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The Social and Industrial history of Scotland, from the Union to the present time
Nineteenth Century: 15. Poor Relief

By the beginning of the nineteenth century the right of assessment for the relief of the poor, which the Act of 1579 had conferred on magistrates in burghs and justices :n rural parishes— later transferred to heritors and kirk sessions—was exercised in less than 100 parishes. Relief was given from voluntary church contributions and begging, within certain limitations, was widely recognised as a legitimate means of supplementing these doles. Unlike in England, assessment was the exception, not the rule in Scotland, and the professional beggar was a characteristic figure of social life. The voluntary system which encouraged this state of things was far from ideal. It did not provide adequately for the incapable poor, or for what were termed the "occasional poor," who through lack of employment were, especially in times of distress, unable, though willing, to maintain themselves. For the latter, in fact, there was no legal obligation at all to provide relief. It tended to perpetuate a low standard of life in the begging class, to put a premium on squalor, immorality, and crime. It might be made a success in the hands of a Chalmers, though, as we have noted, it was not a permanent one even in his own parish. It was a palliative rather than a remedy, and the tendency in the first half of the nineteenth century was to substitute for it in an ever increasing number of parishes a compulsory assessment. In 1817 the number of such parishes had risen to 152, in 1839 to 236, the total amount of the assessment being 77,000 odds, whilst the number of persons in receipt of relief, both assessed and voluntary, was 79,429, or about three per cent, of the population. The steady growth of population during this period, the increase in the number of dissenters, who were disqualified from relief from the State Church collections, and the all too frequent distress of the industrial classes resulting from the recurring industrial and commercial depression, forced upon the Government the question of a revision of the Scottish Poor Law, under which heritors and kirk sessions were not legally bound to provide for the relief of able-bodied persons in distress, though they might afford such relief at their own discretion. It was, however, but rarely exercised in favour of such applicants. The Commission found that the funds raised for poor-relief and the amount of relief afforded were in many parishes insufficient. It did not, however, go the length of recommending compulsory assessment in those parishes in which it was not in practice, being evidently reluctant to interfere with use and wont. Rut it advised the establishment of a Board of Supervision at Edinburgh, to which all parochial authorities should be bound to report the numbers and condition of the poor, and the amount of relief given in each parish, and which should have the power to receive complaints and the right of investigation and remonstrance. For the purpose of making these reports and conducting the correspondence with the Board, the authorities of each parish should appoint a salaried clerk. In assessed parishes the ratepayers should receive representation on the parish board, in addition to the heritors and kirk sessions. In burghs containing several parishes, it recommended their union for the purpose of poor-relief under a body of managers elected by the ratepayers. It recommended, but did not render compulsory, the establishment of poorhouses in every parish, or Q union of parishes containing 6000 or 8000 inhabitants, whilst advising the continuance of outdoor relief in cases in which the recipients could be properly cared for. It dealt with the provision of medical relief to the poor, the improved treatment of the insane poor, the maintenance and the education of illegitimate pauper children, the abuse of issuing passes to stranger paupers to enable them to obtain subsistence in the parishes through which they might pass on their way homeward, which encouraged imposition and vagrancy. On the question of applying funds raised by assessment to the relief of the able-bodied poor in times of depression, it decided that this was "neither necessary nor expedient." Finally, it deplored the prevalence of mendicity, and emphasised the necessity of dealing more effectively with this demoralising evil.

These recommendations were embodied in the Act of 1845 for the amendment and better administration of the poor laws in Scotland. As far as it provided an organised machinery in the Board of General Supervision and the elected Parochial Boards, the Act was a distinct advance on the old system. The powers of the Board of Supervision were, however, too limited, and the lack of compulsory assessment for all parishes as well as the limitation of relief to the aged and infirm poor seemed to err on the side of caution. The necessity of a compulsory assessment for the proper working of the Act tended, however, to acclerate the remedy of this defect, and at the end of the first year of its operation the number of assessed parishes had risen to about 450, or more than one-half of the total number in the country. At the end of the second the number had risen to 558, in 1853 to 680, and by 1884 to 827. In 1892 the number of unassessed parishes had fallen to 49, and in 1911 to 4. In 1847 the expenditure for relief and management was 433,915; in 1887 it had risen to 899,135; in 1917 to 1,507,021. In 1884 the number of poorhouses was 61. Whilst the expense of relief has thus tended to rise, the number of paupers, exclusive of dependents, has tended to decrease. From 77,759 in 1871 it fell to about 60,000 in 1891. In 1917 the number was about the same. The average between 1871 and 1917 is, however, from 60,000 to 70,000, and in 1909 it rose as high as 70,428—the highest since 1871. During the war years there was a marked decrease, due to the exigencies of military service and the abundance of employment—the number falling from 66,000 odds in 1914 to 57,000 odds in 1918.

The Act of 1845 was modified by the Local Government Act of 1894, which superseded the Parochial Boards by the Parish Councils, and the Roard of Supervision by the Local Government Board. The Parish Council is elected every three years, and the basis of its administration is still the Act of 1845, with certain modifications in detail. The provision that no able-bodied person, though destitute and unable to find employment, is entitled to relief, still holds. The Old Age Pension Acts (1908 and 1911), by granting a small weekly allowance, recently increased owing to the increased cost of living, has tended, in some measure, to remedy this defect in the case of those whose age renders it difficult or impossible to maintain themselves by their labour. The establishment of Labour Exchanges (1909) to facilitate employment, the Employers' Liability Act (1880), the Workmen's Compensation Act (1906), and the National Insurance Acts against sickness and unemployment (1911-1914), the out of work donation and the superannuation allowance of the Trade Unions have materially contributed to mitigate the destitution resulting from lack of work. The problem cannot, however, be regarded as having attained an adequate solution in virtue of these mitigations, and the demand is being raised for more systematic and adequate State support for the unemployed worker. The Unemployment Insurance Act of 1920 is, in part, the outcome of pressure in this direction. Another sign of dissatisfaction was the appointment of a Royal Commission to investigate once more the working of the Poor Laws and the Relief of Distress. The Commission, which reported in 1909, was unable to come to an unanimous decision. The majority recommended the maintenance of the present system, with modifications intended to remedy what they considered its defects. The minority, on the other hand, advocated its abandonment, and the transference of its powers and functions to other authorities—the care of children to the Education Department, of the sick to the Health Authorities, of the aged to Old Age Committees, etc. In view of this discrepancy, the Government took no special action on their findings, preferring to await the effect of the Old Age Pensions Act, and other relative legislation on pauperism and its incidental evils.

The most effective remedy is to seek to eradicate rather than ameliorate poverty—to attack its causes in order to forestall its effects. The dictum of Dr Chalmers still holds, after all the legislative effort to uproot the evil. "If you wish to combat poverty, combat it in its first elements. If you confine your beneficence to the relief of actual poverty, you do nothing. Dry up, if possible, the springs of poverty, for every attempt to intercept the running stream has totally failed." To do this effectively there must come a change in the present industrial system in the direction of more systematic technical education, and of the principle of co-operation, co-partnership, which would lead not only to greater efficiency and greater production, but to the elimination of the hand-to-mouth system on which too many of the workers are doomed to labour and live. This method is less risky and less problematic than the full-fledged nationalisation of industry, which is the Socialist panacea, but which would involve a financial and social revolution which no war-exhausted country is likely to face, in this generation at least.

However much controversy there may be on the method of dealing with poverty, there is general agreement that prevention, rather than relief, is the only effective remedy. Mere charity, whilst no doubt serviceable if discriminately given, is a system objectionable economically and morally. It tends in far too many cases to sap self-respect and the will to work. Work, not charity, is what the self-respecting and able-bodied man or woman claims, and rightly claims. Every citizen who has fitted himself or herself for a legitimate occupation ought to have the opportunity of earning a living by this occupation, and not be left to the tender mercies of supply and demand. No industrial system, taking the word industrial in the widest sense of all work necessary for the maintenance of a complex society, can be deemed satisfactory which does not tend to serve this end, and mere charity, however well organised, can be no substitute for this social obligation. There are over two million people in the United Kingdom in receipt of poor-relief, costing the nation between 16 and 17 million pounds annually. In Scotland the amount is well over 1| millions. About another 10 millions are devoted to the same object by public and private charity. In Edinburgh alone the sum distributed in charity is nearly 300,000, whilst the sum derived from the poor rate is 95,000. In the United Kingdom there are ordinarily between three and four million people on the verge of destitution. Fully three times this number are estimated to be near, if not below " the poverty line." There is surely something very much at fault with an industrial system that makes this state of things possible, even making allowance for such factors as improvidence and incompetence.

The workhouse system of relief is also now generally condemned. "These institutions," in the judgment of the Royal Commission of 1909, " have a depressing, degrading, and positively injurious effect on the character of all classes of their inmates, tending to unfit them for a life of respectable and independent citizenship. Life in the workhouse does not build character up, it breaks down what little independence and alertness of mind is left. It is too good for the bad, and too bad for the good."

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