Heading back to the Poor Law?

by John Veit-Wilson

The UK public has increasingly negative views about ‘welfare benefits’ claimants, according to recent reports by the British Social Attitudes survey and Demos. Many seem to believe that welfare benefits for unemployed and disabled people are too high and claimants should have their expenditures monitored or even controlled by issuing vouchers or benefits in kind. Responses suggest that ‘they’, the claimants, are getting too much of ‘our’ money and spending it wastefully.

During the US ‘War against Poverty’ in the 1960s such ideas were expressed as ‘We the People and They the Poor’, but in fact they trace back to the middle ages and the Poor Laws for unemployed labourers. From Elizabethan times poor people had to be supported by their communities of origin or, later, where they lived, and the local property owners, the taxpayers of the time, usually tried to do so at the lowest cost. Workhouses deterred claimants, to force them to accept low paid work. Claimants in workhouses or outdoor poor relief were known as paupers and had no rights; instead, the rights were held by ratepayers, to expect public destitution to be relieved at the lowest cost. This pauperisation only fell in the 20th century as workers gained increased statutory rights to incomes in old age, sickness and unemployment through quasi-contractual contributory pensions and social security, because the act of contributing first and then benefitting only if needed reversed the understanding of the reciprocal exchange relationship involved. Only residual means-tested benefits continued to evoke attitudes and administration as if they were for paupers (as the recent reports reflect). But in recent years successive governments have reduced the role of contributory social security entitlement and increased the scope of means-tested benefits, and so more members of the public are coming to see the benefit system once again like the Poor Law for paupers and not rights for contributors (in reality everyone contributes through indirect general taxation but public opinion often thinks only of the direct labelled contributions).

To counter this confusion about rights, the subject of Welfare Rights was developed in the UK from the late 1960s, originally by the Child Poverty Action Group. ‘Welfare Rights’ refer ironically to the paradox that ostensible rights to welfare are treated as if they were state charity. The confusion between rights and charity must be clarified. There are five key differences in principle concerning reciprocity, obligation, redress, evaluation and predictability.

The first principle concerns reciprocity.  While all exchange relationships are reciprocal, it is the direction of the first transaction which establishes the rights, and the duty then falls on the recipient to respond appropriately. For instance, in unemployment insurance, you pay the NI contribution and if unemployment occurs, you have a right to benefit just like any other insurance; the same with pensions. But in charity, the donor makes the first payment and that lays the reciprocal obligation on the recipient to be grateful and conform behaviourally, spending money on the donor’s choices.

Under the second principle of obligation rights are juridified by law and legally obligatory; charity is voluntary.  Under redress, the third principle, the law is justiciable: if it is not correctly followed, the claimant can appeal through legal tribunals and access to supportive expertise, but there is no redress for an unsuccessful application for voluntary charity.  Under the fourth principle, rights are impersonally evaluated according to insurance contribution and risk which determines benefit receipt, while in charity the donor judges individual deservingness.  And this leads to the final principle of predictability: the success or failure of rights claims can be predicted, while charitable applications are unpredictable because they lack entitlement.

It is a mistake to confuse the recent reports about public attitudes to a particular set of welfare benefits intended for ‘other people’ with what the evidence shows are public views on the minimum level of living which everyone should be able to have and the incomes needed for that in our marketised and consumerist society. Beliefs about the first are no guide to the second as past findings on public attitudes to necessities found in the Breadline Britain and Poverty and Social exclusion surveys and by the Minimum Income Standard research. Even so governments of all kinds have confused the two issues for many decades by claiming that benefits are ‘what is needed’ as if that were enough to overcome poverty. But a previous government’s own in-house report as long ago as 1965 on the adequacy of National Assistance showed that these means-tested benefits were far too low and more was needed. Similarly, studies from the 1930s to the present day of the minimum incomes needed for healthy living  have shown that benefits are still too low. Nothing has changed. Even when every unemployed, disabled or old person’s claims are recognised and benefits paid, the benefit levels are still below the government’s poverty measures.

Social science research is hardly needed on the strong views the British hold about their right to decide for themselves how they should spend their own money. The confusions between what we believe we need for ourselves and what is enough for other people can be understood better in terms of deeper social values, not only the importance of perceived reciprocity about money exchanges but also of the other ‘3R’ elements of human needs: recognition of others as members of the same society with the same rights, and respect as equal members and all that goes with that. Anyone may be struck by disability, and the risk of unemployment is increasingly widespread, so ‘we’ may become ‘them’. The confusion between pauperism and poverty becomes a serious mistake when it hinders a proper understanding of what it means to be poor in senses which may apply to all of us.

John Veit-Wilson is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy of Northumbria University and Visiting Professor in Sociology at Newcastle University, and was one of the founding members of CPAG.