19 August 2013
Breaking News: homeless vagrants no longer face the death penalty!
This was a headline in Elizabeth I’s reign when the Poor Law was passed. Before this, “houseless poor” could be hung on the gallows for a second offence of vagrancy (after spending 3 days in the stocks for the first offence).
Despite the judgmental names of “vagrants”, “tramps”, “rogues” and “vagabonds” attached to the homeless, the Poor Law was based on a sense of moral responsibility for the poor. The New Poor Law of 1834, however, shifted that sense of social obligation and said that the poor were largely responsible for their own situation so they could change it.
The act of 1834 had no provision for vagrants so they were turned away even from the workhouses. It wasn’t until there were several instances of tramps dying from exposure or starvation that a compromise was reached. They were accommodated in the infectious fever wards of the workhouses and eventually in blocks at the entrance where the conditions were even more basic than the workhouse itself. This was the notorious ‘spike’.
So what is new with all this talk of deserving and undeserving poor, skivers and strivers, fraud and reducing the cost to tax payers? Nothing. Society and governments have hassled with this for centuries and religious organisations, friendly societies, trade unions and charities have supplemented where compassion has been lacking.
The Great Leap Forward happened after the 2nd World War with the advent of the welfare state. Have we forgotten that this was for all of us? The state firmly took responsibility for the economic and social wellbeing of its citizens. This was based on principles of “equality of opportunity, an equitable distribution of wealth and public responsibility for those who can’t meet the minimum”.
Did we grow up as a society? I think not. While healthcare and education among the five foundational pillars of the welfare state (provided for us all, remember) remain extremely popular, the other three pillars – housing, employment and income – have turned again to be viewed judgementally.
Are we really so individualistic that we don’t care about anyone else? Are politicians really being so successful in moving us away from a compassionate and ethical response? A recent united church report (The Lies We Tell Ourselves: Ending Comfortable Myths About Poverty) demonstrates how politicians and the media are complicit in the manipulation of statistics to allow the poor to be blamed for their poverty. Facts and evidence are bent – whilst society’s most disadvantaged become collateral damage.
Truth is complex – homelessness and poverty are complex. Bending the truth and shrugging off the consequences is damaging and destructive. We have all contributed to the problem as manufacturing jobs decrease, meaningful apprenticeships leading to jobs disappear and social housing diminishes and only the gap between the very rich and the very poor increases.
All levels of society have their dishonest ‘shirkers’ (aka gambling bankers and MPs fiddling their expenses). But we seem to have shrunk to blaming those at the “bottom of the pile” for being there – just because we can.
Aren’t we appalled? We have never managed to get our response to poverty right, either as a society or individually, but surely we can do better than we are now. The churches’ report says that all Christians have a moral responsibility to build a more just and a more understanding society. Don’t we all?
Christine Hartley, Service Improvement Manager
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