Blaming the Poor

The Corn Laws of 1815 aimed to protect the interests of large landowners by restricting the import of foreign grain. As a result, food prices increased significantly and ‘hard-working families’ found they had less surplus income to pay their rent or to buy clothes and other manufactured goods. For the poorest families, more than half of their income could be spent on bread alone. This created a ‘cost of living crisis’ that stifled economic growth and caused unemployment to rise. Thousands of people were forced to turn to to their local parish for support. This meant either ‘outdoor’ relief (i.e. benefits) paid to them in their own homes, or ‘indoor’ relief – the workhouse.

In previous decades, the Old Poor Laws had made a clear distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, with the latter often being whipped through the streets or placed in the stocks for public vilification. Responsibility for the poor fell upon England’s 15,000 parishes, with guardians deciding who should receive support from local ratepayers. But as poverty increased after the introduction of the Corn Laws, there was rising public anger about the growing burden on the parish system and a royal commission was appointed in 1832. The commission was driven by a Malthusian belief that the state was encouraging a growing underclass to breed unchecked. The commission fiddled the statistics to show that the number of able-bodied men receiving relief was much higher than the actual figure. In fact, as now, the overwhelming majority of those seeking help were the elderly, disabled or children, but the commission recommended a new, centralised system of relief for the poor that was enshrined in the Poor Law Reform Act of 1834. This ended outdoor relief for able-bodied people and made the punitive regime of the workhouse a central feature of the system. Being sent to the workhouse was like being sent to prison, so only the most desperate chose to go there.

It was not until 1849 that the Corn Laws were fully repealed. Cheap American and Russian corn flooded into the country and food prices fell significantly. People had more money in their pockets, wages and employment rose and the economy prospered.

This long preamble is to make the point that much of the poverty that existed in the first half of the 19th century had been created by a deliberate act of government policy – the Corn Laws – that were designed to protect rich landowners. Yet it was the victims of this policy – the poor – who were attacked and demonised, rather than the policy itself.

Does this sound familiar? In my view, TV shows like Benefits Street and How to Get a Council House represent a return to this 19th century phenomenon of blaming and shaming the poor for being poor, rather than the system that created their poverty. These shows are often brilliant at highlighting the symptoms of poverty, and I do not believe they deliberately set out to demonise their subjects, but they rarely expose or explain the underlying causes of poverty, and this omission often produces a frenzy of schadenfreude among some viewers, who appear to take pleasure in the misery of others, blaming them for their predicament, rather than the system that created their poverty. Vile comments on social media, led by cheerleaders like Katie Hopkins, are the modern day equivalent of whipping the poor through the streets for being ‘undeserving’ (and top marks to those few housing folk who had the decency and courage to challenge some of these views on Twitter – we need more like them to come forward).

Our ongoing housing crisis is the 21st century equivalent of the Corn Laws. It underpins the ‘cost of living crisis’ and is a principal cause of the growing reliance upon benefits. Yet too many of us treat the housing crisis as if it is an act of nature, like the weather, rather than a man-made crisis. The failure of successive governments to invest in new homes and release enough land for housing has created artificially high house prices and rents, which consume an increasing chunk of people’s incomes and prevent millions of them from living a decent life free from dependency upon benefits, just as the Corn Laws did in the 19th century. As with the Corn Laws, current housing policies are deeply regressive, because, in general, the lower your income, the more you will pay towards your housing costs. Our parliamentarians have caved in to the vested interests that want to preserve high house prices and rents, just as politicians in the first half of the 19th century caved in to the large landowners who wanted to keep the price of grain high.

So what’s to be done? Those who opposed the Corn Laws – notably Richard Cobden and John Bright – got themselves elected to Parliament and travelled the country, spreading the message that protectionism was to blame for the many poor and that a repeal of the Corn Laws would reduce poverty and lead to an increase in trade and prosperity. Every argument under the sun was used to attack their views and they were denounced in the press as extremists, but after years of tireless campaigning their righteous indignation eventually succeeded in persuading the wider public of the sense and morality of their cause and the Corn Laws were repealed. In the long term, their prognosis was completely vindicated.

The history lesson of the Corn Laws is this: bad policies that do harm to large numbers of people can, by human effort, be undone in order to do less harm, but this cannot happen without relentless campaigning and activism. That means that all those involved in housing need to reach out to the widest possible audience, making alliances with anyone who will join the cause, to make the moral, social and financial case for a massive programme of housebuilding, as well as challenging the stigmatisation and prejudice that wraps itself around any discussion of social housing and benefits. Blaming the poor for creating their own predicament is not the answer.

(First published at Inside Housing – 24 April 2014)

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