Poverty and the Poor Law
About the time at which the article "Christianity" was presented in a
separate form to the public, Mr. Chalmers issued his pamphlet entitled "The
Influence of Bible Societies upon the Temporal Necessities of the Poor." When
he went to reside in Hawick, a legal assessment for the relief of the poor had
for many years existed in that parish. The mode and results of its operation
were to him a matter of new and most interesting investigation. After his own
settlement at Kilmany, where there were no poor-rates, he instituted a
comparison between the two parishes. As Hawick embraced a considerable
nianufacturing population, it was natural to expect that its pauperism should
be relatively greater than that of a purely agricultural parish; but the rapid
rate at which the amount of the assessment had increased, - so much beyond the
rate of increase of the population, * was
incapable of being accounted for by the occupations in which the people were
engaged. Taking again the same number of paupers in each parish, the
expenditure in Hawick greatly exceeded that in Kilmany; and yet, when the
houses, the food, the clothing, the comforts of each were inspected, the
condition of the latter, instead of being much worse, was found to be much
better than that of the former. Further inquiry satisfied Mr. Chalmers, that
where there were no poor-rates, where the parish bounty was spontaneous,
consisting of the offerings at the church-doors, and distributed by members of
the kirk-session, who knew the position and habits of those to whose wants they
ministered, the sum contributed by public charity constituted but a small
portion of those supplies by which the existing poverty was relieved - the
remaining and larger portion coming from relatives and neighbours. A public
fund, raised not by voluntary subscription, but by legal enforcement, and which
ostensibly charged itself with the full and adequate relief of all the poverty
of a neighbourhood, had the direct effect of cutting off that second and more
copious current of supply.
It was in this way that the Hawick pauper on the whole lost more by the operation of an assessment than he gained by the increase of his allowance. At Kilmany the receiving of parochial aid was felt to be almost a reproach, and it was frequently refused. But Mr. Chalmers noticed, and was much struck with the fact, that when those who, if they had remained in his parish never would have suffered their names to appear in the poor-roll, removed to Dundee, and there became claimants upon the legally-enforced liberality of the public, on their return to Kilmany, exhibited a tone of feeling and line of practice altogether changed.*
It was common enough for those who received aid from a kirk-session administering the free alms of the people, when their circumstances improved, voluntarily to relinquish what had thus been allowed; but such conduct was never exemplified by those who had become paupers at Dundee. Pursuing his inquiries into the condition of the poor, and into their moral feelings and habits as affected by the way in which their wants were relieved, Mr. Chalmers was prepared, so early as the year 1808, publicly to affirmirm " It is in the power of charity to corrupt its object ; it may tempt him to indolence - it may lead him to renounce all dependence upon himself - it may nourish the meanness and depravity of his character - it may lead him to hate exertion, and resign without a sigh the dignity of independence.
It could easily be proved, that if charity were carried to its utmost extent, it would unhinge the constitution of society. It would expel from the land the blessings of industry. Every man would repose on the beneficence of another; every incitement to diligence would be destroyed. The evils of poverty would multiply to such an extent as to be beyond the power of the most unbounded charity to redress them ; and instead of an elysium of love and of plenty, the country would present the nauseating spectacle of sloth and beggary and corruption." Mr. Morton's removal to England suggested a still more striking and instructive comparison than that which bad been I instituted between Hawick and Kilmany. Inoculated with Mr. Chalmers notions as to poor-rates, he settled in a purely agricultural district in Somersetshire; and looking with a- fresh northern eye upon the new state of things in the midst of which he found himself, he had written to his brother-in-law, expressing his astonishment at the magnitude of the English assessments, and his conviction of their prejudicial operation. "You are quite correct in principle as to the poor-rates," Mr. Chalmers wrote to him in reply. "My own parish, consisting of 750 people, is supported at the rate of twenty-four pounds a year. A farther extension of this small fund to thirty pounds a year, by the introduction of the ladle, will be brought about next year; and even this I think scarcely desirable - not that I could not get poverty enough in the parish to absorb it, but that, let you extend this fund as much as you please, the poverty will extend along with it, so as to press as hard upon the supplies as ever. And if ever they come to be augmented to such a degree as to be counted upon by the lower order~ there is an end to that industry and virtuous independence which have so long formed the honourable distinction of our Scottish peasantry.
I spent some months in a parish in Roxburghshire, before I came to Kilmany. The poor-rates had been introduced there from England; and I saw as much poverty and more depravity of character than I hope I shall ever witness in these northern climes. The same population were supported at about six times a greater rate than they are in this neighbourhood. Mr. Malthus theory upon this subject would have carried me even without examples. But it seldom happens that a speculation so apparently paradoxical is so well supported by the most triumphant exemplifica tions." In return for his statistics as to Kilmany, Mr. Morton informed him of the parish of Kingbrompton, in Somersetshire, that its population was just four above that of Kilmany; that, like Kilrnany, it contained a purely rural population; but that its poor-rates, instead of ranging between £20 and £30, had then amounted to £1260 per annum. There could not have been a fairer comparison, or a more instructive contrast nor was it very long till public and effective use was made of it. During the controversy excited by the formation of the Bible Society, it was objected to those parochial associations which Mr. Chalmers sought so zealously to multiply all over the country, that, by absorbing so much of the liberality of the public, they would curtail the funds out of which poverty was to be relieved. It was an objection which touched the very topics on which for years he had been speculating, all his former opinions on which had been mightily reinforced by the new estimate he had been it led to form of the value and virtue of the religious principle.
Leaving to others the public vindication of Bible Associations on their direct merits, he came forward with a pamphlet especially directed to this single topic. Not satisfied with effectively repelling the objections taken to them, by showing that Bible Societies, instead of abridging, did much to stimulate public generosity towards the poor, Mr. Chalmers proceeded to demonstrate that those decried institutions were among the most effective of all instruments for checking poverty and diminishing its amount; whereas many of the institutions for the relief of poverty, which those who cared little for the religious instruction of the people set up in false rivalry, or in misplaced opposition to them, had a tendency to aggravate the very evil which they were instituted to remove. "For what, after all," asks the author of the pamphlet, "is the best method of providing for the secular necessities of the poor? Is it by labouring to meet the necessity after it has occurred, or by labouring to establish a principle and a habit which would go far to prevent its ex istence? If you wish to get rid of a noxious stream, you may first try to intercept it by throwing across a barrier, but in this way you only spread the pestilential water over a greater extent of ground; and when the basin is filled, a stream as copious as before is formed out of its overflow. The most effectual method, were it possible to carry it into accomplishnient, would be to dry up the source. The parallel in a great measure holds. If you wish to extinguish poverty, combat with it in its first elements. If you confine your beneficence to the relief of actual poverty, you do nothing.
Dry up, if possible, the spring of poverty, for any attempt to intercept the running stream has totally failed. The education and religious principle of Scotland have not annihilated pauperism, but they have restrained it to a degree that is almost incredible to our neighbours of the south. They keep down the mischief in its principle; they impart a sobriety and a right sentiment of independence to the character of our peasantry; they operate as a check upon poverty and idleness. The maintenance of parish schools is a burden upon the handed property of Scotland; but it is a cheap defence against the poor-rates, a burden far heavier, and which is aggravating perpetually. The writer of this paper knows of a parish in Fife, the average maintenance of whose poor is defrayed by twenty-four pounds sterling a year, and of a parish of the same population in Somersetshire, where the annual assessment amounts to thirteen hundred pounds sterling.
* * * The hungry expectations of the poor will ever keep pace with the assessments of the wealthy, and their eye will be averted from the exertion of their own industry as the only right source of comfort and independence. It is quite vain to think that positive relief will ever do away the wretchedness of poverty. Carry the relief beyond a certain limit, and you foster the diseased principle which gives birth to poverty.
* * * The remedy against the extension of pauperism does not lie in the liberalities of the rich ; it lies in the hearts and habits of the poor. Plant in their bosoms a principle of independence - give a high tone of delicacy to their characters - teach them to recoil from pauperism as a degradation.
* * *Could we reform the improvident habits of the people, and pour the healthful infusion of Scripture principles into their hearts, it would reduce the existing poverty of the land to a very humble fraction of its present extent. We make bold to say, that, in ordinary times, there is not one-tenth of the pauperism of England due to unavoidable misfortune.
* * * In those districts of Scotland where poor-rates are unknown, the descending avenue which leads to pauperism is powerfully guarded by the stigma which attaches to it. Remove this stigma, and our cottagers, now rich in the possession of contentment and industry, would resign their habits, and crowd into the avenue by thousands. The shame of descending is the powerful stimulus which urges them to a manly contest with the difficulties of their situation, and which bears them through in all the pride of honest independence. Talk of this to the people of the south, and it sounds in their ears like an arcadian story. But there is not a clergyman among us who has not I witnessed the operation of the principle in all its fineness and in all its moral delicacy; and surely a testimony is due to those village heroes who so nobly struggle with the difficulties of pauperism, that they may shun and surmount its degradation."*
In 1727, anterior to the imposition of the assessment, the total expenditure upon the poor in Hawick had been £22, 18s. lOd. In 1889, the assessment had risen to £1009, 9s. 9d. - a sum forty times greater, bestowed upon a population which had not exhibited so much as a threefold increase - See ,Statistical Accounts of Scotland - Roxburgh
* Footnote 2
In the forty years preceding 1884, the population of Dundee had nearly doubled, the assessment had increased from £400 to £2000 per annum; and if, as in the case of Hawick, we knew what it had been before there was any assessment, the rate of increase would appear to be much higher. - See Statistical Ac.
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