Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The History of the Poor

“You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me,” Jesus. John 12:8

The poor have always been among us. At one time we were all poor, simple hunter-gathers, relying on the next deer we killed for our meal, and caves, or straw huts for dwellings. But then, Man got smart. Some men got smarter than others.

My mother says of the Great Depression of the 1930s that no one noticed if you wore hand-me-down clothes because everyone (or almost everyone was poor). Everyone was hungry. Everyone was worried. Everyone had lost jobs, houses, apartments. They’d lost everything but hope. Whenever anything went wrong in my life, my mother would tell me, “Never mind. Better days are coming!”

In 1601, the English Parliament passed the Poor Law Act, directing individual parishes (church communities) to administer the “poor rates” or taxes to support the indigent in each locality. In 1552, parish registers of the poor were introduced, establishing an official record of those who fell into the category of “poor.”

The first compulsory local poor law tax was imposed in 1572, making the alleviation of poverty a local responsibility. Some parishes being more generous than others, some vagrants exploited the law. The rate payers (the Tea Partiers of their day) raised objections and in 1662, Parliament passed the Settlement Laws.

In order to have a legal settlement in a parish, a person had to fulfill one or more of the following conditions:

• be born into a parish where the parents had a settlement

• up to 1662, live in a parish for more than three years; after 1662, a person could be removed within 40 days of arrival and after 1691, a person had to give 40 days' notice before moving into a parish

• be hired continually by a settled resident for more than a year and a day (this led to short contracts so people did not get a settlement)

• hold a parish office

• rent property worth more than 10 pounds or pay taxes on a property worth more than 10 pounds per annum (year).

• have married into the parish

• previously have received poor relief in that parish

• have served a full seven-year apprenticeship to a settled resident

After 1662, if a man moved to another parish, he had to provide a Settlement Certificate which guaranteed that his home parish would pay for his 'removal' costs from another parish back to his home parish if he became a claimant on the poor rates. Most parishes were unwilling to issue such certificates so people tended to stay where they lived — and where they knew that if the occasion arose, they could claim on the poor rates without any additional difficulty.

In 1723, an amendment to the Settlement Laws allowed the establishment of workhouses where poor relief would be provided, either by an individual parish or through a collection of parishes which would shared the costs. Parishes had the authority to rent or buy appropriate accommodation. The local justices of the peace (first authorized to raise compulsory funds for the poor in 1563) could also sub-contract the administration of relief to someone who would feed, clothe and house the poor for a weekly rate from the parish. Between 1723 and 1750, about 600 parish workhouses were established in England and Wales.

Anyone who applied for relief would have to enter the workhouse and work in return for relief. Entrance to a workhouse was to serve as a deterrent to irresponsible claims on the poor rates. Only the truly desperate would apply to 'the house'. This principle was adopted under the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act.

In 1776, the first official workhouse data indicated the existence of about 2,000 workhouses, each with between 20 and 50 “residents.” The cost of what was known as indoor relief (as opposed to “outdoor relief”, allowing residents to stay in their own home, but paying for their food and rent – what we call “welfare” today) was highly inefficient management, leading to increased social pressure for more sympathetic treatment of the poor and the passage of Gilbert's Act in 1782 (the formation of parish unions, as mentioned above). This was during a time of high unemployment and crop failures; some speculate that had these measures not taken place, Great Britain would have have suffered a popular revolution similar to the one in France.

Before the Reformation, it was considered to be a religious duty for all Christians to undertake the seven corporeal works of mercy (Matthew 25 vv. 32-46):

• feed the hungry

• give drink to the thirsty

• welcome the stranger

• clothe the naked

• comfort the sick

• visit the prisoner

• bury the dead

Prior to the Reformation, charity was considered part of a Roman Catholic’s obligation. But when the Catholics were driven out by Henry VIII, the government found itself having to assume the role of providing for the poor. One of the principles of the Reformation was that you couldn’t buy your way into heaven through good deeds, such as charity. The English also resented having to answer to the head of a church instead of directly to God (so they made the king/queen of England the head of the church instead…).

For more information on this, you can go to

Faith, hope, and charity. We find ourselves in much the same predicament as Elizabethan and Victorian England (and all the monarchs in between). Most of the Protestant religions and the Catholic Church, of course, disregard the business about buying your way into heaven when it comes to charity. Maybe you can’t buy your way into heaven by helping the poor, but you’ll almost certainly buy a one-way ticket to the “Other Place” if you deliberately ignore them.

The Elizabethan rate payers were suspicious of charlatans. They distrusted those would take advantage of charity, thus they did make life difficult for the poor. In fact when the Justices of the Peace, or Overseers of the Poor, were established, the poor were divided into three categories:

• those who would work but could not: the able-bodied or deserving poor. They were to be given help either through outdoor relief or by being given work in return for a wage.

• those who could work but would not: these were the idle or undeserving poor. They were to be whipped through the streets.

• those who were too old/ill/young to work: these were the impotent or deserving poor. They were to be looked after in almshouses, hospitals, orphanages, or poor houses. Orphans and children of the poor were to be given a trade apprenticeship.

Americans are said to be the most generous people in the world, particularly the wealthiest Americans. Yet, for all their charity, they’re still punished with the highest tax rates in the country. Americans see an entire subset of an able-bodied population that is of that second order, unwilling to work out of vengeance.

They can’t exactly be whipped through the streets. We had made some progress in diminishing the welfare rolls, but now, since Obama took office and the economy has not recovered, the ranks are increasing once again. Business, particularly small businesses, are being taxed right out of the country, seeking cheaper labor and favorable tax rates overseas.

So what is Obama’s answer? The complete takeover and subjugation of every industry. Yeah, that’ll make everything right. He would fain do away with property ownership (rent) and stock ownership (profit). Every man to his right labor, what he earns by the sweat of his brow, and nothing less and nothing more. All excesses would go directly to the government for the fair and equal distribution of wealth to all.

This would also do away with creativity, inventiveness, motivation to produce, succeed, learn, and grow. It would do away with independent thought and opinion. Like the olde English, we’d never leave our environs unless compelled to do so by the government, or if we wanted to, only by their permission could we leave one job, one locale, for another.

Yet he encourages the influx of thousands of illegal aliens over our southern border, at a recessionary time when jobs are going a-begging. Like the English of old, we consider them burdensome invaders who, if not publicly flogged, should at least be sent back from whence they came.

Over the decades, government incompetence and corruption has caused financial crises that overwhelmed religion’s ability to assist the vast numbers of poor that government itself had created through its misguided policies. Now we’re told we must look to the government for all the answers.

Religion has also been sufficiently demonized that the better “educated” congregants who would help support a church’s charitable causes no longer attend church or, in the Liberal camp, even believe in an Almighty being. The young figure the government has already taken over that role, so what’s the point in throwing good money after bad?

God, the Lutherans would tell us, plays by no rules, which are all concocted by man anyway. The rules are for men, not for God, who is perfect. Apparently, Obama believes he’s a god, not a man, that his system is perfect and so he doesn’t believe in playing by the rules either, nor do those would “game” the system, his followers.


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