The Slippery Slope/The Relation of Legal Relief to Private Charity

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The controversy as to the respective functions and merits of public and private relief is no new one; in order to understand it rightly it is necessary to know something of the history of the question, both past and present, and this it will be my endeavour to sketch briefly to-day. The subject has been discussed more than once before at these Conferences. It was my privilege to be present upon one such occasion six years ago, and I was then impressed on the one hand by the enlightened views of many of the speakers, on the other by the fact that there were still a considerable number of Poor Law administrators who failed to recognise the underlying distinction between public and private relief, and were content to deal with the question by rule of thumb. Since then much water has flowed under the bridges. There has been a considerable swing in the pendulum of public opinion, and several important changes in legislation affecting the poor. Many new Guardians have been elected who desire to get at the truth in these matters, and it is for every reason very desirable that the subject should be again discussed from every aspect.

Though there is at present a tendency to regard the teaching of experience as the enemy of progress, I cannot think that such views will commend themselves to this Conference. On the contrary, all real progress must obviously be based upon experience and upon that wisdom which, like freedom, "broadens down from precedent to precedent." And there is probably no other question which has so much experience behind it, or which has had so much attention bestowed upon it through the ages as this question of the relief of poverty at all times and in all countries.

It is of some interest, in view of the ferment of opinion that is going on with regard to the subject in the Christian Churches of the present day, to notice that the principle of voluntary almsgiving was strongly embraced in the early Christian Church. On the other hand, in the Jewish Church the principle of compulsory tithe was adopted. St Irenaeus, in comparing the two systems, speaks of the one as "the charity of freemen, the other the charity of slaves." In England the Church accepted the responsibility for the relief of the poor upon a voluntary basis up to the end of the fifteenth century, though it is plain that after the Reformation, and as the Church gradually lost its hold upon the laity, the financial difficulty increased. By an Act of Edward VI. collectors were appointed in every parish, whose duty it was "gently to ask and demand of every man and woman what they of their charity would be contented to give weekly for the relief of the poor"; and in the event of "froward refusal" the bishops and clergy were "gently to exhort and persuade" such recusants, and, in the last resort, to apply such disciplinary methods as were possible. The final step from moral suasion to legislative coercion was taken in the Elizabethan Poor Laws, which were codified in the great Act of 1601, and the principle of a compulsory levy, to be enforced by distraint and imprisonment, was for the first time adopted. Under that Act the State assumes the whole responsibility for "the relief of the impotent, and the setting to work of those able to work," and voluntary charity obtains no recognition. Undoubtedly the Act appears to cover the whole ground, and it is probable that its authors believed that they had settled the problem of poverty once and for all. It remained practically unchanged for 230 years, up to the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

Within a few years of its enactment a flood of pamphlets and publications upon the question of poor relief began and continued through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Sir F. Eden gives a list of some 300 of these, making all sorts of proposals for the improvement of the methods of dealing with the poor, and putting forward a host of schemes many of them almost identical with some of those proposed to-day. Upon three points they are unanimous, viz., as to the increasing misery of the poor, the increasing burden of taxation, and the failure of the existing law. They differ, indeed, as to the causes of the evil, some ascribing it to the law itself, others to the administration of the law. They are marked throughout by a strong vein of humanity, and amongst their writers may be found the names of the best men of the day, whose names are familiar even now to all of us, such as Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, John Locke, author of the "Essay on the Human Understanding," and these names are sufficient indication that the best brains of two centuries applied themselves to the subject. It is impossible to do more than glance at a few of these pamphlets. In 1622 we have one entitled "Grievous Grones of the poor by a well wisher who wisheth that the poore of England might be so provided for that none need go a begging": in 1646 "Stanleyes Remedy wherein is shown that Sodomes sin of idleness is the poverty and misery of this Kingdom": in 1673 a pamphlet entitled " The grand concern of the nation explained," and which estimates the poor rate at £840,000." This (it says) is employed only to maintain idle persons; doth great harm rather than good; makes a world of poor more than there would otherwise have been … men and women growing so proud and idle that they will not work, but lie upon the parish where they dwell for maintenance." Sir Matthew Hale says pithily of the Act of Elizabeth: "The plaister is not so large as the sore." Dr Davenant in his political essays contends that "the Poor Laws seem only to encourage vice and sloth in the nation." John Locke sums up in 1697 the opinion of the time as follows: "The multiplying of the poor and the increase of the poor rate has proceeded neither from scarcity of provisions nor from want of employment since God has blessed these times with plenty … it can be nothing else but the relaxation of discipline and the corruption of manners." A hundred years later Lord Kames, the well-known Scottish judge, says: "If it should be reported of a foreign nation that the burden of maintaining the idle and profligate is laid upon the frugal and industrious, what should we say of such a nation? yet this is literally true in England." Finally we have the monumental work of "Eden on the Poor," which is the standard authority for the earlier history of the Poor Law.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the utmost dissatisfaction prevailed, but it was not till 1782 that the crisis came when, by Gilbert's Act, outdoor relief was made obligatory for all except the sick and impotent. From that time forward the onrush of pauperism became fast and furious. The rates, which in 1785 were under £2,000,000, by 1817 were nearly £8,000,000. In many country villages practically the whole population was on the rates. In my own, for instance, where there were last year just nine indoor and nine outdoor paupers for the whole year, costing about £200, the old poor books show that in the year 1831 there were 127 separate grants of relief for a single month, and that for the whole year the expenditure was nearly £1000. Similar conditions prevailed all over the country. Of the deplorable condition of the poor there can be no doubt. It is testified to, passim, by contemporary writers such as Arthur Young, William Cobbett, and Harriet Martineau. It remained for another generation to find the remedy.

And so we see that the Elizabethan Poor Law, which had set out with such a comprehensive programme for "the relief of the impotent and the setting of the able-bodied to work"—a programme covering the whole field of the relief of poverty—had broken down. And that not because there had been parsimony of expenditure—the increase of the rates precludes such a suggestion—but because its authors had left out of consideration the elementary law that human nature, like everything in the physical world, follows the line of least resistance, and that so long as the State offers, or appears to offer, the means of subsistence upon easy terms, a large majority of the poorer population will shape their lives accordingly.

In 1834 came the celebrated Report of the Commissioners, a document doubtless familiar to every Guardian here. They, like earlier writers, ascribe the evil directly to demoralisation caused by the Poor Law, and they lay down two fundamental principles as essential to the administration of public relief—the first, that it should be limited to the relief of destitution, such destitution to be tested by the willingness to accept institutional relief; the second, that the position of the pauper should be "less eligible" than that of the poor workman who supports himself, and has to contribute to the rates and taxes. Outside these limits the relief of the poor was to be left to voluntary charity. After the agitation against the new Poor Law, a long-continued and violent one, had subsided, for the next forty years there was a period of quietude. Outdoor relief to the able-bodied had been abolished, subject to certain limitations, and in forty years the workhouses were practically clear of able-bodied men. In the sixties there was fresh reaction against strict administration, and a huge increase of outdoor relief: certain Boards of Guardians in East London and elsewhere were besieged by threatening crowds of applicants, and sat under police protection. There was an enormous increase both in pauperism and expenditure. Once more the public became alarmed, and the Poor Law Board issued the well-known Memorandum of 1869, by which the respective functions of public and private relief were officially defined, and the necessity of bringing about a co-operation between the two agencies was for the first time officially enunciated. "The question arises," it says, "how far it is possible to mark out the separate limits of Poor Law and charity. One of the most recognised principles in our Poor Law is that relief should only be given to the actually destitute, and not in aid of wages, and this lies at the root of our present system of relief. … Nothing could be more mischievous both to the working classes and the ratepayers than to supplement insufficiency of wages by the grant of public money." Such a policy is fatal, for the further reason that it "allows a belief in a legal claim to public money, in every emergency, to supplant in a further portion of the population the recognition of the necessity for self-reliance and thrift." This latter class can best be dealt with by charitable people, "whose alms could in no case be claimed as a right." It deprecates, accordingly, the supplementation of Poor Law relief by charity, and recommends that charity should confine itself to such cases, and such forms of relief, as cannot properly be given by the Poor Law, each agency assuming the whole responsibility for its own department of the work. As a practical suggestion, it advocates co-operation between Guardians and charitable agencies with a view to the co-ordination of relief work together with the registration of relief in every district, the interchange of lists of those helped, and other means of attaining the objects aimed at. The Circular remains the standing authoritative and official declaration upon the subject before us. I hope that the slight sketch of the circumstances preceding it may be sufficient to indicate the reasons for its issue and the principles upon which it is based. This Circular induced a few Boards of Guardians, the names of which are already familiar to these Conferences, to remodel their methods upon the lines suggested at the time, and a few more have since approximated to it, but the vast majority remained unaffected. Where its recommendations were adopted a great decrease of pauperism was the immediate result, and where they have been adhered to pauperism has been kept at a low level. But in several cases there has been a reaction.

Apart from that, it cannot be said that the Circular has had much recognition, even from later Presidents of the Local Government Board, and all the tendency, both legislative and administrative, has been to extend widely the responsibilities of the State in regard to poor relief. Whilst in the last twenty years the Poor Law expenditure has about doubled itself, much of the relief of the poor has been taken outside the Poor Law altogether. Mr Chamberlain's Circular of 1886, by which vestries and borough councils were instructed to find work for the unemployed, was the thin end of the wedge which has opened the way to the Unemployed Workmen Act, and to much that is to come. The State has once more accepted the responsibility for "setting the poor to work," which it took upon itself by the Elizabethan Poor Law, and from which it shook itself free in 1834. The Provision of Meals Act and the Government Old Age Pensions Bill, which is probably in print by this time, are further departures from the principles laid down by the Circular of 1869.

And now, perhaps, I may be allowed to call your attention to certain principles underlying the whole question, the first of which is the effect that relief has upon character, and the special dangers of State relief. Indiscriminate charity is, of course, an unmixed evil, but it differs from State relief in that it can never be looked upon as a right, that it has definite limits, and that it cannot be used to anything like the same extent as a means of political bribery: if it is so, the person who makes use of it has at least to bear the cost himself, and that alone sets a limit to its extension. But the crucial danger of State relief is that it comes to be looked upon as a right, and as a means of evading the troubles and responsibilities of life, and that it tends to remove life's discipline, by which alone character is made. We had two hundred and thirty years of the old Poor Law, under which State relief was carried to its utmost limits, and at the end of it the ruin of the poor and of the country was nearly complete. The problem of pauperism is, I think, very little understood, and its magnitude insufficiently recognised. It is not a question of people being "deserving or undeserving." Many a pauper is neither vicious nor criminal, whilst many who are both vicious and criminal are not paupers. The question is one which lies deep in human nature. There are pauper rich as well as pauper poor. Pauperism means the deadening of effort, ambition, self-respect, and self-reliance, following on the relaxation of the law of self-preservation. As an old writer says, "Men have nothing to stir them to labour but their wants, which it is wisdom to relieve but folly to cure." The question is an economic one, the corollary of the weakness of average human nature, from which the poor are no more exempt than the rich. It is because it is the uniform experience both in this and other countries that State relief saps the foundations of human effort that many of us regard its extension, in spite of all past history, with the utmost apprehension.

The next great principle is that State relief is certain eventually to diminish and even to dry up the springs of private charity, and that we must make our election between them. It is sufficiently obvious that people will not do that of their own accord for which they are already taxed. The Unemployed Workmen Act was based upon the voluntary principle; already voluntary subscriptions, in London at least, have dwindled and almost disappeared, and it is plain that if the Act is to be continued the cost must fall entirely on the rates and the Imperial Exchequer. The same will probably take place with regard to the Provision of Meals Act. The burden of the rates is often made the reason for refusal to subscribe to a charity. In France, at the time of the French Revolution and later, charity was proscribed by law and a project "for the organisation of national relief based upon the rights of man" substituted for it, and private charity practically ceased to exist. Nor did it raise its head again until the "project" broke down owing to national bankruptcy, when it was once more obliged to come to the rescue. But the effect of State relief upon the charity of the public is as dust in the balance compared with that which it has in displacing another kind of charity, which is far more widely diffused and all-pervading. I refer to that natural and unseen charity which is the cement of society, which has no place in advertisement or subscription lists, and which has been well compared to "hidden springs, the existence of which is only divined by the greenness of the turf overhead." Such charity consists in the performance of natural obligations, in the mutual sympathy and kindness and sense of duty of relation to relation, neighbour to neighbour, and friend to friend. Charity of this kind is a repairing force, which operates naturally and almost automatically, which blesses him that gives and him that takes, and which is based upon all that is best in human nature. How great a force it is, is little appreciated by modern social reformers. Yet it is not difficult to dislocate and displace it Under the old Poor Law it had almost disappeared. "Pauperism," say the Commissioners, "is an engine for disconnecting each member of a family from the others, and of reducing all to a state of domesticated animals, fed, lodged, and provided for by the parish, without mutual dependence or mutual interest." And even to-day no Guardian or worker amongst the poor can fail to know how constantly, when the parish pension comes in at the door, the allowance from relative or friend flies out at the window, and how ceaseless is the struggle to throw off natural responsibilities and duties upon the rates.

We have, then, to make up our minds upon which principle we shall rely for the remedial relief of poverty, subject always to the condition, upon which all are agreed, that the necessaries of life must be provided for everyone who is in need of them, without regard to the causes of that need. In the first place, voluntary charity has this to commend it—that it is contributed by those who can best afford it, and that in most cases, at all events, its motive force is sympathy and goodwill. State relief, on the other hand, is enforced by the blunt methods of the broker's man, and is often exacted from people who are poor themselves, and the fact of compulsion robs it of its virtue. We know that the quality of mercy is not strained, and we are told that it drops "like the gentle dew from heaven." The rates, on the other hand, are forced out under strong pressure, and so far from dropping they have an invariable tendency to rise. Then, again, we may ask whether the resuscitated doctrines of the French Revolution, which form the chief stock-in-trade of the more advanced advocates of State relief, will bear examination from an ethical point of view; whether, quite apart from the question of pauperisation, they are having a wholesome effect upon those whom they propose to benefit; or whether, in fact, they are exciting in them most of the passions prohibited by the Decalogue and by Christian teaching. William Cobbett ("Rural Rides," p. 201) says: "Poverty at its worst gives no man a right to view his neighbour with an evil eye, much less to do him a mischief." He was one of the first of the social reformers. From his successors we hear no such sentiments. It is time that we should "clear our minds from cant" upon these questions. Many doctrines of the grossest materialism, and which, one is tempted to add, are purely predatory, are now put forward in the name of Christ by people who frankly tell us that they have no belief in the divinity of Christ, and who perhaps in the same breath are heaping curses upon Christian charity. A French writer of many years ago, replying to similar controversialists, says: "Should we, for the rest, take seriously the admiration that the writers on this side profess for Christianity, or accept the quotations that they borrow from it, as anything but arguments ad hominem? They do not hide sufficiently what is at the back of their minds on this point; they seem to say, 'as for us, we have long ago known how we stand in regard to these antiquated traditions; but do you, who still believe, listen to their witness in favour of our doctrine.'" But there is another party of whose religious convictions there can be no question, who are also taking a prominent part in the discussion of these questions, but whose attitude is somewhat ambiguous. I refer to the Christian Socialists, of whom I hope some may be present to-day to take part in the discussion. The early Christian Socialists—Maurice, Kingsley, and others—were, so far as I know, not State Socialists at all. Their contention, as I understand it, was that it is the duty of Christians to concern themselves with the material welfare of the masses, a contention with which all will agree; but they give no hint of action by the State. There can be no doubt, however, that a large section of the Christian Socialists of the present day look mainly to the State for the accomplishment of their objects, and especially for this great object of the relief of poverty. I read the other day in the "Times" a pastoral letter addressed by two eminent bishops, one of them the President of the C.S.U., to their clergy upon the subject of Churchmen's duty towards social questions, a pastoral admirable in tone and sentiment, and one with which everyone must be in substantial agreement. But towards the end there was a sentence which made me pause to think whether it did not lend a tone to the whole of the document. It was to this effect: The clergy are invited to exhort their flocks "to pay their rates cheerfully." Now, cheerfulness is unfortunately a thing that we cannot command, and I am doubtful whether the "gentle exhortations" of bishops and clergy would in that respect be more efficacious in 1908 than they were in the reign of Edward VI. I have never yet met anyone who paid his rates cheerfully. But I will go further, and say that if I lived in certain parts of London, and possibly even elsewhere, I should be justified in a gentle grumble against my rates. Quite lately there has appeared a manifesto, signed by one hundred clergy and ministers whom I may perhaps without disrespect call "whole hoggers," who write as Christian Socialists, and assert that Christian Socialism accepts in its entirety the Socialist programme. It remains to be seen whether they represent the main body of Christian Socialism. It is satisfactory that the issues are gradually clearing themselves.

But, of course, there is much more which might be said as to the distinction between State relief and private charity. Charity means much more than money-giving. It is often more charitable to give no money at all. Charity implies personal endeavour and self-sacrifice, thought and watchfulness, and a thousand conditions which can never be satisfied by monetary payments. Freewill was the basis of the charity of the early Church, the charity of freemen, not the charity of slaves. Under which banner will the Christian Churches of the twentieth century take their stand?

Another feature of unrestricted State relief remains to be noticed. First, the demands upon it increase by a sort of arithmetical progression; the State purse is supposed to be bottomless, and the number of those who wish to dip into it are without limit—and then there comes a breakdown. It was so in Rome: it was so again and again in France during the Revolutionary period and after: it was so in England in 1834. It has been so of late in some parts of London and elsewhere. Either the municipal worm is sucked dry and remains an anaemic and unprofitable corpse, or he turns and rends his persecutors. Then comes a cry for transferring the charges to the Imperial Exchequer: believe me, the Imperial Exchequer is no more bottomless than the municipal purse, and even now the position of our national finances is a grave one. All past experience shows that sooner or later the reaction comes, usually just in time to save irretrievable disaster, and that then the unhappy people who have learnt to lean upon State relief are left to face the world destitute of all reserves and bereft of their only real resources, namely, those that lie in their own industry and prudence.

We now come to the question whether the alternative policy contained in the Circular of 1869 is a possible one or no? I am prepared to be told that such a policy is antiquated and obsolete, and I certainly do not expect that those who talk of "the curse of charity" will subscribe to it. But after all they are, I think, still in a small minority and have not the nation with them: neither do I believe that the wisdom of the ages is concentrated in the year 1908, and that everything that has gone before it must be disregarded. The plain facts are these, that in London, where the Poor Law expenditure is some £3,000,000, the income of charities available for the Metropolis is about £8,000,000. That does not, of course, include the personal almsgiving of the community, which must be of enormous volume, nor does it include the still more important factor of that natural charity which I have referred to also as the repairing force of society, and which is the outcome of family and neighbourly sympathy and affection. I have no figures for the great provincial cities, but it is a well-known fact that most of them have large charitable endowments, whilst there is no reason to believe that they are behindhand in the other forms of charity. Is it impossible so to reorganise and reform this huge volume of charitable relief, which is at present largely indiscriminate and working upon no settled lines or policy, in such a manner as to make it really effective in dealing with distress which, as the Circular says, "can best be dealt with by charitable people"? Is it impossible to bring about co-operation between charity and the Poor Law upon the lines indicated? The answer is that it is not impossible, because it has already been done in several places both in town and country, and the experiment has stood the test of thirty years. But has it been attended by special hardships to the poor? all that can be said is that its opponents, who are neither few nor incapable of expressing themselves, have never been able to prove it, and that the beneficial effects of the new Poor Law, upon which this policy is based, have never been open to question. And from which districts do we hear the loudest cries of distress and destitution? It is precisely from those districts where its recommendations have been uniformly set at naught and defied. The present time is an opportune one for considering the whole question de novo, because lately a number of "guilds of help" and the like have sprung up all over England. If these guilds of help can succeed in drawing together the charitable forces of their district and making them really effective, and if they will work with the Guardians as recommended by the Circular, the battle will be more than half won. A word of caution is perhaps necessary: the relief of distress is coming more and more to be recognised as a scientific problem which can only be solved by the combination of study with practical work; and if these guilds of help are to make any real progress, if they are not to be for ever rolling a stone uphill, they must qualify themselves for their duties by preliminary training; otherwise they will only make the position worse than it was before. In country districts the conditions are different from those in towns, and the question of bringing about co-operation between charity and the Poor Law assumes a rather different aspect, yet even there the experience of several Unions shows that it is not impossible. All experience, moreover, shows that a careful administration of the Poor Law gives such a stimulus to the friendly society movement that the problem is reduced within much narrower limits, and, speaking as one born and bred in the country myself, I believe that the hard cases might without difficulty be met by private charity. Even now, and especially in places where the Poor Law is carefully administered, many employers of labour either pension their old employees who have served them faithfully and well, or provide for them light and nominal work by, as Mr Charles Booth says, "a kindly social usage." On the other hand, when a large amount of outdoor relief is given, they often, as a matter of course, send them off for the usual parish half-a-crown. Though there may be difficulties in some districts, I cannot believe but that in many it would be possible to carry out the principles of the Circular much more generally than is now the case.

Finally, we have the question of the effect that the enormous increase in the burden of public relief is likely to have upon the working classes themselves. Mr Morley has told us that "the burden of taxation, however disguised, falls at last most heavily upon the shoulders of the industrial classes." We have heard lately of the removal of Messrs Yarrow's works from London owing to the incidence of the rates; whether that was the real cause or not it is unnecessary to ask, but it is sufficiently obvious that industry will tend to leave districts where it is heavily burdened, and we may ask whether the large amount of unemployment prevailing, especially in those districts where the burden of taxation is heaviest, is not due to some extent to this cause. Then, again, there is the increase in the cost of living, and especially of house-room, which is the direct result of heavy taxation. It has of late been denied that this falls upon the occupier. It may at once be granted that in the long run, when the demand for houses declines, it falls upon the landlord, but it is equally undeniable that the landlord will shift the burden on to the occupier as long as he is able to do so. There have already been many cases in which the increased rates have been added to the rents. Speaking generally, heavy taxation cannot fail to hamper the industry by which the working classes are supported, and to increase the cost of living.

I will now try to summarise and make clear the points that I wish to bring before the Conference. The first of them is that unrestricted State relief has had a trial of two hundred and thirty years in this country, and that, so far from relieving poverty and improving the condition of the poor, it nearly ruined both the poor and the country. The plaister has never been as large as the sore. I have endeavoured to show that the underlying cause of this is to be found in the fact that the authors of the Elizabethan Poor Law left out of consideration the factor of human nature: in support of my contention, I have cited the authority of some of the wisest thinkers over two centuries. I could have cited many more if time had allowed. Next I have tried to show the gradually growing conviction, which found expression in the new Poor Law, that there must be some restriction or element of deterrence in public relief which comes to be looked upon as a right, as an alternative to a general pauperism.

In discussing the Circular of 1869, which is, in fact, a restatement of the position adopted by the Commissioners of 1834, I have endeavoured to show the respective characteristics of State relief enforced by distraint and imprisonment, and of voluntary charity, the burden of which is borne by those best able to afford and which has the virtue of spontaneity. I have urged, also, that State relief is destructive of voluntaryism, and that the latter is of altogether different quality, and more in accordance with the teaching of Christianity. I have also tried to show that the policy advocated by the Circular of 1869 is a possible one.

Finally, I have contended that State relief is, as Carlyle said, "a broken reed to lean upon, if ever there was one, and one which does but run into the lamed right hand," not only because it lames the right hand, though of that there is abundant proof, but because it breaks down owing to exhaustion of the exchequer, whether local or imperial, and certain reaction ; meanwhile, the burden of increasing taxation falls most heavily upon the working classes themselves, by handicapping the sources of their subsistence.

These are the points which I wish to place before the Conference. I hope that they may be fully discussed and categorically answered, and that those who disagree with what I have said will face the issues fairly and squarely. Let me suggest that the whole question remains as it was in 1673—the "Grand Concern of the Nation."