Everything you need to know about conservative welfare reform

Yesterday Nicholas Gruen asked: What single book is the best introduction to your field your field for lay people? In the field of welfare reform I’d recommend Thomas Fowle’s 1898 book The Poor Law.

Progress comes slowly in social policy. Much of what passes for innovation is really a mixture of folk theory and recycled reform ideas. There are few conservative ‘innovations’ in welfare to work that aren’t anticipated in Fowle’s book.

Fowle’s approach to reform is harsh but at least he’s honest. He freely admits that many 19th century policies were designed to deter claims for relief rather than help recipients become self-sufficient. Where modern conservative writers tend to use euphemisms and rationalisations, Fowle writes forthrightly about ‘repression’, ‘repelling measures’ and ‘punishment’.

Read the following extract and see if there’s anything you recognise:

There remains the larger class of paupers, whose faults, whatever they may be, do not amount to punishable crime. For these the only alternative mode of repression is to make things very uncomfortable for them by strict investigation and close supervision. This is the secret of the celebrated system in vogue at Elberfeld and other German cities, which the author above quoted expressly describes as a substitution for the workhouse test. At Elberfeld, a town of 71,000 population, there are 18 overseers and 252 visitors, one overseer with 14 visitors having charge over each section into which the town is divided, which makes one officer to about every 260 inhabitants. The visitors meet in their sections once a fortnight (the overseer presiding) to report and decide on applications for relief, the conditions of obtaining which are, that the applicant (if able-bodied) should be out of work, should be able to show that he has tried to obtain it, and should be willing to do what work is found for him. But before obtaining it he must answer every question in a "Question Paper," which really seems in our English eyes a kind of instrument of mental torture. It begins (at Leipzig, where there is the same system) with a little homily upon the necessity of candour, obedience, and modesty, and upon the results of pauperism to the recipient. He must give information as to every detail of his life, e.g. his work, change of residence, property, furniture. He must not keep a dog, nor go to a place of public entertainment. He is "constantly," i.e. not less than once a fortnight, looked up by the visitor, and every change is noted and reported. He must declare whether his family leads a moral and honest life, and "specify which members do not." The visitor is expected to reprimand disorderly conduct, to enforce cleanliness and honesty, to warn parents of their duties — especially education — towards their children, and children of theirs — especially reverence — towards their parents. In short, he must "strive to exercise a healthy influence over the moral feelings of the poor."

There can be no doubt as to the efficiency of this system of investigation as a repressive measure. In 1852 the number of paupers at Elberfeld was estimated at 4000 in a population of 50,000, or about 1 in 12. In 1873 it was 1863 in a population of 71,000, or about 1 in 38. But it is somewhat ominous that, as in the case of our own country, a reaction set in, and there were in 1873 800 more paupers than in 1869; the increase in population is, however, not stated for any year later than 1869, and the growth of pauperism is in part set down to the late Franco-German war. But, under any circumstances, the results are much the same as in the best English Unions (p 50 – 52).

Fowle discusses work for the dole schemes (p 82 – 83), measures to promote school attendance and vaccination (p 52) and in work support (p 71). Like today’s reformers he studies overseas policies to find new ideas and make comparisons.

After reading Fowle, an intelligent layperson will have absorbed all the essentials of conservative welfare reform. While they might enjoy reading the work of recent writers like Lawrence Mead, Robert Rector and Heather Mac Donald, they won’t learn much that’s new.


The Poor Law by T. W. Fowle is available online from Archive.org.

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