The moral beliefs that drove both the harsh treatment of vagrants in the 16th century and the unintended cruelty of the Victorian workhouse system persist to this day.
The idea that “work must pay” encourages politicians to make claiming benefits extremely difficult for the unemployed and – more worryingly – for those who are unable to work due to illness or infirmity, just as in Victorian times, workhouse conditions were made deliberately harsh to discourage people from entering them.
Politicians castigate “generational worklessness”, promoting the idea that a tendency to worklessness is somehow inherited, passed on from parents to children. It was this idea that led to the brutal separation of families in the workhouses.
Above all, there remains a strong belief in the moral virtue of work. Work is indeed important for human dignity, so making it possible for people to work is important: but in what way mind-numbingly boring, pointless and demeaning work is dignifying and virtuous is hard to imagine. Nonetheless, the idea that people should be forced to do basic work to “earn” their benefits – even if their time might be better spent looking for a job that actually uses their skills - is electorally popular. Underlying this lies the unwarranted assumption that all jobs are intrinsically of value and therefore anyone who turns down work because it is poorly paid, socially useless and utterly boring is lazy. It was this idea that led to workhouse inmates being forced to work long hours in dreary, pointless jobs. Today, we impose benefit sanctions on people who turn down the dreary, pointless jobs we assign to them in the name of “work experience”. Giving it a different name doesn't change its nature. It's the workhouse work ethic all over again.
It is perhaps understandable that we feel angry when we see people we think should be working but aren't. And it is also understandable that when times are hard, we resent paying benefits to those we feel don't deserve them. I suppose the anger that we feel towards those we regard as “scroungers” and “shirkers” will never go away. But categorising the poor is not only difficult – it is harmful, not to the shirkers and scroungers, but to the genuinely deserving. And it is also economically damaging for society as a whole.
|The Workhouse. Image via Workhouses.org|