sorts of schemes for the acceptance of further responsibility by the State are in the air, all of which take the shape of further relief. And in spite of it all poverty shows no sign of diminution. On the contrary, if we may accept the statements of such an authority as Mr Rowntree, things are growing worse and worse and more hopeless. In his book, which is attracting so much attention, he states that in the city of York 9 per cent, of the poor do not earn sufficient for the bare support of a "moderate" family, computed at three or four, even if all expenditure upon luxuries such as beer and tobacco be eliminated. Though there will probably be some difference of opinion as to the bases of his argument, and the inferences drawn, yet no one will doubt that there is sufficient truth behind them to call for our most anxious attention; and that is, probably, the object of his work.
If the solution of the problem lay in further schemes of relief, we should all be in favour of them. On the other hand, if we think otherwise, it is our duty to say so, and to point out what we believe to be the better way even though that way be difficult and hard to follow. Those who have studied the history of the question in the past and watched it closely in the present day, those who have been engaged in Poor Law and charitable administration for many years, and have watched the effect of relief upon individuals and families over a long period, have gained the right to be heard in this matter, even though their voice be a "voice crying in the wilderness." Perhaps it is better, after all, to be a "voice crying in the wilderness" than one stump orating in the market places.
In our own time the attempts to mitigate poverty by the action of the State have been many. Some have already been mentioned, but there are some others worthy of notice. In the early nineties Vestries and other Local Boards were urged by the Local Government Board to provide work for the unemployed. That led to vast expenditure upon road-sweeping and stone-breaking, as we all remember, an expenditure with, to say the least of it, very chequered results. Of late we have been instructed to make all sorts of alterations in our workhouses, some of them undoubtedly very necessary, and not to offer the House to the aged deserving poor, but to give them "adequate" outdoor relief. For many years past the same Board has been urging on the construction of enormous and splendid infirmaries which are gradually tending to become municipal hospitals not confined to the destitute only, and there are many who contend that the whole charge of the sick should be taken over by the State. The attempt by an important section of the London School Board to throw the charge of feeding "underfed" school children upon the rates has already been noted.
It will not be forgotten, moreover, that by the abolition of school fees a very considerable sum has of late years been added to the income of the labouring population. There were many prophecies, at the time, of the advantage that would accrue to them in consequence.
Alongside of all this we have had enormous schemes of voluntary charity. Many years ago we were all startled by the proposals of General Booth and his book "In Darkest England and the Way Out." The result of that book has been a great expenditure upon free shelters for the poor, labour homes and farms, free or exceedingly cheap meals, and other widely advertised and highly centralised forms of material relief. It may be mentioned in passing that General Booth was not the first in the field. At the beginning of the century there was a predecessor of his who undertook for a million pounds to cure poverty and to beat the French. Then came Mr Charles Booth with his great and valuable book upon the poor of London. The outcome of his book is a proposal for universal pensions, a proposal which has "caught on," and which is seriously entertained in many quarters. Besides all this, there is an enormous amount of free meals for children and adults—robin dinners, soup kitchens, etc. Free medical relief at hospitals and dispensaries is ever growing in amount. Can we say after all these years that any impression has been made upon the volume of poverty, or that the way has been found out of "Darkest England?" According to Mr Rowntree's book, there is a large percentage of the poor who do not earn sufficient to provide for the barest necessities of themselves and their families. It is a significant fact that a large proportion of the most distressing cases cited by Mr Rowntree are in receipt of relief.
There are still some who believe that much of this, at least, is a beginning at the wrong end, and that poverty will never be cured by great schemes of centralised relief, amongst which State relief must of necessity take the first place; who believe, with the older economists, that the real and only true line of progress is to be found in the adequate payment of labour, and in the self-restraint and self-respect of the poorer classes themselves, and that such schemes, instead of acting as the cure for poverty, serve to render it inveterate, because on the one hand they condone the under-payment of labour and make it possible, whilst on the other hand they give a sanction to irresponsibility amongst the poor.
With regard to the payment of labour, undoubtedly there has been great improvement in the past century if we may trust such authorities as the late Professor Thorold Rogers, Mr Shaw Lefevre, and many others. There is still much to be desired in many directions, but so far as we can judge from the reports of the Labour Department of the Board of Trade and the statistics given in the Report of the Labour Commission that improvement still continues. The progress made has been made, be it remembered, under a Poor Law which, in principle at least, is confined to the relief of destitution, though in practice it has often gone far afield. Many still believe that the maintenance of that principle is the sheet anchor of future progress.
Next to and of equal importance with the adequate payment of labour is the strengthening of the desire for self-maintenance and self-respect. We hear much of altruism and collectivism in these days. We hear but little of self-respect. If we do hear of it, it is apt to be identified with selfishness and self-love. Yet we have authority for saying even of self-love—
"Self-love, my lord, is not so vile a sin
With the weakening or annihilation of self-respect and the principle of self-maintenance the evils which we seek to abolish grow in intensity; no relief can supply the gap which is created by the weakening of character. Most of us probably know many concrete cases of people who have been ruined by "charity "and the Poor Law between them. We see them in the streets every day. Self-respect is a sensitive thing, not difficult to unbalance, especially if we are taught, as we often are, that we can depend upon others, and yet, by some juggling of language, retain our independence. Most of us probably know old labourers in the country and elsewhere whose great and legitimate pride it is that they have never had to apply to the parish for anything. They have no illusions on the subject. The same feeling is strong amongst members of the great friendly societies.
Pauperism, be it remembered, is not necessarily connected with vice and drunkenness as is too often assumed. Its commonest form is an indefinite weakening of character, a dulling of spirit, a sort of lowering of pitch, to which the very poor and those to whom life is hard are necessarily the most subject. It comes disguised in all sorts of garbs and sweetened with all kinds of relishes. Many roads, broad and easy, lead down to it, whilst the upward path is narrow and steep. The best defence against it is the armour of self-respect, a real self-respect which is not to be cheated out of itself by the subtleties of modern logicians.
Next to the increase of payment for labour, and the growth of the spirit of self-maintenance, we believe in the growth of the spirit of real charity. As the first two conditions fulfil themselves more and more, so will the problem that has to be dealt with by charity simplify itself, and charity will become more capable of effecting its purpose. The different sorts of charity have been already glanced at. The most important, though the least recognised, is that which has been designated as "natural" charity—the charity, that is to say, of those who know and respect one another. But imagined possibilities of State relief are directly antagonistic to that charity, as we have already seen. We shall be told that it is hard to ask children to support their parents; the real question is whether they should support their own parents or some one else's parents. We shall be told that the rich ought to be made to support the poor. But we may ask whether that is a satisfactory ideal, especially for those who are trying to build up a democracy upon a sound foundation. It implies a permanence of the present conditions, whereas we believe the truer ideal to be that the poor should be gradually recovered from their poverty and raised to independence. It will be said again that this "natural" charity cannot be relied upon; that there are many so poor and so friendless that they would be altogether outside of its scope. That may be the case in some instances, but it is not, by any means, generally true. The almost unlimited variety of that charity has already been glanced at, and there are few people who go through life without making some friends. Even if it is partly true we must remember that whatever we do there will be some hard cases, and that we shall always have the poor with us. But if the charity of natural obligation sometimes fails, we have still behind it an immense volume of what has been called the charity of the public, such as the endowed charities, and an almost boundless almsgiving, in reserve. That charity, we believe, is beginning more and more to recognise its responsibilities, but there is still much to be done. If we could only focus it upon those cases of distress which are really friendless, and in which money can be of real service, we should have made a great stride upon the "way out" of "Darkest England."
The fact is that there is no one way out. As the causes of poverty are various, so are the remedies. But those remedies must strike at the root of the disease rather than deal with symptoms. With regard to the payment of labour we can each of us do something in our generation to create a new state of public opinion upon the subject. There are many firms and private employers nowadays who make it a point of honour to pay their employees properly. We can help to promote the growth of the opinion that it is discreditable to do otherwise. There are other means of aiming at the same end; co-operation and profit-sharing are all roads in the same direction. So, too, are trades unions, though they, like every one else, sometimes make mistakes.
Another reason for underpayment of labour is inefficiency of labour. Both boys and girls when they leave school too often learn no trade, but go out straight to some unskilled employment. Here is an opportunity for those who act as school managers or who work amongst the poor. It is not difficult to make oneself acquainted with the conditions of employment in the various trades. A word of advice at the right moment to a boy or girl leaving school, or to their parents, may be the means of altering the course of a lifetime.
Or again, it is possible to do much in the direction of forwarding the growth of the great friendly societies, the value of whose work is seldom sufficiently recognised. We can, if we like, join them ourselves, either as financial or honorary members, and so gain an insight into that work and make it more generally known. It is no exaggeration to say that if every one who could do so joined a good and sound friendly society when young, the social question would be half-way towards solution. It is an admitted fact that members of friendly societies comparatively seldom have to apply for relief, and they believe themselves that they can, if not interfered with, solve the question of support in old age. We read in the February number of "Unity," which is a journal widely circulated amongst Foresters, Oddfellows, and kindred societies—"The friendly societies can and will eventually provide pensions in old age as one of the ordinary benefits of the societies, and this is the only proper solution of the subject." They have long ago solved the problem of maintenance in sickness.
This is magnificent work, and those who will can forward n—either from inside or outside the societies—especially amongst the young. Managers of Board and Voluntary Schools, of Boy's Clubs and Brigades and other similar organisations, have great opportunities. As a step in this direction a manual by Mr Pinhorn, the well-known Oddfellow, has already been adopted for the use of schools by the London School Board, and it might well be adopted by School Management Committees throughout the country. The value of a good friendly society lies not only in its provident side and in the benefits secured, but in the fact that the lad who joins it finds himself at once in the company of the best and most self-respecting class of working men.
Another thing we can do is to endeavour to improve the work of voluntary charity, to turn bad charity into good charity, and to direct it aright. Many of us probably are trustees of endowed charities; there is much room for improvement in their administration. Or if we are not, we can at least try to guide wisely our own almsgiving and that of our friends.
Guardians have to recognise more and more the dignity and responsibility of their work. Unlike some other local authorities, they have to deal with human nature and not with things. Sometimes there is too much tendency, not only in ourselves, but in that august Board which rules over us, to become microscopic, and to deal with trifles. We receive circular after circular enjoining on us various elaborate dietary scales which are supposed to contain the exact amount of protein and calories which go to make up a sufficiently able-bodied but not too able-bodied pauper. Then we receive other circulars, and we divide the people in our workhouses into Classes A, B, and C, and we put one class into a room with pictures, and another class into a room without, and so forth. Then we introduce "relaxations." One result of Mr Chaplin's circular has been that a certain Board of Guardians in London have held a special meeting to consider the question of introducing ping-pong into the workhouse, and have decided to do it. This is not to say that dietaries are of no importance and relaxations unnecessary, but that while we busy ourselves with these smaller matters we are apt to lose sight of the wider issues of Poor Law administration.
Do not suppose that all that has been suggested can be done in a day. Evils of long standing cannot be eradicated by a stroke of the pen, and any sudden reversal of policy must be harsh to those who have grown up under an older system. All this has been said before, and there is little probability that it will meet with general acceptance. Still it is the honest belief of some of those who have taken part for many years in both Poor Law and charitable administration, and who have tried to think out these matters.
The melancholy part of it all is that we never arrive at any settled policy. The Legislature has ordained in its wisdom that the administration of the Poor Law—perhaps the most difficult administration that there is—shall be entrusted to any one who chooses to come forward at election time, and we all know how difficult it is to get qualified people to offer themselves. It is perhaps not to be wondered at, as the office brings with it a good deal of drudgery and but little credit. Every ex parte statement against a Board of Guardians is greedily swallowed by newspapers and by that section of the public which thinks that it has sufficiently disposed of Guardians when it calls them Bumbles. Then in a year or two, just when a Guardian is beginning to learn his work, and it takes him all that time to do so, the Legislature says again that he must take his chance of being turned out. And so we have a constant fluctuation of policy which is mischievous and unjust to the poor, because they never know what to expect.
A word of protest may be added against those who go about amongst the poor preaching the doctrines of helplessness: that they are not responsible for their own characters, but are the victims of their "environment": that they cannot save, or that if they can, they ought not to do so. Of course we all like to think that we are the victims of circumstances; that faults in our character are hereditary, or the result of our education and surroundings, and not of our own making. Whatever scintilla of truth there may be in it, it is a miserable doctrine to preach to poor people. The doctrine that a man cannot save without injury to his family is sure to be welcome to the man who spends possibly one-eighth of his income in a public house. On the other hand, the man who is saving something, and there are not a few such, can only be discouraged by such doctrines. If any one has ever inquired into the question of children attending Board Schools insufficiently fed, what will he find? Will he find they are the children of those who have sufficient sense of responsibility to put something on one side for the future, or will he find that they are the children of those who spend their money upon themselves in the public house and elsewhere? It is difficult to have any patience with people who do these things, people who are as often as not "University professors" and the like. They invent phrases and shibboleths in their studies which we recognise afterwards in the workshops, in the working men's clubs and debating societies, and at the street corners at election time. In doing so they are causing irreparable mischief to the character of the poor.
For that character we believe to be of supreme importance to the nation at large. We have been told that we shall always have the poor with us, but we have never been told that one class is to be doomed to eternal poverty. But that is what must happen if the poor resign themselves to poverty, and are satisfied to be "kept" by the State. We want, like Queen Elizabeth, to recover people from poverty and to give free play to those forces which are at work in an upward direction. We want to stimulate their "ambition to rise," as was said many years ago by one of the best friends the poor ever had. Lord Rosebery, speaking at Liverpool the other day, said that for an empire it is necessary to have an imperial people. But we cannot have physical efficiency without moral efficiency; we cannot construct an imperial people out of a spiritless and pauperised population.
- Note, 1912.—Most of these proposals have now been carried into effect.
- Mine is that masculine sort of charity which would inculcate in the minds of the labouring population the love of independence, the privilege of self-respect, the disdain of being patronised or petted, the desire to accumulate, and the ambition to rise.—Cobden.