US Poverty Policies Have Beginnings in British History

 Commentary by Bridget Reilly

       Since at least Elizabethan times, governments have divided the needy indigent population into two basic categories: the “good” ones and the “bad” ones. The “good” poor people are the ones who do whatever the government tells them to; the “bad” poor people are the ones who think for themselves and have their own ideas of how they want to live their lives. Laws such as anti-camping ordinances not only punish homeless people for their poverty, they also punish them for making their own decisions, for choosing to shelter themselves in a way that gives them some privacy rather than going to public shelters where they would be herded around like so much livestock. They didn't have control over the conditions that landed them in poverty, and they have very limited options once they become homeless, but that should not mean they can't have their own minds and live self-determined lives.

  A historic milestone of the Elizabethan era, and also one way in which England distinguished itself from other European countries of that time, was the development of a system of taxation that provided a funding base for poor relief. This was a time of sharp economic upheavals in Europe that led to rising prices, lagging wages and increasing class disparity. The numbers of poor people spilling out onto the streets of the English towns had reached a critical mass and could no longer be ignored. They were an embarrassment, and possibly a threat to the government and to society. And so the Poor Laws were passed.

  It is also very interesting to note that 1601, the year in which this tax law was put into place, was the same year in which Queen Elizabeth chartered the first British corporation. Of course, these two measures complemented each other: it was all part of a scheme to make rich people richer while the poor remained in their “place.” The new system of poor relief, besides allowing the richer classes to “provide” for the poor in a way that assuaged their guilty consciences, and to pat themselves on the back for their “benevolence”, was also a way of controlling the poor because they were afraid of the crimes they might commit if they were not provided for and contained.

  When the taxes were collected, the money didn't go directly to the needy but into the government coffers. The government then matter-of-factly made the decisions as to how the money would be distributed. Those who were found to be disabled, elderly or sick were sent to asylums, almshouses or charity hospitals, and those deemed to be “able-bodied” were “set on work” in the workhouses. There was much applauding of this supposedly 'brilliant' system that “solved” the problem of increasing poverty and homelessness. The workhouses thus established were presumed to be a great improvement over the old punitive practice of whipping beggars out of town.

  But, I'm not so sure that the poor people themselves would have agreed that a workhouse was such a great place to live and work. Were they ever asked for their own viewpoints on the matter? I think probably not. The laws were made without any input from these people who were supposed to “benefit” from them, because they had no representation in Parliament since they'd lost their land!

  I will venture to guess that, in the case of many younger people who were considered to be deserving apprentices and were helped out by private benefactors who set them up in work, it may have been a good opportunity to make a fresh start in a new direction. But what about the older generations of small farmers who had lost their property through no fault of their own, and were now being expected to take up different occupations in dreary, crowded workhouses where they had to sleep in dormitories with no privacy?

  As far as I can tell, this arrangement was but a new form of serfdom, a new way of “keeping the peasants in their place.” Workhouses and “houses of correction” were so often mentioned in the same breath, it's easy to imagine that a workhouse was little better than a prison, if any better at all. And those who refused to go to such places could still be punished as vagrants.

  And unfortunately the kind of thinking that created that system really hasn't changed much in the four following centuries. It is still the “haves” who presume it's their right to frame the discussion regarding the “have-nots.” And even if the poor aren't really to blame for their own poverty, they still find themselves being punished in hundreds of different ways. Why?

  The English people of Elizabethan times had some democratic ideas, but they didn't really have the concept of self-determination applying to all citizens. This concept especially didn't apply to those of lower economic class, income level and housing status. And even in present-day America, where we allegedly have a representative democratic government and a “classless” society, the poor are still treated as if they lose the right to make their own decisions once they lose their homes, as if they aren't really citizens in a democracy any more.

  So the system of poor relief we have in America today, in which homeless people are expected to go to shelters and are punished if they refuse to do so, is a carry-over from a bygone era. It's not in alignment with the more advanced ideas of democracy and self-determination that are supposed to form the basis of our U.S. government. The idea is that all citizens have basic human rights that the government can't just take away, including the homeless and poor who are still, theoretically, enfranchised citizens with an equal vote.

  This is something to keep in mind, for all the politicians and bureaucrats who are still scratching their heads and asking the tired old question: “Just what should we do for the homeless? What solution is really going to work, instead of just endlessly throwing money at a problem that never goes away no matter what we do?”

  If you're thinking this way, you need to stop thinking of the “problem” being merely the fact that so many people are without homes. It's also that homeless people have been disenfranchised, systematically excluded from the public discussions and treated like non-citizens.

  And the solution should be obvious: to include them in the democratic process while the brainstorming and problem-solving sessions are taking place. They should always be invited to join in the powwow circle whenever there's a new shelter plan or other such program in the works, or to tell their own side of the story whenever a complaint is made about them, or to voice any grievance they might have about how they are being treated. There should be an ongoing forum available to them to air their views, where people in power are listening. And their input should always be considered in determining policies and directions for the government to follow.

This is all entirely doable. It's called grassroots democracy.

Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue 75 March-April 2006 Cleveland, Ohio.