Welfare and Charity: Lessons from Victorian England

GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB

The word "welfare" is ambiguous.

Does it mean the well-being of the citizenry? Or does it mean relief — state-subsidized relief, which now goes by the euphemism of "welfare"? Perhaps I am especially sensitive to such euphemisms because they were conspicuously lacking in my own field of study, Victorian England. And the example of Victorian England has never been as pertinent as it is today.

More than a century and a half ago, a few years before Queen Victoria ascended the throne, a Royal Commission of Parliament proposed a major reform of the Poor Law. In its report, the Commission deplored "the mischievous ambiguity of the word 'poor'." The very name, Poor Law, was a misnomer; it was a pauper law, not a poor law. Most of the poor — which is to say, virtually all the working classes — were indeed poor, but they were not paupers. They were "independent" — that is, self-supporting — laborers. Unfortunately, the enormous expansion of relief in the preceding decades, including relief "in aid of wages" (to supplement wages), had confused the distinction between pauper and poor, thus contributing to the "pauperization of the poor."

In a passage strikingly reminiscent of the situation today, the report explained why the enemies of reform sought to perpetuate the ambiguity of pauper and poor:

Such persons will, no doubt, avail themselves of the mischievous ambiguity of the word poor, and treat all diminution of the expenditure for the relief of the poor as so much taken from the labouring classes; as if those classes were naturally pensioners on the charity of their superiors, and relief, not wages, were the proper fund for their support; as if the independent laborers themselves were not, directly or indirectly, losers by all expenditure on paupers; as if those who would be raised from pauperism to independence would not be the greatest gainers by the change; as if, to use the expression of one of the witnesses whom we have quoted, the meat of industry were worse than the bread of idleness.
At just this time, while the reform of the Poor Law was being debated, Tocqueville visited England and shortly afterward wrote a Memoir on Pauperism reflecting on his experiences. He started by commenting on the paradox that the poorest countries in Europe had the fewest paupers while the richest country, England, had the most. The explanation was simple: The richest country had the highest standard of living and thus, also, the highest standard of basic needs; and because it was at a higher stage of civilization, it aspired to meet that standard for all its citizens. This combination of affluence and compassion produced the most generous system of public relief and thus, the largest population of paupers.


Moreover, charity, being individual and voluntary, establishes a "moral tie" between the donor and the recipient, between the rich and the poor. Relief, being impersonal and legal, destroys any sense of morality. The donor (the tax-payer) resents his involuntary contribution, and the recipient feels no gratitude for what he gets as a matter of right, which, in any case, he feels to be insufficient.


Tocqueville admired the spirit behind the English Poor Law but deplored the consequences. Unlike private charity, he said, which depends on the goodwill of the benefactor, public relief is a matter of legal right. The recipient of charity has no assurance of assistance; the recipient of relief has that assurance. And it is that assurance, the right to relief, that undermines the incentive to work and thus tends to pauperize the poor. By guaranteeing the means of subsistence as a legal right to all, England relieved the poor of the obligation to work and thus made paupers of so many of the poor.

Rights in general are commendable, Tocqueville granted, but this right degrades the man who exercises it. Whereas most rights testify to the individual's superiority, the right to relief is a legal, public testimony to his inferiority. Relief is thus more demeaning than charity, for charity involves only a private acknowledgement of dependency, while relief is "a notarized manifestation of misery, of weakness, of misconduct." And the more prolonged the exercise of this right, the more degrading it becomes.

Moreover, charity, being individual and voluntary, establishes a "moral tie" between the donor and the recipient, between the rich and the poor. Relief, being impersonal and legal, destroys any sense of morality. The donor (the tax-payer) resents his involuntary contribution, and the recipient feels no gratitude for what he gets as a matter of right, which, in any case, he feels to be insufficient.

Tocqueville proves himself once again a prophet for our time as he went on to explain why relief is demoralizing, why public authorities cannot really judge the merit of individual claimants for relief, why schemes to put paupers to work generally fail, why well-intentioned policies often produce greater misery, and why future generations pay the cost of present follies. Most prescient is his description of the contrast between the improvement of the working classes and the deterioration of the pauper class — a class where "the number of illegitimate children and criminals grows rapidly and continuously, the indigent population is limitless, the spirit of foresight and of saving becomes more and more alien...."

Tocqueville's essay ought to be required reading for all legislators, policy-makers, and commentators. As it happened, the English did not take Tocqueville's advice, which was to abolish the Poor Law. (They could not, in fact, have known of the Memoir, which appeared in the proceedings of a French provincial academy a year after the passage of the New Poor Law.) Instead they reformed the law to remove its worst failing: the "mischievous ambiguity" of pauper and poor that contributed to the pauperization of the poor.


Victorian Principles of "Relief"


The Victorians gave what they could by way of money, but more important, they gave of themselves, with their personal, sustained involvement in their work and their direct and immediate concern for those whom they were assisting.


The New Poor Law of 1834 was based on the "principle of less eligibility," which stipulated that the condition of the "able-bodied pauper" on relief (it did not apply to the sick, aged, or children) be less "eligible" — that is, less desirable, less favorable — than the condition of the independent laborer. "Less-eligibility" meant not only that the pauper receive less by way of relief than the laborer did from his wages but also that he receive it in such a way (in the workhouse, for example) as to make pauperism less respectable than work — to "stigmatize" it, as we now say disapprovingly. Thus the laborer would be discouraged from lapsing into a state of dependency and the pauper would be encouraged to work.

In fact, it was not so much the actual conditions in the workhouse that discouraged pauperism. As contemporaries constantly pointed out, food and living conditions in the house were often no worse and sometimes even better than those of the very poor outside. But what made the workhouse unmistakably less-eligible was the demeaning, degrading fact of being in it. It was the very idea of it, the loss of respectability implied by it, that constituted the real deterrent. Indeed, the mere threat of the workhouse continued to stigmatize pauperism even though many parishes did not build workhouses and continued to provide outdoor relief for the able-bodied.

Obviously, no one today would propose reviving the workhouse (although that is probably what I shall be accused of doing). The principle of less-eligibility, as the term plainly signifies, is a relative one, and it should take no great ingenuity to find other ways of implementing that principle, well short of the workhouse. At the very least, it should be possible to reverse the present situation, which more nearly resembles that of "more-eligibility." Welfare recipients today are often in a more-eligible condition than workers earning a minimum or modest wage and thus have no incentive to try to get a job. Unwed mothers receive benefits that married mothers do not have, thus providing an incentive not to get married. And since there is no longer any stigma attached to relief (it is not even called that any more — welfare is the current term), that moral deterrent, too, is absent.


Victorian Principles of Charity

Just as the Victorians gave serious thought to the principles governing relief, so they did to the principles of charity. Somewhat later in the century, in 1869, the Charity Organization Society (COS) was established to coordinate the multitude of private charities and philanthropies that were being founded. (In London alone there were about seven hundred philanthropic societies, devoted to every conceivable human misery or affliction.)

The COS prided itself on being at the same time a "religion" of charity and a "science" of charity: a religion in satisfying the spiritual duty of the donors, as expressed in John Wesley's famous sermon: "Gain all you can…, save all you can…, give all you can…"; and a science in seeking to maximize the good effects of the giving and minimize the ill-effects. It was this combination of religiosity and rationality that characterized Victorian charity, in a period when charity flourished as never before — and perhaps never since.


It was "distinctly advantageous to us," she wrote, "to go amongst poor," not only to have a better understanding of their problems but also because "contact with them develops on the whole our finer qualities, disgusting us with our false and worldly application of men and things and educating in us a thoughtful benevolence."


Charity, the COS insisted, was not only different in nature from relief; it was aimed at different people. Relief was intended for those who were in a condition of destitution; charity for those "deserving poor" who were temporarily in need of help and for whom a timely and appropriate provision of help would prevent their falling into a state of pauperism. Charity would not duplicate relief; nor would it be "indiscriminate" or "promiscuous." Above all, it would require the recipient of charity to exercise the same self-discipline, the same virtues, required of all the poor.

The housing reformer, Octavia Hill, was one of that tribe of "governing and guiding women," as Beatrice Webb put it, who were so influential in the philanthropic movement. Hill renovated houses and rented them to the poor at somewhat less cost and with better facilities than they could otherwise afford; in return, she insisted upon the prompt payment of rent, reasonable decorum, and cleanliness. Similarly, Toynbee Hall, the prototype of the settlement house, provided classes and instruction of all kinds, at no cost, but in the expectation of regular attendance and in the hope that the poor would be intellectually and spiritually elevated. And the dispensers of other charitable funds and services did so on condition that the assistance would enable the beneficiaries to become self-supporting and to "better themselves."

If the beneficiaries were held to high standards, so were the benefactors. The great Victorian philanthropists were not Rockefellers or Carnegies who gave of their fortunes for worthy causes. This was not check-book philanthropy. Nor was it what Dickens and George Eliot satirized as "telescopic philanthropy" — the charity that "increases directly as the square of the distance," like that of Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House, who was more concerned with the natives of Borrioboola-Gha than with her own children. The Victorians gave what they could by way of money, but more important, they gave of themselves, with their personal, sustained involvement in their work and their direct and immediate concern for those whom they were assisting.

In one sense, they were professional philanthropists; they took their work seriously and abided by professional standards — "scientific" principles, as they said. But they were, with rare exceptions, unpaid (or, if they had no other source of income, very modestly paid). Octavia Hill's rent collectors — in effect, social workers — were volunteers, as were the COS's "visitors" and the settlement house "residents." The latter, in fact, paid for the privilege of living in Toynbee Hall and spending all their spare time in communal work. Thus it was that charity was both a "science" and a "religion": a science in seeking the best way to help the beneficiaries to help themselves, and a religion in satisfying the spiritual need of the benefactors for public service.

When Beatrice Webb started work as a visitor for the COS (before she married Sidney Webb and became a Fabian socialist), she pondered on "the relationship of giver and receiver" and decided that the moral effect on the giver was as important as that on the receiver. It was "distinctly advantageous to us," she wrote, "to go amongst poor," not only to have a better understanding of their problems but also because "contact with them develops on the whole our finer qualities, disgusting us with our false and worldly application of men and things and educating in us a thoughtful benevolence."

I do not agree with Beatrice Webb about much else, but I do think she got that quite right. Charity is, or should be, the exercise of "a thoughtful benevolence." Not benevolence alone but a thoughtful benevolence — a reasoned, prudent, discriminating, even skeptical benevolence — a benevolence that is acutely aware of the often unintended consequences of goodwill, that knows that it is more important to do good than to feel good, that is morally and spiritually satisfying for the giver, and morally as well as materially beneficial to the receiver. It is this kind of charity that promotes welfare in the proper sense of that word — the well-being of the citizenry.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Gertrude Himmelfarb. "Welfare and Charity: Lessons from Victorian England." Acton Institute.

This article reprinted with permission from the Acton Institute. The mission of the Acton Institute is to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles.

THE AUTHOR

Gertrude Himmelfarb is professor emeritus of history at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. She received her doctorate from the University of Chicago and also studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Girton College, Cambridge. The recipient of many honorary degrees and fellowships, Professor Himmelfarb has written and edited more than a dozen books including The Roads to Modernity: the British, French, and American Enlightenments, The De-Moralization of Society: from Victorian Virtues to Modern Values, Poverty and Compassion: the Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians, and Lord Acton: A Study in Conscience and Politics.

Copyright © 2006 Acton Institute




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