Posts tagged ‘poverty’

January 28, 2019

Death of a Pauper

Guest blog by Textor

In June 1850 David Wright, chartist, post office messenger, shoemaker, poet and it seems a police informer, raised a legal action in Aberdeen Sheriff Court. As lowly as the local Sheriff Court might have been the radical democrat was in a sense challenging the might of the British state. His beef was with James Wallace, Inspector of Poor for St Nicholas Parish, one of the many men across Britain who had been given the job of relieving, organising and disciplining the country’s poor.

poors house

The poet’s mother Jean Duncan had recently died. Burial clothing, coffin and interment cost her sons 25 shillings. The poet claimed that St Nicholas Parish, in the person of James Wallace, was due to cover the cost of the funeral. It transpired that Jean had been on the city’s poor roll for over ten years which meant she had been entitled to, and received support from the city. For most of her time on the roll she had been eligible for what was called out-door relief: a meagre amount of entitlement was given while she stayed at what was her home; undoubtedly a poor soul in a poor house.

Circumstances changed about March 1849 out-door relief was withdrawn and she was sent to the Poor’s House on Nelson Street. This recently opened institution became home cum prison for women, men and children from across Aberdeen. We don’t know why Jean Duncan decided the Poor House was not for her; more than likely having been forced out of her own home and losing the degree of freedom that went with it she found institutional discipline at Nelson Street too much and perhaps the mix of residents did not suit her. Whatever the case she abandoned the Poor’s House within three weeks. Sadly for her the rules of the game meant Jean was no longer eligible for poor relief. She lost her official designation of “pauper” and with it any help from the parish.

So it was Jean fell back on the little that her family could provide until her death in the summer of 1850. If the unfortunate woman had died a pauper then the cost of burial could have been covered by parish funds although with the Anatomy Act in operation corpses of any “unclaimed” poor dead were made available to city surgeons for dissection. A “guardian” of Old Machar’s poor put it this way – many prejudices in regard to this subject existed in the minds of some people. Easy for this representative of the middle class to say, he was unlikely to have a family member dispatched to the anatomist and then buried in a pauper’s grave. It’s worth bearing in mind that a pauper’s body could lie unclaimed not because a family lacked feeling or consented to anatomising the corpse but simply because the weight of poverty prevented what was seen as a more fitting interment. Poor’s House inmates almost certainly knew and feared the Anatomy Act and this might have been in Jean Duncan’s thoughts when she decide to go back home.

Sheriff William Watson presided over the case. Here was a man of some local and national standing who was behind the introduction of Industrial Schools across Britain; institutions which by removing the poor’s children from the streets cleared the city of juvenile beggars and “delinquents” and at the same time provided a modicum of education along with opportunities to learn trades. Children were fed, and where necessary clothed. And so streets were cleared of troublesome poor, crime was contained and disaffected children were provided with some sense of their worth and place in industrial Britain. Sheriff Watson in other words was sympathetic towards them and hoped to integrate them into the ways of the Victorian world.

However, as much as the Sheriff was keen to alleviate conditions experienced by some of the city’s poor poet David Wright was treated less fortunately than Aberdeen’s ex-delinquents. Poor Inspector James Wallace argued that having left the Poor House Wright’s mother, Jean Duncan, effectively removed herself from the roll and thus ceased to be a pauper though the Inspector’s action seemed to contradict this when he arranged for a physician to visit the ailing women at her son’s house. This might well have been an act of pure charity by Wallace rather than, as Wright argued, an indication that Jean was still seen as under the care of the Poor Law. The poet’s legal agent explained that he and his brothers had pinched themselves and go into debt in their efforts to support their mother. Sympathy was not forthcoming. Inspector Wallace held against the Wright brothers the fact that on their mother’s death the body was not handed over to the Poor’s House. The legal tide favoured authority, more so when the Sheriff was told that David Wright earned 12 shillings per week as Post Office messenger. Watson ruled that regardless of how the men pinched themselves to perform the last offices in doing this they had been doing no more than was their duty and that they had no call on the parish funds.

rowlandson anatomy

Rowlandson’s Dr William Hunter’s Dissecting Room

The foundation stone of Aberdeen’s new Poor’s House had been laid with Masonic ceremony in April 1848. According to merchant Baillie James Forbes it heralded a new morality where poverty was not seen as a crime. Forbes was a liberal free-trade man and well aware that the competitive trade cycles of capitalism meant periods of unemployment for some with consequent poverty; what Forbes characterised as those unavoidable contingencies which necessarily arise from the peculiar structure of society. Unfortunate, but not a crime. As enthusiastic as he was for free-trade the good Baillie had no reluctance in promoting state intervention in management of the poor. How far this was driven by his sense of it being morally correct is a moot point. More certain is that as a Baillie (magistrate) he was alive to the need for mitigation and control of the worst social and political effects of capitalist commerce, especially so with the burgeoning of the town’s working class. He was unperturbed by the provisions of the New Poor Law Act of 1845 which, according to its critics threatened to bankrupt ratepayers and create a utopia for rogues and vagabonds. For Baillie Forbes the Act was the Magna Charta of the poor in Scotland.

Landowners in the County were aghast at the demands which threatened to be placed on their well-filled purses, but rather than admitting their simple greed they argued that the central weakness in compulsory assessment and state-managed poor relief (as opposed to Church and private philanthropy) was that it could only undermine the “natural” morality of the Scottish poor: the principle of self-dependence. In its place, they said, would be an indifference to industry and careful living.

Baillie Forbes would have none of this. He recognised that with proper organisation, sufficient funds and strict discipline the Poor’s House had every opportunity for engrafting industrial habits on “deserving” cases admitted to it. Of course part of engrafting meant the poor were threatened with “indoor” relief; a threat which promoters hoped would ensure the more indolent and profligate able-bodied persons looking for charity dropped off the poor’s roll, in effect forcing them to work for a living.

sheriff watson

Sheriff Watson

The great and the good who gathered that spring day in 1848 could not but be enthusiastic at the prospect of efficient management of an element of the capitalist social world. Positive feelings of Christian benevolence came from the prospect of providing accommodation, medical care and food for the disabled, the infirm elderly, orphans and even for some able-bodied who were willing to submit to the demands of House rules for short periods of time. Beyond this they hoped their social engineering would go some way to create greater stability and safer political world; at least for commercial and professional classes. After laying the foundation stone some sixty “gentlemen” trooped back down King Street to the Town Hall to partake of a splendid entertainment . . .[where] the wines and fruits were of the most recherché and excellent description. This small feast was provided by Baillie Forbes..

The convivial assembly warmed by the philanthropic glow of the occasion and no doubt buoyed by the wine and fruits on offer listened as Provost George Thompson, local shipping magnate, regaled them with his thoughts on the revolutions rocking continental Europe: dynasties that had stood for ages were being overthrown in a day . . . the whole of Europe was in commotion. However, Britain, he declared, had nothing to fear, his homeland was firm and secure. In her sound and well-balanced constitution there was security for the throne, and protection for the lives and liberties of the people.

Of course, liberty and security for the poor was more circumscribed than that available to the men gathered round the table at the Town Hall. Those forced by circumstance to enter the Poor’s House enjoyed the dubious liberty of being able to offer their corpses to anatomists at Marischal College; a freedom which I suspect was seldom exercised by the men fervently toasting the health of Queen and country. Jean Duncan had briefly experience the liberties and benefits of the Poor’s House and was clearly unimpressed. She was accorded the right, however, to take herself to her son’s home and there experience the rechercé of poverty. Poet David Wright, and police informer or not, recognised that freedom was hinged on wealth and property and that the “working bee” – the working man or woman was at the base of the pyramid supporting all exploiters above. As he put it,

Come then arise–for once be wise,
And imitate the bees;
And all unite in Freedom’s fight,
And spoil the sons of ease.

robber barons

November 17, 2018

Size doesn’t matter in the case of successful independent nations – Iceland and Norway

Iceland – a small independent and successful nation has a population the size of Aberdeen. Icelanders mostly enjoy a very high standard of living and, unlike in Britain, there is very little poverty blighting Iceland.

Across the North Sea from Scotland Norway is very similar in size and population. Even the economy is similar except Norway lacks Scotland’s major exports of whisky and prime beef. Norway shares land borders with Sweden, Finland and Russia and succeeds as a very successful independent sovereign country.

July 29, 2015

Grrreat Britain’s fast growing banking sector – the food bank

1% of people in Britain own as much as the 55% poorest. There’s not much new in that statement. The rich have always been rich and the poor – except you have no doubt noticed there are no poor nowadays only the less affluent – those folks who stay in less affluent areas, never poor, never impoverished. Less affluent has a ring of ambiguity about it, less of a value judgement (on society and how the 21st century have thrown up a new class of poor). Terms such as affluent and not-so affluent gets rid of that awkward separation between the rich and the poor.

Poverty has become the phenomenon of our time. That thing which we assumed had been largely eradicated through government action, in the name of all of us, but has not. In fact government action has created the situation that has turned into a national disgrace.

‘Every town should have one,’ remarked the hapless Elmer Fudd.

‘Shame on you’ they shouted at the Elmer Fudd of Scottish politics, MP for Dumfries, Clydesdale and Tweeddale aka Scottish Secretary, as he opened yet another food bank.

You can just see the headlines –

Banking sector is thriving in this age of austerity

And so it is. Food banking sector that is. Post-independence failure that Grrreat Britain just keeps on giving. We have the perfect antidote to those over-stretched welfare purse-strings – charity. Charity doesn’t cost the government anything. What a great wheeze.

Bankers, financial that is, love the free market. Free enterprise is essential to the growth of capital and when growth staggers to a halt there is crisis. But during those golden years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis bankers and their buddies in government were madly, blindly, addictively making it big in the laissez-faire economy and becoming so very, very rich, sorry affluent, they thought the good times would never end.

Private marketeers dazzled by paper profits, not even on paper but numbers on a screen, multiplying before their voracious appetites could be sated until one day the numbers started dropping off those screens and they found themselves in CRISIS (the technical term for shit).

When the in for a penny in for a pound doctrine is brought up sharpish by the realisation that a peril of the free market is success is never guaranteed it is time to call in a favour. There’s nothing so comforting to big business than a lapdog Prime Minister who eagerly tells them he’ll do,

whatever it takes

to dig them out of the shit.

food 5

Brown and Darling emptied their pockets – oops, our pockets and handed over a cool £50bn investment stake to the banksters and an even cooler £500bn in the form of loans and guarantees to restore market confidence ie send out a message to the banksters that they could do whatever they liked as the buck stopped with the British taxpayer. Oh yes, there are times when only nationalisation will do. Now you won’t ever hear that from any of the banksters although that’s what it took to save them from penury and prison.

Cue Alistair Darling:

‘The global economy is spluttering back into life. The Tories would have left it to choke to death.’

Really? So how dead is dead Mr Darling? Apologies it is Lord Darling now that yet another Labour socialist had donned the pelt of a dead animal to signify his importance to the running of the state (albeit through patronage and not the will of the people).

And so the banks were handed a parachute as they hurtled Icarus-like down to earth. Not just any parachute but a golden parachute worth billions to prevent them descending into – less-affluence. And affluence after all is a lifestyle choice.

Grrreat Britain is food bank Britain. This wasn’t what we were promised by the better-together Britainics last September.

1% of people in Britain, let’s call them the smug and rapacious for convenience, own as much as the 55% poorest. This was not the assurance – we were promised good times – wealth, health, happiness and dancing girls and puppy dogs whose tails that never stopped wagging. We were promised chubby little goldfish blowing bubbles and fluffy bunnies – oh, yes we got the bunny equivalent, or as near as, in Elmer Fudd. We were promised raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens, cream coloured ponies and crisp apple streudels if we voted yes to stay in the union of Grrreat Britain and all things red, white and blue.

food 4

I’ll tell you what we got. We got Elmer Fudd and the man who communes with unicorns – the one in charge of sums but not it appears Grrreat Britain’s grrreatest grrrrowth sector. Referrals to food banks in Scotland rose by 63% over the last financial year with scarce as sighting of streudel in any I would wager.

As I have said before, the reasons behind food bank use are complex and varied and every individual case is different. Rightly these important issues are debated regularly in both the UK and Scottish parliaments,

said Elmer Fudd.

Hmm, individual cases – in other words the get out clause of the rabid right, that poverty is a lifestyle choice. Let’s have that figure again – 1% of the population of Britain own as much as 55% of the poorest. That is one helluva statistic where individuals and their varied and complex reasons for boosting food bank use appear to be getting overwhelmed by a tidal wave of what’s that thing again? the thing we were promised would sink Scotland if we voted yes to independence? what is it? Ah, yes, financial ruin.

Actually, actually it is all very simple. Britain is a wealthy country. The wealthiest in the EU and 13th in the world which you might think puts the great into Grrreat Britain but not when wealth is so unevenly distributed. You might think that a fairly wealthy country might be obliged to provide a strong welfare system. Well you’d be wrong.

We hear from the usual suspects in the usual suspect parties that we can’t afford the welfare bill and how austerity is the new sexy politics of choice for Conservative, Labour and the rump of sad, swivel-eyed Liberals who’ve found their natural level in the midden heap of politics.

food 3

Poor people expect to be able to eat food. Shock. Horror.

People living in areas of high unemployment are more likely to use foodbanks. ‘Oh?‘ says Elmer Fudd.

People who have their benefits cut are more likely to use foodbanks. ‘Oh?’ says Elmer Fudd.

Politicians slavering at the prospect of 10% added to an already impressive salary will claim food bank popularity is the result of an argument that runs along the lines of

the more they see it, the more they will use it.

It is a comfort blanket argument. For every 1 per cent cut in welfare spending there is 0.16 percentage rise in emergency food parcels. When a Jobseeker claimant is sanctioned for an infringement of Department of Work and Pensions rules designed to trip him or her up so that his or her benefits can be lawfully cut there is a 0.09 percentage point increase in food parcels.

The UK government does not monitor food bank use possibly because if it did then the sheer scale of impoverishment and need which has become dependent on ad hoc charity would be shown up and be used to attack the freeloading policies of the Department of Work and Pensions.

As it is the government is able to carry on in blissful denial that there is any causal relationship between its inadequate welfare policies and an ever-growing demand for emergency food parcels. The DWP’s driver to reduce the costs of welfare led to an increasing number of sanctions slapped on work-seekers at Jobcentres. For those already on the breadline this makes the difference between eating and not eating. Sanctions, it seems, are deliberately set up to catch out jobseekers – for as minor acts as filling in a form wrongly or being late for an appointment irrespective of the reason. A sanction is not just a slap on the wrist it is the removal of benefit for up to 13 weeks. People suffering from mental health issues are particularly vulnerable to this vindictive policy.

We haven’t always had a welfare state. There was a time, not so long ago when poverty was wholly relieved, to the extent it was, by charitable contributions. It didn’t work very well which is why it was decided that any society worth calling itself society ought to take care of those unable to look after themselves – for reasons complex and varied as Elmer Fudd might say – such as unemployment, illness and accidents. That was then, when Britain was wealthy, runs one argument. Britain is still wealthy. Those who are obscenely wealthy are very determined to hold onto their wealth so it suits them to see poverty as an individual failing – for which society should feel no guilt. Unemployment after all is a result of the market. And the market is always right. Except when it fails the banksters. Then it is the state’s duty to step in, according to the argument.

Unwilling to see poverty as a consequence of the failure of capitalism the average apologist for free trading with a parachute goes into denial mode.

Scroungers. A lifestyle choice. Why should hard-working taxpayers have to support THESE PEOPLE? There are charities for that.

To put it simply. The message from government is – you’re on your own. Happily those who have suffered most in Austerity Britain are not on their own but are being helped by collective action from within their communities.

You can’t just walk into a food bank, you must be referred by some organisation with authority, Citizens Advice, police, Jobcentres. Figures are hazy. A bit like the casualties from the Iraq war – never regarded as important enough to keep a tally.

food

Of all food bank providers the Trussell Trust is the largest. It fed nearly 1.1 million people for three days in 2014-15 from its 445 food banks (up from 56 in 2009). Above this add another 50% or so food banks provided by local communities and other charities including soup kitchens and emergency food providers and you can understand why this banking sector is on the rise.

Elmer Fudd and the government may refuse to accept there is a link between spending cuts, benefit sanctions, unemployment and an increase in use and number of food banks but the BMA does.

The point is ladies and gentlemen, that indifference and selfishness is behind the expansion of the food bank sector. Government reaction to this social crisis is very different from how it approached the financial one, when it stepped in to prevent financial chaos, entirely the fault of the banksters. When it comes to the welfare crisis it is behind the chaos. Central to its welfare cuts policy is that while British institutions have to be supported and preserved individuals may perish.

There’s no nobility in poverty, as someone said and it wasn’t Elmer Fudd.

It’s all about bucks, kid. The rest is conversation.

The rightwing press rails against what is regards as politicising the issue of food banks. They condemn the increasing reliance on them as a phoney reflection of the state of welfare support in this country. It’s nothing to do with poverty levels increasing. Goodness food banks can even be a means for tackling food waste from supermarkets. Nice symmetry that chimes well with deluded views.

Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles for the 1%.  Well you didn’t really believe the rhetoric about safety net Britain (unless you are a bankster) did you? In austerity Britain there are no rules except the rich get more affluent and the less-affluent are definitely poor.

http://www.theguardian.com/business/2008/dec/28/markets-credit-crunch-banking-2008

July 14, 2014

This is today’s UK so don’t tell me we’re better together

Voting yes gives us a chance to establish a different way of approaching society’s problems so that life isn’t made easier for the wealthy and harder for the poor.