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Problem of Destitution in United Kingdom

The “Moral Factor” in the Problem of Destitution and the Majority Report of the Royal Commission of 1905-1909

In this issue about the “moral factor” in the problem of destitution, the book “English Poor Law Policy” [1] reads as follows: There are those who see in this proposal to “break up” the Poor Law, and to entrust the conduct of the campaign against destitution to the Local Education Authority, the Local Health Authority, the Local Lunacy Authority, the Local Pension Authority, and the National or Local Authorities dealing with unemployment, an ignoring of what they call the “moral factor.” To speak of the prevention of destitution in terms of the functions of these Authorities seems, to such critics, equivalent to implying that all destitution is due to causes over which the individual has no control-thus putting aside the contributing causes of idleness, extravagance, drunkenness, gambling, and all sorts of irregularity of life. But this is to misconceive the position taken up by the Minority Commissioners, and to fail in appreciation of their proposals. They do not deny-indeed, what observer could possibly deny or minimise?-the extent to which the destitution of whole families is caused or aggravated by personal defects and shortcomings in one or other of their members, and most frequently in the husband and father upon whom the family maintenance normally depends.

The Minority Commissioners certainly do not ignore the fact that what has to be aimed at is not this or that improvement in material circumstances or physical comfort, but an improvement in personal character. To use a metaphor from the card table, this improvement of personal character in the human subject is the “odd trick” for which social reformers are struggling, and by which alone success can be secured. But we cannot win the “odd trick” without winning the six others.

Two considerations may make the position clear. However large may be the part in producing destitution that we may choose to ascribe to the “moral factor”-to defects or shortcomings in the character of the unfortunate victims themselves-the fact that the investigations of the Royal Commission indicate that at least nine-tenths of all the paupers arrive at pauperism along one or other of three roads-the Road of Neglected Childhood, the Road of Sickness and Feeble-mindedness, and the Road of Unemployment (including “Under-employment”), must give us pause. If it can be said that it is to some defect of moral character or personal shortcoming that the sinking into destitution at the bottom of the road is, in a final analysis, more correctly to be ascribed-though on this point which among us is qualified to be a judge?-it is abundantly clear that the assumed defect or shortcoming manifests itself in, or at least is accompanied by, either child-neglect, sickness, feeble-mindedness, or unemployment. These are the roads by which the future pauper travels. Moreover, if these outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual shortcomings are sometimes caused by these latter, it is at least equally true that the defects of character are aggravated and confirmed by their evil accompaniments.

It is by dealing with the individual through these manifestations or accompaniments of his inward defect, that we can most successfully bring to bear our curative and restorative influences. What is certain is that if we could put an end to neglected infancy, neglected childhood, and neglected youth, by whomsoever occasioned; if we could prevent all preventable sickness and infirmity, however caused; if we could either ameliorate or segregate the feeble-minded; if we could make impossible any long-continued unemployment and any chronic “under-employment,” whatever its origin, we should have prevented the occurrence of nine-tenths of the destitution that is now annually created.

The second consideration is that all experience shows that it is impossible even to begin to deal successfully with personal character until we dismiss the idea of relieving destitution as such, and go boldly for a definite policy of preventing or arresting the operation of each separate cause of destitution. Take, for instance, the destitution brought about by drink. Under the Poor Law-under any Poor Law-the drunkard cannot be touched until he is in a state of destitution. A man may be neglecting his children, leaving his wife without medical attendance, or maltreating a feeble-minded child, and yet no Poor Law Authority can do anything to prevent the destitution which will probably ensue. It is only when the man is suffering from delirium tremens that he is taken into the workhouse, put into a clean bed, with two attendants to look after him, dosed with the costly and agreeable morphia, and then, when he has recovered from his debauch and can return to his work, let out to begin his evil courses again. Under the system proposed by the Minority Report of making the Education Authority, the Public Health Authority, and the Lunacy Authority responsible for searching out the incipient destitution of the neglected child, the sick wife, and the maltreated feeble-minded child, the drinking head of the family would have been called to book long before he found himself in the comfortable quarters of the workhouse. Indeed, it seems apparent that, once the Public Health Authority was responsible for searching out diseases, one of the first diseases which would call for systematic prevention and cure would be chronic alcoholism.

Take, again, the destitution brought about by unemployment. So long as this is relieved by a Destitution Authority there is no chance of enforcing the responsibility of every able-bodied person to maintain himself and his family. We may, of course, deter men from getting relief out of the rates, but we shall not deter them from being parasitic on other people, or from allowing their dependants to sink into a state of destitution. If, however, we had an Unemployment Authority responsible for either finding a man a job or placing him in training, we could for the first time strictly enforce on every man and woman who were, as a matter of fact, failing to maintain themselves and their dependants, the obligation to make use of this organ of the State. When the visitor from the Children’s Care Committee discovered an underfed child, or the Health Visitor discovered a woman about to be confined without proper nursing and medical attendance, it would be no use for the man to say he was out of work. It would be unnecessary to inquire why he was out of work, whether his unemployment was due to his own inefficiency or to the bankruptcy of his late employer. He would simply be required to be at the Labour Exchange, where he would either be provided with a job or found the means of improving his working capacity while he was waiting for a job. If it were discovered by actual observation of the man’s present behaviour that there was in him a grave moral defect not otherwise remediable, he would have to submit himself, in a detention colony, to a treatment which would be at once curative and deterrent in the old Poor Law sense. It is, in fact, exactly because it has been impossible to grapple with the moral factor by merely relieving destitution that experienced workers among the poor have turned away from the whole conception of a Poor Law and the relief of destitution, in favour of a systematic attempt to prevent the occurrence of destitution.

Resources

Notes and References

  1. Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb, “English Poor Law Policy” (1913), Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Bombay and Calcuta.

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  • Article Name: Problem of Destitution
  • Author: Patricia M. Leopold
  • Description: The Moral Factor in the Problem of Destitution and the Majority Report of the Royal Commission of 1905-1909 In this issue [...]

This entry was last updated: March 31, 2017

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