IN THE SHADOW OF SPEENHAMLAND: SOCIAL POLICY AND THE
OLD POOR LAW
August 14, 2001
Fred Block *
Department of Sociology
University of California, Davis
Department of Sociology
University of Michigan
Word count: 15, 571
* The ordering of names indicates equal responsibility. Valuable research assistance has been provided by Jane Rafferty, Michael Flota, Rene Poitevin, Dan Schinnerer and Dan Samson. Colleagues at U.C. Davis--Greg Clark, Norma Landau and Peter Lindert-- have been very generous in providing data, references, and feedback on earlier formulations of these arguments. Karl Widerquist provided references on the recent Canadian case. Frances Fox Piven provided valuable feedback on an earlier draft. An earlier version was presented to the US Basic Income Group in New York City in November 2000. Support for this research was received from the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California.
IN THE SHADOW OF SPEENHAMLAND: SOCIAL POLICY AND THE OLD POOR LAW
“Speenhamland” is not a well known sociological term. Those who are familiar with the reference are most likely to have read about it in Karl Polanyi’s account of the English Poor Laws in his classic work, The Great Transformation. But even most of those who are familiar with the reference would be astonished to learn that Speenhamland has had a very real impact on social policy debates in England and the U.S. for two full centuries. In the twentieth century, this impact has generally occurred “under the radar” of newspaper accounts and explicit political debate. But there have been a few occasions when this term from social history has made an appearance in the daily newspaper or in the highest government councils.
One such incident occurred in the United States during the Nixon Administration when Daniel Patrick Moynihan developed his Family Assistance Plan that had features of a guaranteed annual income. As Moynihan (1973, p. 179). recalled:
"In mid-April Martin Anderson, of [Arthur] Burns's staff, prepared 'A Short History of a "Family Security System"' in the form of excerpts on the history of the Speenhamland system, the late eighteenth-century British scheme of poor relief taken from Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation."
The gist of Anderson's memo was that in that earlier historical case, the intended floor under the income of poor families actually operated as a ceiling on earned income with the consequence that the poor were further immiserated. Anderson worried that Moynihan's income floor might inadvertently produce the same unintended consequence. Anderson’s memo was sufficiently powerful that Nixon asked Moynihan to investigate the accuracy of Polanyi’s historical analysis. Moynihan’s staff went scurrying off to investigate the views of contemporary historians on this question. To be sure, the Family Assistance Plan was ultimately defeated in the United States Senate, but only after Richard Nixon had a serious conversation about the work of Karl Polanyi.
Canada had a similar episode more recently. In December 2000, newly reelected Prime Minister Jean Chretien floated as a trial balloon the idea of a comprehensive anti-poverty program based on a guaranteed annual income for all Canadians. A flurry of press reports followed including the following analysis by a writer in the National Post :
"The first enactment of a guaranteed annual income may have been in 1795 in England, where the Speenhamland system extended subsidies for the infirm to include able-bodied workers....The system revealed the challenge inherent in designing such a policy; the supplement served as a subsidy that allowed employers to hire workers at below-subsistence wages, and allowed landlords to raise rents. Meanwhile, some workers found themselves better off collecting benefits than working." (Chwialkowska 2000)
In both of these cases, the Speenhamland story in which an income floor was inadvertently transformed into an income ceiling served as a powerful cautionary tale against governmental initiatives to establish a guaranteed annual income.
The same argument has frequently been repeated by progressive thinkers in current debates over the desirability of establishing a universal basic income for all citizens.1 Analysts who favor using state action to improve the situation of the poor question whether a well intentioned minimum income would follow the Speenhamland precedent and become a maximum income (Bluestone and Ghilarducci 1996, Howell 1997, Clement 2000). The appearance of this argument would be reason enough to revisit the actual history of Speenhamland. But there is a second and equally powerful justification for focusing on this historical episode. Conservative critics of welfare in the United States in the period from 1978 to 1996, formulated their criticisms of the main Federal welfare program--Aid to Families with Dependent Children--in precisely the same terms that English critics of Speenhamland had used in the first decades of the 19th century. The parallels in these arguments has been recognized by Albert Hirschman (1991) in his analysis of perversity as one of the three "rhetorics of reaction" (See also Reekie 1998, Persky 1997). The core of the perversity thesis is that well-intentioned policies that provide assistance to the poor by means of state intervention will inevitably harm recipients by substituting perverse incentives in place of the market mechanisms that teach the poor to work hard and exercise sexual restraint.
A number of these conservative critics of AFDC were completely self-conscious about the parallels between Speenhamland and AFDC. The same Martin Anderson who wrote the memo in the Nixon White House published Welfare (1978) which was one of the first conservative scholarly attacks on AFDC. Anderson quoted Polanyi's account of Speenhamland at length to argue against both income guarantees and programs like AFDC. In 1984, the neoconservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb published her influential study, The Idea of Poverty , in which she carefully recounted the criticisms of the Speenhamland system advanced by Malthus, Burke, de Tocqueville and others. Moreover, she subsequently published a series of articles and books that explicitly drew the parallels between the dire consequences of the English welfare system in the Speenhamland period and the negative consequences of AFDC. Marvin Olasky, a policy intellectual who has been a major advisor both to Newt Gingrich and President George W. Bush, published an influential book called, The Tragedy of American Compassion (1992), whose title encapsulated his restatement of early nineteenth century critiques of Poor Law assistance.
There is little question that these self-conscious efforts to mobilize perversity rhetoric against AFDC had an appreciable effect on both elite and public opinion (Weaver 2000) and contributed to the passage in 1996 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act that ended the longstanding entitlement of poor families to assistance. While there were few explicit references to Speenhamland in the public debate, it is still fair to say that our recent welfare legislation was passed in the shadow of Speenhamland because that historical episode loomed so large in the thinking of contemporary conservative policy intellectuals.
It is common for sociologists to complain that public policy is made with insufficient attention to history and social theory. In this paper, however, our argument is that for both discussions of guaranteed incomes and welfare policy, a particular and basically incorrect reading of social history has been given far too much weight by policymakers and policy intellectuals. This is particularly the case because over the last forty years, economic and social historians have
produced a large and impressive literature that has reanalyzed the English Poor Law in general and the Speenhamland period in particular (Blaug 1963 and 1964, Baugh 1975, Marshall 1985, Snell 1985, Boyer 1990, Sokoll 1993, Lees 1998, King 2000). Yet most of this literature is unknown to social scientists and its findings about the Poor Law have had little impact on social policy debates. To be sure, this literature does not speak with one voice and many important issues of historical interpretation continue to be debated.
In this paper, therefore, we intend to do two things. First, we propose to rethink and retell the story of Speenhamland. This means, fundamentally, showing how the findings of recent studies in social and economic history undermine the Speenhamland stories that have been deployed in social policy debates. But this involves more than simply reporting other scholars’ results; we are offering our own analyses of some of the important remaining puzzles in this literature.
Second, we are making a contribution to the history of social theory. One of Polanyi’s (2001, ch. 10) fundamental arguments was that Classical Political Economy was constructed during the Speenhamland epoch and the peculiar dynamics of that period were built into the foundations of how economists think. Our project is to build on that insight by showing how and why stories about the Speenhamland period have persisted for so long. Moreover, we offer our
own narrative that both makes sense of recent historical findings and helps to explain the centrality of the Speenhamland story to the rise of Classical Political Economy.
THE COMPLEXITIES AND UNCERTAINTIES OF SPEENHAMLAND AND THE OLD
The Speenhamland story was born in Berkshire County, England, when the county squires decreed in May 1795 that the poor should be entitled to a specific quantity of assistance depending upon the price of bread and the size of the family; it is often called aid_in_wages because when the gap between wages and the price of bread widened beyond a certain level the parish used tax_payer moneys to supplement the wages of workers and their families (Polanyi 2001 , ch. 7; Webb and Webb 1927, pp. 168-189) . As the program spread (although it is a subject of debate as to just how widely practiced it was) among England's parishes, it generated controversy. It was perceived by critics that all precedent had been violated by providing relief not just to the infirm, the aged or the dependent, but also to the"able_bodied". These criticisms were further fueled by the dramatic increase in local poor rates (taxes) and by the findings of several Parliamentary Commissions that played a considerable role in shaping public opinion. The most important of these was the Royal Commission Report of 18342 that issued a devastating indictment of Speenhamland and created irresistible pressure for the New Poor Law passed later in the same year. Based on what we now know to be a nonsystematic and ideologically_driven method of collecting answers to a Parliamentary survey questionnaire , the published report confirmed what was widely suspected (Blaug 1963 and 1964, Marshall 1985). Speenhamland (and the Old Poor Law more generally) were wrong_headed intrusions of state power into self_regulating laws of market exchange; as such they were perversions of nature. Speenhamland, in short, perversely led to increasing__not decreasing__pauperization. Exponential increases in childbirth and illegitimacy, declining wages and productivity, assaults on public morality and personal responsibility, and the development of a culture of indolence were only some of the effects attributed to Speenhamland.
The narrative created by the Royal Commissioners had legs. For generations of free market theorists, Speenhamland signaled an era of profligate welfare assistance to the "undeserving" able_bodied poor; for them, it is the paradigmatic case of a well_intentioned social policy producing perverse consequences_the further impoverishment of the intended beneficiaries. Leftist critics of unfettered market allocation have had their own version of the Speenhamland story, although the nature of the specter has been different and it has had more limited impact on social policy. Placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of employers rather than the poor themselves, the left version interprets Speenhamland as a valiant early attempt to establish a guaranteed annual income in the face of unprecedented levels of harvest failures, food scarcity, and ravaging inflation. Its purpose was to place a floor under the income of poor households and it might well have achieved this result, but reductions of wages by employers transformed the floor into a ceiling (Polanyi 2001 ).
To make sense of these stories, Speenhanland has to be understood in the context of England’s long and unique Poor Law history (Solar 1995, Lindert1998) . Although initial practices date to the late 13th century, the famous 1597 and 1601 Elizabethan Tudor statute was the most important of the English Poor Law legislation. Known familiarly as "the 43rd of Elizabeth," the law established an obligation at the local level to assist those who were impoverished as a consequence of illness, infirmity, family breakdown, or temporary unemployment. There was much variation in actual Poor Law practices as parishes experimented with a variety of different policies designed to protect the poor while maintaining work incentives (Marshall 1926, Webb and Webb 1927). Moreover, there was also considerable variation over time within parishes; efforts to find the right policy mix at the local level sometimes produced alternating periods of greater generosity and greater stinginess (Thomson 1991).
Some degree of controversy over the Poor Laws existed from their inception, but it was in the last years of the 18th century that debate intensified with calls for the complete abolition of all "outdoor"--outside the workhouse--relief. Much of the blame for this shift in attitudes is generally placed on the rapidly rising cost of maintaining parish relief in this period. Per capita poor relief outlays are estimated to have doubled between 1749 and 1801 (Lindert 1998; Marshall 1985).
Considerable uncertainty about these rising expenditures remains to this day because of the sheer empirical difficulty of understanding a highly decentralized system of social welfare in which critical decisions were made by local parish officials. We have data on the total poor law outlays of 15,000 parishes in England for selected years from 1802 to 1834, but we do not know precisely how the expenditures were divided among assistance to the vulnerable populations-- the elderly, the sick, orphans, and unwed mothers, support for local poorhouses, and various forms of outdoor relief, including assistance to the able bodied poor. In some parishes, detailed registries of all outlays have survived, but it is often difficult for historians to reconstruct the particular rules under ich a specific individual was given 6 shillings each week (Sokoll 1993, King 2000). Moreover, even after two centuries, historians have closely analyzed the surviving records of a relatively small number of parishes. There were some periodic parliamentary surveys that sought to find out about local relief policies, but generally responses were received from only a small fraction of all parishes and it is difficult to know if the responses are representative (Williams 1981).
It is clear, however, that the sharp rise in poor law expenditures was largely a regional phenomenon--focusing on Southeastern England, both the wheat-growing areas and the pastoral areas where both rural and cottage industries were in decline.3 In the cities, it is believed that poor relief for the able bodied was rare, except for periods of acute unemployment or abrupt increases in the price of bread (on London, see Sharpe 1997; Steinberg 1999). In the North, the combination of sheep and cattle pasturage, a tradition of small-owner cottage industry and rapidly growing urban industry meant that per capita poor relief outlays were far lower than in the South (Somers 1993, King 2000) . These regional differences were magnified by the greater seasonality in the demand for labor that was characteristic of the wheat producing areas, especially as alternative income sources began to dry up (Berg 1985, Valenze 1995).
But if we focus on the Southeastern parts of England, there is a second dimension of empirical complexity. During the Speenhamland period--1795 to 1834-- parishes experimented with a broad array of different ways of distributing relief that can be expected to have quite varying consequences. In fact, the range of measures closely resembles the repertoire of relief policies that are still debated 200 years later. And because of the decentralization of administration, we lack definitive information on how widely each of these particular practices was employed. These policies are listed by their modern names–when available–in Table 1.
(Table 1 here)
One of the recurrent problems in the literature is that analysts will group a number of these distinct policies under one heading and proceed as though all the methods can be expected to have the same consequences. For example, "the allowance system" or "aid-in-wages" are often used to cover the first six different policies. As we will see, these disaggregation problems contribute to the difficulties in developing a clear understanding of Speenhamland.
A third empirical complexity results from the rapid change in prices that occurs across the Speenhamland period. The first half of the period coincides with the Napoleonic Wars that produced an extremely sharp increase in price levels, particularly for wheat--the dietary staple of both the rural and urban working classes. From 1813 on, as the war winds down, there is a sharp fall in price levels that continues beyond 1834. (Figure 1 and Table 2 here) These dramatic shifts in price levels were deeply confusing to contemporaries; they lacked both the vocabulary and the methodology for assessing the actual impact of these price changes on people's standard of living. As a consequence, the debate among economic historians as to what was actually happening to real wage levels during this period has continued down to the present moment.
A final empirical complexity may well be the most serious. In all of the official investigations of the problems of poor relief and rural poverty, including the momentous 1834 Royal Commission investigation, it is extremely rare that an actual recipient of poor relief would ever be questioned. Hence, the testimony of recipients is not available to counter or compare against the extensive reports from local elites, many of which do not hesitate to make broad generalizations about the behavior, motivation, and mental states of the recipient population. Fortunately, historians have recently begun to mine letters and petitions from the rural poor to create a more holistic view of the system of poor relief (Taylor 1992, G. Smith 1993, 1997, King 1997).
Common Sources of the Two Speenhamland Stories
Both Speenhamland stories share a common ending; the rural poor suffered from falling real wages, increased idleness, and moral catastrophe as Speenhamland's contradictory logic took effect. The source of this shared ending is the Royal Commissioners Report of 1834 that insisted that the Old Poor Law had produced an economic and moral crisis in the countryside as more and more households had become dependent on government relief. While the authors of the Report were themselves strong believers in economic liberalism and the value of unimpeded labor markets, their empirical conclusions were accepted as accurate by some of their most important theoretical opponents.
Marx and Engels basically accepted the accuracy of the Royal Commission report, although their specific references to Speenhamland are brief. Engels wrote in The Condition of the English Working Class (, 1958, p. 297):
As long as the old Poor Law survived it was possible to supplement the low wages of the farm labourers from the rates. This, however, inevitably led to further wage reductions since the farmers naturally wanted as much as possible of the cost of maintaining their workers to be borne by the Poor Law. The burden of the poor rates would, in any case, have increased with the rise in population. The policy of supplementing agricultural wages, of course, greatly aggravated the position."
In Capital, Marx (1930, pp. 662) wrote:
"At the end of the eighteenth century and during the first decade of the nineteenth, the English farmers and landlords enforced the absolute minimum of wages by paying the agricultural labourers less than the minimum as actual wages and making up the balance in the form of parish relief.”
It is not difficult to explain why Marx and Engels took this position: widespread degradation of the rural poor fit the logic of their broad theory of capitalist development. Both enclosures and the Poor Law were part of the process of "primitive accumulation" by which wealth was extracted from the rural poor in order to help finance industrial investment. Moreover, Engels was writing on the English working class, a full decade after the militant working class protests that had been engendered by the 1834 New Poor Law. Neither, he nor Marx felt constrained to endorse the working class' militant opposition to the New Poor Law (On the anti-poor law movement, see Rose 1970, Edsall 1971, Knott 1986).
. But Marx and Engels’ decision to ignore the working class defense of the Old Poor Law had unfortunate consequences. Given their political and intellectual authority, the view that the Poor Law between 1795 and 1834 played a critical role in immiseratiing the rural working class gained a credibility that lasted for more than a century. Subsequent historians writing from a perspective critical of capitalism followed their lead. W. Hasbach, a scholar of the German Historical School, published his important study in German in 1894 and in English translation in 1908. He was followed by J. L. and Barbara Hammond ( 1966, ch.7), Sidney and Beatrice Webb (1927, pp.168-189) , Karl Polanyi (2001 , chs. 7-8), and E.J. Hobsbawm and George Rude (1969, ch. 2 ) all of whom concurred in seeing the Poor Law as a factor in rural impoverishment.
Yet the Royal Commission Report did not completely escape criticism. The document was broadly denounced by the rural and urban poor who mobilized extensively against the 1834 New Poor Law. Criticism continued in the writings of J.R. McCulloch , an important classical economist (1845, p. 290) who called into question the objectivity of the investigation. It continued in the 20th century in R.H. Tawney's reference to "that brilliant, influential, and wildly unhistorical report" (cited in Webb and Webb  1963, p.84) . Ironically, the most elaborate criticism was offered by the Webbs in Part II of their Poor Law History. The Webbs note that the Royal Commission:
"was not an inquiry into the prevalence and cause of destituion: for the "poverty of the poor" was at that time deemed to be both explained and justified by the current assumptions underlying the Malthusian "Law of Population" and the economists' "Theory of the Wage Fund." Webb and Webb  1963, p.83)
In other words, the Commissioners neglected all structural sources of poverty because they had already embraced theories that explained poverty by Malthusian and Ricardian mechanisms. But the power of the Webb' criticism is ultimately vitiated because they accepted the accuracy of the Report's central finding--that the allowance system was destructive.
"The active members of the Commission....started with an overwhelming intellectual prepossession, and they made only the very smallest effort to free their investigations and reports from bias--a defect in their work which is not to be excused merely ecause we are to-day inclined to believe, as they were themselves complacently assured, that their prepossessions against the Rate in Aid of Wages was substantially right. (Webb and Webb  1963, pp. 86-88)
Moreover, the Webbs helped to perpetuate the image of the investigation as a major work of social science when they wrote of the Commission's investigation:
"Their voluminous reports, together with the equally voluminous other statements, were printed in full, comprising altogether no fewer than twenty-six folio volumes, containing in the aggregate over thirteen thousand printed pages, all published during 1834-1835, being by far the most extensive sociological survey that had at that date ever been undertaken...." (Webb and Webb  1963, p. 54)
In sum, the Webbs' ambivalent verdict helped the authority of the Royal Commission Report to survive until the revisionist assault began with Mark Blaug's articles in the 1960's (Blaug 1963, 1964).
But if the narratives produced by both supporters and critics of the market shared a common reliance on the Royal Commission Report, their stories diverged in identifying the key dynamics that moved the plot along. For market liberals, the Speenhamland story is the pure case of Hirschman's (1991) "rhetoric of perversity". The gist of this rhetorical assertion is that well intentioned people seek to ameliorate the plight of the poor by granting generous relief. What they fail to realize is that this type of humanitarian intervention interferes with the self-regulating mechanisms that serve as the incentives necessary to drive the poor towards self-disciplined behavior and reproductive prudence. The most fundamental of these mechanisms can exist in the economy only in its untouched and natural state--the condition of scarcity. So, for example, when poor relief promises child allowances for those parents too poor to make ends meet, couples need no longer exert sexual restraint for fear of creating offspring they cannot afford to feed. Since every child promises to produce additional income for the family, it becomes rational that calculated childbearing is a more expedient means of survival than disciplined productive labor. The consequence is a rise of the birth rate that places an unwanted burden on the rest of society that has to pay the bills (Malthus 1985 , 1992 ).
This was, of course, Malthus' most famous criticism of the poor law; he and his followers--including the Royal Commissioners-- argued that the spread of rural poverty and the rising demand for poor relief was a result of the vast acceleration in England's population growth among the poor in the last quarter of the 18th century (Poynter 1969). And this excessive population growth, they state with absolute confidence was set in motion by the increasing and irresponsible generosity of the poor law. But Malthus and his followers also stressed a second line of criticism-- that poor relief undermined frugality, personal responsibility, and, above all, work discipline. Once again, the working premise is that the labor market depends on a delicate self-regulating system in which a perfect equilibrium of supply and demand occurs only when it functions in its natural state of scarcity. Remove the scarcity and gone is the spur to labor that only the fear of hunger can provide; no longer will workers be interested in pleasing their employers or in saving for the future. Measures designed to diminish poverty so end up making it worse: "Hope and fear are the springs of industry....It is the part of a good politician to strengthen these: but our laws weaken the one and destroy the other" (Townsend 1971  , p. 17).
In this story, the specific rules for allocating poor relief were not very important; as long as some of the able bodied poor were eligible for assistance, the negative dynamics were set in motion because people were being protected from the consequences of their own decisions. Hence, supporters of this story tended to assimilate all forms of outdoor relief to the able bodied under the single heading of the allowance system, and as long as per capita per law outlays were high, they were able to make their case that poor relief was making poverty worse.
The story told by market critics was more specific in its criticisms of Speenhamland. Polanyi, for example, who referenced the Hammonds, the Webbs, and earlier institutionalist historians, emphasized that employers took advantage of parish policies that supplemented worker’s income by lowering the wages that they paid. The parish promised to bring each workers' family up to a certain minimum level of subsistence, such as twelve shillings to meet the weekly cost of livelihood. A strapped employer might realistically only be able to pay eight shillings per week so the parish would add the four additional shillings garnered from the local rate payers. But now the same employer, having caught on to the dynamic, had a clear incentive to lower his own expenses by paying just seven shillings the next week and the parish would increase its supplement to five shillings. The system thus encouraged employers to lower the portion of the family's subsistence that was paid in wages. Since trade union activity had been criminalized in this period, workers had no legal resort to collective action to resist this downward pressure on wages. Hence, the only way for employees to resist this wage cutting was to diminish their work effort. The result was a downward spiral of rural productivity and catastrophically low worker morale (Hammond and Hammond  1966 , pp. 94-95; Polanyi 2001, ch.7 )
Causal Gaps and Conundrums
Both of these stories have gaps in their causal logics. In the market liberal story, the work disincentive effects of poor law assistance are simply assumed and treated as invariant. But let us imagine a parish in which poor law assistance primarily took the form of seasonal unemployment insurance. This was often the case in the 1820's when seasonal unemployment had become the dominant cause of poverty (Boyer 1990). When jobs were available on local farms, able bodied workers would not be eligible for assistance, but as demand for labor diminished in the winter months, those who had been employed would become eligible for unemployment benefits. As long as the administration of the poor law blocked those with real work opportunities from receiving these unemployment benefits, it is difficult to see any work disincentive effects. Moreover, it would have been rational for local farmers to provide this seasonal unemployment insurance or much of their labor force would be tempted to seek work elsewhere (Boyer 1990).
Indeed, there is reason to believe that many parishes were administered in exactly this way. Given the small size of most rural parishes, parish officials knew well the condition of the local labor market, including whether or where vacancies or layoffs were occurring. Moreover, parish officials were not shy about denying assistance when they suspected that an individual was simply shirking (See Sharpe 1997, pp. 99-103). This makes it implausible that large numbers of people were able to cheat routinely and work only when they felt like it. If large increases in poor law outlays were primarily caused by the growth of seasonal unemployment insurance, there is no reason to believe in any great triggering of work disincentive effects.
A second causal gap is shared by both stories--a failure to focus specifically on the type of relief that sought to create employment for the unemployed. Public works projects, the employer subsidies, and workfare jobs were all efforts to deal with a growing problem of rural unemployment, and they all faced the classical dilemma involved in "make work" projects. When public agencies create employment specifically with the goal of making recipients work in exchange for relief, supervisors usually find it difficult to elicit high levels of work effort because recipients know that they are not working in a real job. 4 On the one side, the threat of being fired does not have the same credibility as in an ordinary employment relation. On the other, there is no particular reward for hard work since there are no prospects for promotion or greater employment security. These difficulties can be somewhat mitigated if recipients can be persuaded that success in this activity will lead to some form of real employment. But when the unemployment problem is structural and intractable, “make work” efforts are likely to be accompanied by declining morale among recipients.
Many of the specific complaints in the historical record about the corrosive effects of the Poor Law actually center on "roundsmen" or others who were engaged in these kind of "make work" activities. The Royal Commission Report (1834, p. 223) quotes Mr. Hennant of Thorney Abbey, Cambridge who describes his experience with employees hired under the labour rate system:
"If I complain of the little work done, or its being ill done, the reply is, (interlarded with the grossest blackguardism,) 'Oh, we don't care a _______; if you don't like it as it is, you may do your work yourself; for, if you discharge us, you must keep us, or have others of the same sort in our stead."
A similar sentiment towards such workers follows from Mr. Stephen Cadby of Westbury, Wiltshire:
"The greatest evil, in my opinion, is the spirit of laziness and insubordination that it creates; if you remonstrate with these men, they abuse or injure, certain, however their conduct, they shall receive their money."
There may be truth to these complaints, but the obvious problem is with structural unemployment that deprived so many of both meaningful work and social dignity. Moreover, there is little reason to credit fears that the attitudes of the unemployed subverted the work discipline of those who were regularly employed. It is much more logical to assume that the sight of the roundsmen would serve to reinforce the regular employees' fear of unemployment. While they might very well sympathize with the plight of the roundsmen, they would not be eager to share that fate. There is little reason to believe that poor productivity on the part of "make work" laborers would subvert the productivity of those who were still gainfully employed. 5
A third gap in causal logic can be found in the assumption that employers would deliberately lower wages to take advantage of the parish's guaranteed wage supplement. There are several serious problems with this argument. First, we know that farmers competed with each other to attract the most skilled and energetic employees and there was considerable employment turnover in this period (Kussmaul 1981, Snell 1985) Hence, even though trade unions were outlawed in this period, there were still limits on what employers could do. Unilateral reductions in wage levels--even if they were balanced by poor relief supplements--seem like a perfect way to signal that a particular employer was seeking only lower quality workers. Moreover, even if all the farmers in a given parish managed to agree on a collective strategy to lower wages, they would still have to worry that the better workers would defect to higher paying farms in nearby parishes. This was a real threat because agricultural workers were often in walking distance of employment opportunities in neighboring parishes so that they could change employers.
To be sure, employers were able to impose unilateral wage cuts in periods of sharp economic downturn, but this was because employers experienced a general and simultaneous reduction in their need for workers and rising unemployment deprived workers of any bargaining power. But in the absence of this kind of generalized downturn, there are significant obstacles to unilateral wage reductions.
The problems in assuming unilateral wage reductions are connected to mistaken generalizations about the pre-industrial English countryside that are based on the characteristics of one specific type of parish. In this ideal typical representation, all of 18th century southern England was viewed as dominated by the landholdings of an enormously wealthy semi-aristocratic gentry. Their farming parishes were termed "close" (today, the more easily accomodated "closed" is acceptable) because they were governed by a very small number of wealthy landowners who served as local magistrates, supervisors of the poor law officials, and employers of agricultural laborers. This local property-owning elite sometimes literally demolished cottages that had earlier housed agricultural workers as a means to reduce the present and future population that would be entitled to poor law relief. They relied instead on nonresident workers who commuted from neighboring "open" parishes--so-called because in the absence of dominating landlords, they were open to anyone who could gain settlement there. Hence, employers in closed parishes could shift the burden of poor relief onto those living in the neighboring parishes (Holderness 1972, Mills 1980).
There is no question that such closed parishes existed and that the combination of economic and legal power exercised by these dominating landlords caused considerable hardships for the poor. But the existence of closed parishes hardly sustains the Speenhamland story. For one thing, even though closed parishes were able to shift their poor law costs unto others, their employers also had to worry that lowering of wage levels might mean that vacancies went unfilled. Even more importantly, we know now that closed parishes represented a relatively small percentage of all rural parishes and an even smaller percentage of rural population. Among recent analysts, Banks (1988) is highly skeptical of the open/closed distinction, while Song (1998) who considers the distinction important finds that in Oxford in 1831, 25% of parishes conform to the full definition of closed with low population density, minimal poor relief outlays, and domination by a few large landholders.
. Furthermore, most open parishes had a substantial number of "middling sorts"–small farmers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, and rural artisans--many of whom paid some of the taxes out of which poor relief was financed (Boyer 1990, Sokoll 1993) Both in their capacity as ratepayers and as potential recipients of poor relief in bad years, it is unlikely that these middling sorts would see any reason to join with larger agricultural employers in a strategy to keep wage levels low by shifting costs on to the parish.
The final gap in causal logic has been the focus in much of this literature on adult male agricultural wages when the reality of rural life was that family income had been for generations pieced together from multiple different sources, including the earnings of wives and children and money made my men outside of their primary work (Kumar 1988, Horrell and Humphries 1995, Reay 1996). In fact, when we look at the data on trends of male agricultural wages, the most striking thing is that they move far less dramatically than shifts in the price index. It was possible for farmers to resist more rapid adjustment of wages to price levels precisely because neither employers nor laborers assumed that working class families could survive on the male workers wage alone
In short, when the famous debate between "optimists" and "pessimists" over the impact of the Industrial Revolution on working class standards of living shifted to the countryside, it often became a dialogue of the deaf (For some of the key contributions to this debate, see Taylor 1975). At the beginning of our period--around 1790--many rural laboring families pieced together their household income from agricultural wage labor, including that of women and children, from periodic work in rural industries, from their own production on small plots or the parish commons, and from multiple miscellaneous sources of income such as gleaning, fishing, hunting, and casual jobs. By the end of our period, structural changes in the economy including enclosures and the decline of rural industries in Southeastern England had undermined some of these important streams of rural working class income (Snell 1985; Reay 1996). Hence, as we shall see, even if wages did not follow the trajectory outlined in the standard Speenhamland stories, the standard of living of many rural people suffered significantly in this period.