Speenhamland system

Last updated

The Speenhamland system was a form of outdoor relief intended to mitigate rural poverty in England and Wales at the end of the 18th century and during the early 19th century. The law was an amendment to the Elizabethan Poor Law. It was created as an indirect result of Britain's involvements in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815). [1] [2] [3]

Contents

Operation

The system was named after a 1795 meeting in Speenhamland, Berkshire, where local magistrates devised the system as a means to alleviate the distress caused by high grain prices. The increase in the price of grain may have occurred as a result of a poor harvest in the years 1795–96, though at the time this was subject to great debate. Many blamed middlemen and hoarders as the ultimate architects of the shortage. [4]

The authorities at Speenhamland approved a means-tested sliding-scale of wage supplements in order to mitigate the worst effects of rural poverty. Families were paid extra to top up wages to a set level according to a table. This level varied according to the number of children and the price of bread. For example, if bread was 1s 2d (14 pence) a loaf, the wages of a family with two children were topped up to 8s 6d (102 pence).

The first formula was set at a time of high prices and possible over-charging, minimum wage inflation was deliberately muted compared to price rises. If bread rose to 1s 8d (20 pence) the wages were topped up to 11s 0d (132 pence). In this quoted example in percentage terms, a 43% price rise led to a 30% wage rise (wages fell from 7.3 to 6.6 loaves).

The immediate impact of paying the poor rate fell on the landowners of the parish concerned. They then sought other means of dealing with the poor, such as the workhouse funded through parish unions. Eventually pressure due to structural poverty caused the introduction of the new Poor Law (1834).

The Speenhamland system appears to have reached its height during the Napoleonic Wars, when it was a means of allaying dangerous discontent among growing numbers of rural poor faced by soaring food prices, and to have died out in the post-war period, except in a few parishes. [5] The system was popular in the south of England. William Pitt the Younger attempted to get the idea passed into legislation but failed. The system was not adopted nationally but was popular in the counties which experienced the Swing Riots during the 1830s.

Criticisms

In 1834, the Report of the Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws 1832 called the Speenhamland System a "universal system of pauperism". The system allowed employers, including farmers and the nascent industrialists of the town, to pay below subsistence wages, because the parish would make up the difference and keep their workers alive. So the workers' low income was unchanged and the poor rate contributors subsidised the farmers.

Thomas Malthus believed a system of supporting the poor would lead to increased population growth rates because the Poor Laws encouraged early marriage and prolific procreation, which would be a problem due to the Malthusian catastrophe (where population growth would exceed food production). [6] Recent scholarly analysis of census data by E. A. Wrigley, and Richard Smith shows that Malthus was mistaken. [7]

Historian Rutger Bregman argues that food production actually grew steadily by a third between 1790 and 1830, though with a smaller section of the populace able to access it due to mechanization, [8] and the population growth that actually happened was due to growing demand for child labour and not Speenhamland. [9]

David Ricardo believed that Speenhamland would create a poverty trap, where the poor would work less, which would make food production fall, in its turn creating the space for a revolution; [10] . However, Bregman argues the poverty that existed back then was not caused by a supposed Speenhamland "poverty trap", as "wage earners were permitted to keep at least part of their allowances when their earnings increased", but instead was the result of price hikes resulting from England returning to the gold standard, a policy Ricardo himself had recommended. [11]

While some scholars believe that social unrest resulted from the system, others believe it was due to the adoption of the gold standard and industrialization, which equally affected all the populace in areas with or without Speenhamland. [12]

This system of poor relief, and others like it, lasted until the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, which prohibited boards of guardians supplementing the wages of full-time workers. This was not always implemented locally as guardians did not want to separate families in workhouses, and it was often cheaper to supplement wages than operate larger workhouses. [13]

Evidence in the last 30 years shows that the bread scale devised during the Speenhamland meeting in 1795 was by no means universal, and that even the system of outdoor relief which found one of its earliest, though not its first, expressions in Speenhamland was not completely widespread. Allowances or supplements to wages were used generally as a temporary measure and the way they operated differed between regions. Mark Blaug's 1960 essay The Myth of the Old Poor Law charged the commissioners of 1834 with largely using the Speenhamland system to vilify the old poor law and create a will for the passage of a new one. However, historians such as Eric Hobsbawm have argued that the old poor law was still damaging by subsidising employers, and heightening dependency of workers' incomes on local aristocrats. [14]

Daniel A. Baugh argues that relief costs did not greatly increase. After the Napoleonic Wars the conditions of employment and subsistence in south-east England underwent a fundamental change. The Speenhamland System did not differ much in consequences from the older system; what mattered was the shape of the poverty problem. [15]

See also

Notes

  1. Hammond, J L; Barbara Hammond (1912). The Village Labourer 1760-1832. London: Longman Green & Co. p. 19.
  2. Karl Polanyi, The great transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1957), p.168
  3. The Speehamland scale read, "When a gallon loaf of bread cost one shilling:... every Poor and Industrious Man should have for his own Support 3s weekly, either produced by his Family's Labour, or an Allowance from the Poor rates, and for the support of wife and every other of his Family 1s 6d.... When the Gallon loaf shall cost 1s 4d then every Poor and Industrious Man shall have 4s Weekly for his own, and 1s and 10d for the Support of every other of his Family. And so on in proportion as the price of bread rises and falls." Quoted by Chris Grover, "Hard Work", History Today , June 2020.
  4. Walter Elder, "Speenhamland Revisited." Social Service Review 38.3 (1964): 294-302 online.
  5. Phillis Deane (1965) The First Industrial Revolution Cambridge: Cambridge Press. p144. ISBN   0-521-29609-9
  6. Bregman, Rutger (5 May 2016). "Nixon's Basic Income Plan". Jacobin . New York. Retrieved 30 October 2018. Another clergyman, Thomas Malthus, drew out Townsend's ideas. In 1798, he described 'the great difficulty' on the road to progress, 'that to me appears insurmountable'. His premise was twofold: (1) humans need food to survive, and (2) the passion between the sexes is ineradicable. Conclusion: population growth will always exceed food production.... But the Speenhamland system apparently encouraged people to marry as fast and procreate as prolifically as possible. Malthus was convinced England was teetering on the brink of a disaster as terrible as the Black Death, which wiped out half the population between 1349 and 1353.
  7. E. A. Wrigley, and Richard Smith, "Malthus and the Poor Law," Historical Journal 63.1 (2020): 33-62.
  8. Bregman, Rutger (5 May 2016). "Nixon's Basic Income Plan". Jacobin . New York. Retrieved 30 October 2018. Fears of declining food production were baseless as well. Agricultural production experienced a steady upward trajectory, increasing by a third between 1790 and 1830. "But while food was more plentiful than ever, a decreasing share of the English population could afford it. Not because they were lazy, but because they were losing the race against the machine.
  9. Bregman, Rutger (5 May 2016). "Nixon's Basic Income Plan". Jacobin . New York. Retrieved 30 October 2018. The population explosion that so worried Malthus was attributable chiefly to the growing demand for child labor, not basic income [i.e., the Speenhamland system].
  10. Bregman, Rutger (5 May 2016). "Nixon's Basic Income Plan". Jacobin . New York. Retrieved 30 October 2018. Economist David Ricardo (a close friend of Malthus) was equally skeptical. He believed basic income [i.e., the Speenhamland system] would create a poverty trap: the poor would work less, causing food production to fall, fanning the flames of a French-style revolution.
  11. Bregman, Rutger (5 May 2016). "Nixon's Basic Income Plan". Jacobin . New York. Retrieved 30 October 2018. Ricardo's analysis was equally faulty. There was no poverty trap in the Speenhamland system: wage earners were permitted to keep at least part of their allowances when their earnings increased. And the rural unrest that so worried Ricardo was actually a result of price hikes caused by England’s return to the gold standard (which he recommended), not basic income [i.e., the Speenhamland system].
  12. Bregman, Rutger (5 May 2016). "Nixon's Basic Income Plan". Jacobin . New York. Retrieved 30 October 2018. Recent scholarship also highlights a mismatch between adoption of the policy and unrest; villages with and without the policy rioted in 1830. All English peasants suffered from the return to the gold standard, along with industrialization in the north and the invention of the threshing machine. Threshers (which separate the wheat from the chaff) destroyed thousands of jobs in one fell swoop, depressing wages and inflating the cost of poor relief.
  13. Grover, Chris (September 2015). "Understanding changes to Tax Credits: historical and policy dimensions of wage supplements in Britain". Lancaster University. Retrieved 26 April 2017.Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  14. E. Hobsbawm and G. Rudé, Captain Swing (1969), pp. 50-51. E McGaughey, "Will Robots Automate Your Job Away? Full Employment, Basic Income, and Economic Democracy" (2018) SSRN, part 3(1)
  15. Daniel A. Baugh, "The cost of poor relief in south-east England, 1790-1834." Economic History Review 28.1 (1975): 50-68 online

Further reading

Related Research Articles

Thomas Robert Malthus British political economist

Thomas Robert Malthus was an English cleric, scholar and influential economist in the fields of political economy and demography.

English Poor Laws

The English Poor Laws were a system of poor relief in England and Wales that developed out of the codification of late-medieval and Tudor-era laws in 1587–1598. The system continued until the modern welfare state emerged after the Second World War.

The iron law of wages is a proposed law of economics that asserts that real wages always tend, in the long run, toward the minimum wage necessary to sustain the life of the worker. The theory was first named by Ferdinand Lassalle in the mid-nineteenth century. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels attribute the doctrine to Lassalle, the idea to Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population, and the terminology to Goethe's "great, eternal iron laws" in Das Göttliche.

Guaranteed minimum income (GMI), also called minimum income, is a social-welfare system that guarantees all citizens or families an income sufficient to live on, provided that certain eligibility conditions are met, typically: citizenship; a means test; and either availability to participate in the labor market, or willingness to perform community services.

Soup kitchen place where food is available at no cost as charity

A soup kitchen, meal center, or food kitchen is a place where food is offered to the hungry usually for free or sometimes at a below-market price. Frequently located in lower-income neighborhoods, soup kitchens are often staffed by volunteer organizations, such as church or community groups. Soup kitchens sometimes obtain food from a food bank for free or at a low price, because they are considered a charity, which makes it easier for them to feed the many people who require their services.

Living wage

A living wage is defined as the minimum income necessary for a worker to meet his or her basic needs. This is not the same as a subsistence wage, which refers to a biological minimum. Needs are defined to include food, housing, and other essential needs such as clothing. The goal of a living wage is to allow a worker to afford a basic but decent standard of living through employment without government subsidies. Due to the flexible nature of the term "needs", there is not one universally accepted measure of what a living wage is and as such it varies by location and household type. A related concept is that of a family wage – one sufficient to not only support oneself, but also to raise a family.

Incomes policies in economics are economy-wide wage and price controls, most commonly instituted as a response to inflation, and usually seeking to establish wages and prices below free market level.

Swing Riots 1830 uprisings by English agricultural workers

The Swing Riots were a widespread uprising in 1830 by agricultural workers in southern and eastern England, in protest at agricultural mechanisation and harsh working conditions. It began with the destruction of threshing machines in the Elham Valley area of East Kent in the summer of 1830, and by early December had spread through the whole of southern England and East Anglia.

Malthusianism Prediction of a forced return to subsistence-level conditions once population growth has outpaced agricultural production

Malthusianism is a controversial economic theory that sees fluctuations in human population as reasons for fluctuations in prices. Its general idea is that population growth is potentially exponential while the growth of the food supply or other resources is linear, which eventually reduces living standards to the point of triggering a population die off. This event, called a Malthusian catastrophe occurs when population growth outpaces agricultural production, causing famine or war, resulting in poverty and depopulation. Such a catastrophe inevitably has the effect of forcing the population to "correct" back to a lower, more easily sustainable level. Malthusianism has been linked to a variety of political and social movements, but almost always refers to advocates of population control.

<i>The Great Transformation</i> (book)

The Great Transformation is a book by Karl Polanyi, a Hungarian-American political economist. First published in 1944 by Farrar & Rinehart, it deals with the social and political upheavals that took place in England during the rise of the market economy. Polanyi contends that the modern market economy and the modern nation-state should be understood not as discrete elements but as the single human invention he calls the "Market Society".

Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 United Kingdom poor relief law

The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 (PLAA) known widely as the New Poor Law, was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom passed by the Whig government of Earl Grey. It completely replaced earlier legislation based on the Poor Law of 1601 and attempted to fundamentally change the poverty relief system in England and Wales. It resulted from the 1832 Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws, which included Edwin Chadwick, John Bird Sumner and Nassau William Senior. Chadwick was dissatisfied with the law that resulted from his report. The Act was passed two years after the 1832 Reform Act extended the franchise to middle class men. Some historians have argued that this was a major factor in the PLAA being passed.

<i>An Essay on the Principle of Population</i> Treatise by Thomas Malthus

The book An Essay on the Principle of Population was first published anonymously in 1798, but the author was soon identified as Thomas Robert Malthus. The book warned of future difficulties, on an interpretation of the population increasing in geometric progression while food production increased in an arithmetic progression, which would leave a difference resulting in the want of food and famine, unless birth rates decreased.

The Roundsman System, in the Elizabethan Poor Law (1601), was a form of organised labour exchange for the poorest labourers by which a parish vestry helped to pay local farmers, households and others to employ such applicants for relief at a rate of headline wages negotiated and set by the parish. It depended not on the services, but on the wants of the applicants: the employers being repaid out of the poor rate all they advanced in wages beyond a very low-wage amount. Variants of the Roundsman system operated and co-existed from parish-to-parish and sometimes depending on type of labour.

Act for the Relief of the Poor 1601 United Kingdom legislation

The Poor Relief Act 1601 was an Act of the Parliament of England. The Act for the Relief of the Poor 1601, popularly known as the Elizabethan Poor Law, "43rd Elizabeth" or the Old Poor Law was passed in 1601 and created a poor law system for England and Wales.

Poor relief British government and ecclesiastical action to relieve poverty

In English and British history, poor relief refers to government and ecclesiastical action to relieve poverty. Over the centuries, various authorities have needed to decide whose poverty deserves relief and also who should bear the cost of helping the poor. Alongside ever-changing attitudes towards poverty, many methods have been attempted to answer these questions. Since the early 16th century legislation on poverty enacted by the English Parliament, poor relief has developed from being little more than a systematic means of punishment into a complex system of government-funded support and protection, especially following the creation in the 1940s of the welfare state.

From the reign of Elizabeth I until the passage of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834 relief of the poor in England was administered on the basis of a Poor Law enacted in 1601. From the start of the nineteenth century the basic concept of providing poor relief was criticised as misguided by leading political economists and in southern agricultural counties the burden of poor-rates was felt to be excessive. Opposition to the Elizabethan Poor Law led to a Royal Commission on poor relief, which recommended that poor relief could not in the short term be abolished; however it should be curtailed, and administered on such terms that none but the desperate would claim it. Relief should only be administered in workhouses, whose inhabitants were to be confined, 'classified' and segregated. The Poor Law Amendment Act allowed these changes to be implemented by a Poor Law Commission largely unaccountable to Parliament. The Act was passed by large majorities in Parliament, but the regime it was intended to bring about was denounced by its critics as (variously) un-Christian, un-English, unconstitutional, and impracticable for the great manufacturing districts of Northern England. The Act itself did not introduce the regime, but introduced a framework by which it might easily be brought in.

Martin Anderson (economist)

Martin Anderson was an economist, policy analyst, author and one of President Ronald Reagan's leading advisors.

The Historiography of the Poor Laws can be said to have passed through three distinct phases. Early historiography was concerned with the deficiencies of the Old Poor Law system, later work can be characterized as an early attempt at revisionism before the writings of Mark Blaug present a truly revisionist analysis of the Poor Law system.

<i>Utopia for Realists</i> Book by Rutger Bregman

Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-hour Workweek is a book by Dutch popular historian Rutger Bregman. It was originally written as articles in Dutch for a virtual journal, De Correspondent and was since compiled and published, and translated into several languages. It offers a critical proposal that it claims is a practical approach to reconstructing modern society to promote a more productive and equitable life based on three core ideas:

Rutger Bregman Dutch journalist, writer and historian

Rutger C. Bregman is a Dutch popular historian and author. He has published four books on history, philosophy, and economics, including Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World, which has been translated into thirty-two languages. His work has been featured in The Washington Post, The Guardian and the BBC. He has been described by The Guardian as the "Dutch wunderkind of new ideas" and by TED Talks as "one of Europe's most prominent young thinkers". His TED Talk, "Poverty Isn't a Lack of Character; It's a Lack of Cash", was chosen by TED curator Chris Anderson as one of the top ten of 2017.