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The definitions and distinctions which form the matter of this first Essay may, in conjunction with the positions which occupy the succeeding one, serve to fix our notions relative to several points of leading importance in relation to the subject of the Poor Laws: and where they fail of putting an end to differences of opinion, they may still be of use, in placing in a clear light the point on which the difference turns. In a practical view, besides pointing out the most advantageous, if not only, means, they may preserve both time and money from being wasted, in pursuit of ends, either separately unattainable, or collectively repugnant and incompatible.

The proper object of the system of laws, known in this country by the name of the Poor Laws, is to make provision for the relief not of poverty, but of indigence.

The distinction between poverty and indigence is an article of fundamental and primary importance.

Poverty is the state of everyone who, in order to obtain subsistence, is forced to have recourse to labour.

Indigence is the state of him who, being destitute of property (or at least destitute of the species of property necessary to the immediate satisfaction of the particular want by which he happens to be pressed),a is at the same time either unable to labour, or unable, even for labour, to procure the supply of which he happens thus to be in want.

Poverty as above defined is the natural, the primitive, the general, and the unchangeable, lot of man. The condition of persons whose property has placed them in what are termed opulent or easy circumstances, that is, who live upon the permanently recurring produce of labour already in store, is but an exception, which, under the most equal distribution of the stock thus laid up, could never, for any length of time, be very extensive.

As labour is the source of wealth, so is poverty of labour. Banish poverty, you banish wealth: banish all those who, (in the words of the English law of Settlements) are liable to become chargeable, you banish all those who are either disposed or qualified to become pg 4serviceable. If labour is liable to cease, so is property to be destroyed or spent: so that, to clear a district of persons liable to become charge-able, there is one way, and but one, which is to clear it of inhabitants.a

Indigence, therefore, and not poverty (I must repeat it), is the evil, pg 5the removal of which constitutes the proper object of the Poor Laws. To banish poverty, is an attempt founded in inadvertence, and which, in the nature of things, must have either no effect or a bad one. Indigence may be provided for. mendicity may be extirpated: but to extirpate poverty would be to extirpate man.

The natural, and only natural, source of the subsistence of every man who has it not in the shape of property in store, is obviously his own labour, at least in so far as it is adequate to the purpose. Whether in any and what respect this natural and primitive order of things ought, from views of general utility, to be broken in upon, is a question that will meet us in its proper place.

In respect to the degree of ability with regard to labour, compared with the necessary quantum of subsistence, the condition of man is susceptible of four very material distinctions: viz:

  1. 1. Utter inability.a

  2. 2. Inadequate ability.b

  3. 3. Adequate (meaning simply adequate) ability.

  4. 4. Extra-ability.

The sum of the labour that has been exerted is the source of the whole stock of the matter of wealthc (including that of subsistence) that either exists or ever did exist in the world, land in its unimproved state (covered or not covered with water) excepted.

The sum of Extra-ability with regard to labour (viz: so much of it as hath been employed) is the source of so much of that matter as hath been consumed over and above what has been consumed in the shape of necessaries, added to so much of it as remains in store.

Since, after all that has been wasted and destroyed, besides what has been used, of the matter of wealth, after all that has been unproductively employed of the sum of labour, and after all that has been suffered to lie unemployed of the sum of ability with regard to labour, there remains so large a mass of the matter of wealth in store, it follows, that extra-ability is the natural and general state of pg 6man: and that even simply adequate ability, much more inadequate ability and utter inability, form but so many exceptions to the general rule.

The cause of inability may be personal to a man, or exterior to him: it may be within or without him. A man may be able to do work if he had it, but he may be unable to obtain it, or (to come to the point at once) unable to procure what he stands in need of in return for it.

Considered with reference to any particular species of work, inability, when of the personal kind, may result either from want of strength, or from want of skill.

The poor may be stiled independent or dependent, according as they depend or not for their subsistence upon public contributions. When the independent Poor become dependent, it can only be on the score of indigence, real or supposed.

Relief may be distinguished into simple relief and extra-relief. Whatever is over and above the amount of the demand created by indigence may be stiled extra-relief.

The demand created by indigence, can never be said to extend beyond the absolute necessaries of life. For generally speaking the ability of those who are maintained by their own labour, does little more than pass this limit: and beyond it there are no bounds.a

Neither by good nor by ill desert, can any thing be added to, or taken from, the quantum of the demand on the score of indigence.

By good desert, nothing is added. Good desert, to constitute a claim, whether it be upon the public or upon an individual, must exist in the shape of special service: and in that case whatever is adminis-tered in consequence is not relief, but reward.

By ill desert, nothing is taken away. The demand on the score of indigence, extends not (as hath been just observed, and will be made still more manifest) beyond bare subsistence. If, on the ground of ill desert, any thing be taken from the quantum of relief, such reduction pg 7has the effect of punishment: and the exercise of it ought to be governed by the same rules as the infliction of punishment.a


a A man may be proprietor, for example, of the house he lives in, to the value of thirty or forty pounds, besides furniture, cloaths, and tools &c., and yet be at the point of starving, and in that respect in a state of utter indigence.

a The law of Settlements, as it stands in England, (the law giving each man a right to be maintained in case of indigence, in and at the expence of some particular Parish or Parish-like District in which he is said to have his settlement) wears the appearance of having been dictated by the inconsiderate aims above alluded to: but it is only the appearance. The option it had was a perplexing one: to expose itself to this imputation, or to expose every parish in the kingdom to be devoured by vagabonds pouring in upon it in swarms. The efficient causes of title with regard to settlement might perhaps have been better chosen: but such as they were, they produced the effect they aimed at, and that a good one, the giving limits to a burthen which otherwise would have had none.1

Meantime, comes a dictum of Common Law and says, (what Common Law in company with common humanity could hardly avoid saying,) no man. settlement or no settlement, shall be left to starve.2 Between Statute Law and Common Law what follows?—that a man who has a settlement has but one: but that a man who has no settlement, has as many as he pleases. An Englishman is confined to his parish: though the bounds of it be narrower than the Rules of the King's Bench Prison.3 But a Scotchman, an Irishman, a foreigner, an enemy, has the whole country at his command. Were 50,000 French to land at Dover (leaving their provisions at Calais) and apply to the Overseers of Dover parish, the Overseers would be bound to victual them: at least untill the Magistrates of Kent should please, if such should be their pleasure in aid of the Parish, to press the County into the service.

There was needed another option, which was to spread the burthen:—making the whole kingdom, or some large part of it, each man's parish, but how to manage the spreading is another difficulty, for the solution of which, matters at that time of day1 were not ripe. Are they at present?—to try whether they are or no, is among the objects of the present papers.

a Synonymous expressions: Total or absolute inability: utter, total, or absolute want of ability.

b Deficient or defective or insufficient ability: partial inability or want of ability.

c Instead of saying wealth, it becomes necessary to say the matter of wealth, since the use of the word wealth, standing by itself, is confined to the case where a large quantity of any of the matter of which wealth is composed, is considered as being lodged in the same hand.

a The Kings of the earth, despoiled like Lear of their regalities, command our pity:1 but it is not in the power of parishes to give kingdoms.

a [opposite] One man may be a very worthy, good sort of man: but so ought we all to be: and if every man who is so were to bring in his bill for being so, who would there be to pay it?

Another man may be a very worthless fellow: but if he is really so, and can be made out to be so, it must be on account of this or that act of worthlessness, that he has committed. If it be a crime, he will be punished according to the crime: if it be less than a crime, it will be too much to punish him more than a man is ever punished for a crime, even for the highest crime, that is to starve him, to leave him to perish by a slow death.

To both these opposite characters, the text will not be the less applicable, although neither the one be pensioned nor the other starved, Verily, verily, ye have your reward.1

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
1 The notion that each person 'belonged' to a certain parish from which he should seek relief at need was of several centuries standing. As early as 1388 (12 Ric. II. c.7) beggars were directed to return to their parish of birth to be relieved. The Act of 1662 (13 & 14 Car. II, c.12) which established the basis of the law of settlements was an attempt to clarify the question of responsibility to provide relief, and to prevent generous parishes being swamped by itinerant paupers. The Act established forty days' residence in a parish as the criterion of a settlement there, after which the parish became liable to provide relief in case of need, and legalized the removal of potentially chargeable immigrants, with certain exceptions, on complaint from parish officials to Justices of the Peace. Subsequent legislation enacted that the forty-day qualification period did not begin until the immigrant had given written notice to the parish officers of their place of abode, and such notice had been published in the parish church. An Act of 1795 (35 Geo. III, c. 101) made removal illegal until a person actually required relief, although 'rogues, vagabonds and other idle and disorderly persons', as well as unmarried pregnant women, were excluded from this protection.
Editor’s Note
2 The question of responsibility for the maintenance of persons who required relief in parishes other than those where they had their settlement, during a period in which they could not speedily be removed to those parishes, had been addressed directly by 22 Geo. III, c.83, § 38 (1782). This enacted that it was the responsibility of every parish to administer such relief as the demand for it arose, regardless of settlement, and that the costs of such relief should be recoverable subsequently from the parish where the person concerned was possessed of a settlement.
Editor’s Note
3 The King's Bench Prison took its name from the gaols attached to the Court of King's Bench. Affluent prisoners were able to purchase 'freedom of the Rules', that is liberty to come and go unhindered, provided that they remained within three square miles of the prison.
Editor’s Note
1 i.e. in 1662, when the law of settlements was enacted.
Editor’s Note
1 Lear was a legendary King of Britain who, according to Shakespeare's version of the story, in his old age divided his kingdom between his daughters Goneril and Regan, only to be subsequently rejected by them, and harrassed to the point of madness.
Editor’s Note
1 Matthew 6: 16.
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