Victorian Attitudes Towards Poverty Are Still Dominant Today

Kirsty Jarvis discusses societal attitudes towards people living in poverty.

When researching the social policies of the past, you would be forgiven for seeing them as a world away from the modern welfare systems that we employ today. The poor law and the workhouses that dominated the Victorian approach to poverty are now but a cruel part of our history far removed from the way we treat people in poverty today. Right? The social progress, the campaigns, the lives that have been dedicated to making our world a kinder place did achieve change, but as you know there is still much more work to be done.

Our modern welfare state with its pensions, job seekers allowance, tax credits, housing benefits, disability living allowance or universal credit, to name a few, can give the impression of a vast safety net there to protect those who are at risk of falling into poverty. But this piecemeal system of ‘support’, this safety net designed to protect all of us in times of greatest need, appears to be full of holes. The Coronavirus crisis has brought to the forefront the inadequacy of universal credit in supporting people to sustain themselves. It has also demonstrated that all of us are at risk of falling into poverty.

We have all seen the horrific cases. Stephen smith, aged 64 who had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, extreme pain and osteoarthritis was deemed fit to work by the DWP in 2017. He died two years later weighing just 6st. The investigation into the DWP’s handling of Mr Smiths case found that the DWP followed policy. Errol Graham, aged 57, who had severe mental health issues, died of starvation in 2018 after having his welfare payments stopped for not attending a fit for work meeting. It was the bailiffs that found his body as they went to evict him.

We are led to believe these tragic stories are isolated incidents of individuals falling through the safety net. However, in 2019 May Bulman of the Independent reported that over 17,000 people died waiting for a response to their claim for disability benefit. And it is likely that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The failure of our system isn’t just wholesale cruelty, it’s deadly. How many more people will die after having their welfare payments stopped, cut or rejected? How many more people will die waiting for an answer to their claim for support? How many more people are living life plagued by fear and suffering not knowing when their next meal will come or when the bailiffs will be knocking on their door? Will they still be alive to answer it?

And why is this inhumane welfare negligence allowed to continue?

It is hear that we return to Victorian attitudes towards poverty with the principal of less eligibility. This idea, which was the British governments policy brought in just before the new poor law of 1834, was designed to make the workhouse a deterrent to those seeking support. It was a commonly held belief that the workhouse needed to be unbearable so that those in need of help would only turn to the workhouse in absolutely desperate circumstances.  The workhouse conditions needed to be worse than those that a poor person on the lowest possible wages could survive on outside of the workhouse. It was designed to separate the deserving and undeserving poor. It was designed to weed out the ‘scroungers’.

But whilst the workhouse and the poor law died out in the early 20th century, the ideas of the deserving and undeserving poor did not die out with them. Today we are constantly bombarded with negative images of the welfare subject in TV shows such as ‘Benefits Britain’ or ‘The Great British Benefits Handout’. We hear stories of the family down the road on benefits who just brought a new TV or the single mum having children just to get a council flat and some money. We are led to believe that people who receive welfare are a drain on society, they are scroungers and they are underserving.

This negative social construction of people in poverty ripples throughout our society and, as was shown in the previous examples, has devastating consequences. The people in our society most in need of support are vilified, allowing the government to make the conditions of people receiving support unbearable. Means testing and requiring people who have a disability to prove they are unfit for work is designed to sort the scroungers from the deserving poor. The conditions attached to the job seekers allowance, for example, and the subsequent sanctions which follow the audacity of missing your bus and being late for an appointment, or only looking for a job for 28 hours a week instead of 30, are not so far removed from the Victorian attitude of deterrent.

For the treatment of people in poverty to improve, for people to stop dying from lack of support, the negative discourse and stigmatisation of people in poverty needs to be challenged. It is up to all of us to change it.

Kirsty Jarvis is a 22-year-old Social Policy student working in the adult social care sector with an interest in poverty and welfare.

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