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The Poor Laws 2.0

Reaching back for lessons from history is increasingly common to make sense of society. The 1930s are one focus for warnings about nationalism and economic strife. The 1830s may be a better guide for current controversies around welfare reform and public health.

Newspaper stories and studies report how the roll-out of Universal Credit is linked to, for example, an increased risk of suicide, hardship and homelessness. These outcomes are a far cry from the original goals of Universal Credit: to ‘make work pay’ is perhaps the most widely stated by the Government, but simplifying the benefits system and cutting the overall welfare bill also figure large. Such gains were to be made possible by bringing benefits together within an online system that marked a new high water mark for digital governance in the UK.

Recent research with Groundswell and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has explored how people who are homeless and living with physical and mental ill-health are being compelled to seek and find work. Such experiences herald the underlying ideology of Universal Credit, which extends longer-running reforms under previous Governments and discourses of skivers vs strivers. Universal Credit seeks to encourage or compel people to seek and find work, even when experiencing long-term or disabling physical or mental health.

The overt ideological position of Universal Credit is out of step with the wealth of evidence on how poverty and unemployment comes about, how it is experienced, how it links to health, and how it can be tackled. Such a position is sadly not rare or new in politics (Conservative, Labour, whoever). But still, how do we begin to understand Universal Credit?

History might help, and in particular comparison to the Poor Laws of the past. The English poor laws, as in other places like the USA, were a system of ‘poor relief‘ that emerged over centuries, culminating in the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 (or the ‘New Poor Laws’). Under the New Poor Laws authority to manage poverty and welfare was centralised into one commission, replacing a previous patch-work system governed locally. Poverty relief was dependent upon entering a workhouse; a regime intended to be deliberately harsh, to dissuade people from seeking poor relief and to incentivise work.

The writings of Charles Dickens vividly explore the poorhouse. In Oliver Twist (serialised 1837-39) Dickens details, and mocks, the Poor Laws. Oliver famously asking ‘please, Sir, I want some more’ of the thin soup that was the poorhouse diet was not just the result of some local cruelty, but the working out of central government policy to limit food and housing quality. Poor food was core welfare policy.

Virginia Eubanks has sketched out the recent emergence of the digital poorhouse in the USA. Recent innovations in digital governance and welfare in the USA, linked to ‘big data’ and artificial intelligence, are increasingly controlling how large numbers of people live their lives. Eubanks situates this within the legacy of the poor laws and poorhouse of the past: a punitive and moralistic approach to poverty. Old discourses and inequalities of the poor laws are then being entrenched in new technologies. Digital governance – like Universal Credit – is not changing our systems, but continuing old systems of power.

These New Poor Laws, following Eubanks’s notions of the ‘digital poorhouse’, are then useful comparison to Universal Credit today: an effort at reform aiming to centralise authority and take action on poverty. The New Poor Laws were an earlier version of the current imperative to work, if in more brutal and constraining forms. Where once there was a physical poorhouse seeking to regulate behaviour and impose a moral discipline, today we have the databases and algorithms of Universal Credit. People who are poor are no longer marched to the workhouse, but are expected to log into their Universal Credit account; a work coach supervises, and targets must be met. Benefit levels and weekly payments are set with reference to incentives to work, and less on what is needed for health and welfare. The rhythms of monthly benefit payments are intended to ape work, as the breaking of stones and defraying of old rope were intended to do in the poorhouse. Universal Credit, like the New Poor Laws before them, approaches poverty as a function of incentives and morality, and in so doing negates the experience of poverty, from its causes and consequences, to the links to health and wellbeing.

Such incentives and morality within the Poor Laws were driven, in some ways novel for the time, by an emphasis on scientific evidence, administrative efficiency and technical expertise. Here too, echoes to Universal Credit: the creation of a vast, centralised system founded on data and framed by a particular scientific orthodoxy. The Universal Credit roll-out is linked to a randomised controlled trial to test the efficacy of support and conditionality around benefits, and is linked to a goal (now seen as unevaluatable) to increase those in work by 200,000. An orthodoxy of science based planning (or what we might now call evidence based policy) and accompanying methodologies bends attention towards what can be measured and controlled. Whilst analysis of homelessness and poverty often calls attention to the role of housing shortages, employment precarity and economic change, they are little engaged with, owing to ideology and morality, but also for what conforms to data and science bound planning.

The specific history of the New Poor Laws also has other lessons for Universal Credit. Many of the reforms of 1834 were never fully implemented. Some demands of the laws were logistically impossible to implement, such as building poorhouses for hundreds of thousands of people. The opposition and unrest that surrounded the poor laws within communities and parliament can also be traced as integral to the slow building up of the later welfare state.

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Andrew Guise

Andrew Guise

Senior lecturer in Social Science and Health


Features written within the SUPHI research group

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