Poverty, Vagrancy, and Criminality: The Problem of the Poor in Public Policy


Source: www.flickr.com

“Are there no prisons?”
Plenty of prisons…
“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
Both very busy, sir…
“Those who are badly off must go there.”
Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

 Poverty means different things to different people. Policies which address poverty in our communities are based on how we measure and understand poverty.  In North America, our policies and laws began in British and European history. By understanding historic perceptions of the poor, we can better understand our policies today.  The way we see the poor in our own community is the way we will see the poor in other countries.


Source: www.media.nationalarchives.gov.uk

Tudor England was especially interested in the poverty problem.  There were so many poor peasants that it was important to keep them happy and avoid unpleasant revolts.  The government divided the poor into three groups: the “helpless poor”, the “able-bodied poor”, and “rogues and vagabonds”.  Rogues and vagabonds were the most dangerous, since they were considered criminals who were most likely to overthrow the government.  Laws were passed which allowed this group to be flogged and put to death if they were caught begging.  Eventually, this third group extended to ‘undesirables’ like Gypsies, Jews, and even Huguenots (French Protestants).


Source: www.vulgarcrowd.wordpress.com

The Poor Relief Act was established in 1662.  This Act made local Parishes responsible for the poor living within their specific jurisdiction.  Anyone who received charity from the church had to have documents which proved they lived in that Parish.  If they could not prove they lived there, they were forced to leave, jailed, or killed.  In short, this made the Church and not the government responsible for the poor.  It also made it possible to keep ‘undesirables’ from settling in England.


Source: www.commons.wikipedia.org

In the early 1800s, people’s ideas about the poor shifted.  Industrial growth was understood as the means to create wealthy nations.  National wealth meant greater power and influence.  Colonial control of places like Africa, South America, India and Asia became more important than ever.  Welfare and care for the poor became an obstacle to achieving National wealth and power.  People like Thomas Malthus (http://bit.ly/29zBmkI) made it clear that the poor were to blame for a country’s failure to grow economically.

Malthus opposed the poor laws of the time, which were established to provide food and money to people in poverty.  He believed that providing food to the poor would only serve to increase the poor populations and that they would live in a “greater degree of misery and vice.  Likewise, higher wages would only encourage the poor to have larger families, which would result in decreased National wealth.  These were the ideas that led to the establishment of debtor’s prisons and workhouses.  It was these ideas that Dickens decried in A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge delivers his famous line about poor houses and the poor…

The ‘misery of the poor’ soon extended to the polluted and dilapidated places the poor had to live in.  These places became linked to disease and death.  These were places of fear – where thieves, cut-throats and murderers stalked the streets.  These were the dark alleyways frequented by “Jack the Ripper” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s fictional Mr. Hyde.  Death, in the form of cholera, diphtheria, and scrofula became synonymous with poverty.  The poor were shunned more than ever!


Despite these perceptions, established ideas of the poor being simply ‘lazy’, ‘criminals’, ‘vagrants’, ‘drunkards’, and ‘simple-minded’ became challenged by the late 1880s.  The Industrial Revolution brought many changes to society.  People who had previously enjoyed relative economic security were becoming unemployed. Perhaps there was more to the poverty problem than a lack of willingness to work and contribute to society…

Important events, such as the Lancashire Cotton Famine (http://bit.ly/29sLURB), a series of violent labour riots in the 1880s, and the growing power of Trade Unions for the working poor forced the authorities to acknowledge that poverty problem was more complex that previously understood.  Lack of viable work, infrastructure, gender, access to legal assistance, and access to adequate health care also played a part in poverty.  If Britain was to continue to grow as a global economic power, it became clear that policy changes were necessary.


“Bloody Sunday, 1887. Source: http://www.wikipedia.com

Some of the policies that came out of this period of English history still shape International Development policies today.  Policies focusing on ‘lifting people out of poverty’ and increasing the economic capacity of women mark many of today’s programs and projects in developing nations.  Even more importantly, poverty was increasingly understood as institutional and spatial issue.  An important contributor to these understandings is Charles Booth.  Next week, I will discuss Booth’s research and mapping project in the late 1800s.  Until next time, this is Spatial Integrity – making the invisible, visible!

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