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Poverty and the Poor in Britain

Jeremy Seabrook

(London Times)

This is a beautifully written book that suggests that our current debates about welfare dependency and entitlements are nothing new: the Elizabethans faced surprisingly similar dilemmas.

Jeremy Seabrook traces perceptions of the poor over four centuries, and how the authorities have alternated between severity and leniency. He also uses his 50 years’ experience as a social worker and researcher to pen poignant descriptions of the realities of being poor in modern Britain

This is not a dry history. ­Seabrook weaves passionate prose, shot through with rage. He argues that no policies have eradicated poverty. He believes that elites throughout history have used the poor to support their own particular ideologies. He remarks that one of the post-rationalisations for the destruction of the monasteries was that they had sheltered the indolent and feckless, who had insinuated themselves into the ­company of widows and orphans in genuine need.

Modern attempts to distinguish the “deserving” from the “undeserving” poor (the “strivers” from the “shirkers”) have a history that dates back to the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601. This law aimed to assist the genuinely needy, and to make able-bodied men and women work in return for help, rather than rely on handouts. The workhouse was a symbol of that idea.

As the 17th century progressed, there was increasing disquiet about the behaviour of paupers and their growing numbers, which John Locke attributed to “the relaxation of discipline and the corruption of manners”. As responses became more punitive, workhouse conditions grew more desperate. Towards the end of the 18th century, a majority of children in workhouses were dying before their sixth birthdays. This was so shocking to decent people that the pendulum swung back towards a kinder regime. In a striking echo of today’s debates about tax credits and the living wage, parishes started topping up pay for labourers. These wages were raised when the price of bread rose, and every time a man had a child. The problem was that this created perverse incentives. The payment of one ­shilling and sixpence per child per week was an incentive to have more children, some out of wedlock. And farmers who knew that wages would be topped up were likely to pay less. This is a charge that has been levelled at modern employers ever since Gordon Brown started paying tax credits to ­millions of workers to top up their incomes. By 1834 there was a furious clamour about the unfairness of the policy. Independent labourers complained that they were less well off than those who relied on the parish, with their wives wishing openly that they would “go on the parish” rather than work for themselves. So the pendulum swung back again. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 restricted relief to able-bodied people only if they endured conditions “less eligible” than those of the poorest independent labourer. This is an idea not dissimilar to the coalition’s policy of capping benefits at the average wage; although Seabrook makes almost no comment on current policies.

Seabrook presents the advent of the modern welfare state, ushered in by the 1948 National Assistance Act, as a high point for the poor. But it did not take long, he says, for the same old concerns to be raised again. Welfare made people dependent, it entrenched idleness, it rewarded profligacy — and so on.

Despite centuries of attempts to punish, rehabilitate or cajole the “undeserving poor”, whom Marx called “social scum” and whom Jeremy Bentham referred to as “the refuse of the population”, they are still with us. “They continue their relentless march through time,” says ­Seabrook, “unabashed and indifferent to the fury of politicians and the odium of the public.”

At the heart of the book is a passionate denunciation of capitalism, which Seabrook sees as a relentless wheel dedicated to keeping people striving to produce and acquire more material goods: “The poor are essential to the doctrines of wealth-creationism. For without their spectral presence, we might be in danger of declaring ourselves satisfied with what we have, a calamity not to be borne by the boundless expansionism of capital.”

But while it is undoubtedly true that modern inequality can leave even middle-income people chronically dissatisfied, ­Seabrook’s arguments are weakened for me by his failure to acknowledge that the desire to compete runs deep in human nature. The “equality” of Soviet Russia did not leave people measurably happier.

Even if you find this frustrating, it does not detract from the power of his writing about modern poverty, which he acknowledges is quite different from poverty in a world of scarcity, but is devastating in a different way. Today’s poor “do not live a life apart, or inhabit a separate culture from the rich, but live out a debased version of that culture”. This means “rag rugs on scuffed linoleum…relationships disposable as the foil containers of take­away meals”.

Seabrook offers little in the way of policy solutions. He would like society to compensate those who are stuck in dead-end, repetitive or humiliating jobs. The book doesn’t make a convincing case for abolishing capitalism. But it is a powerful plea for better understanding and humanity.

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