Poor laws: Would the death penalty make poor people get jobs?

by John MacBeath Watkins

File:William Hogarth - Industry and Idleness, Plate 3; The Idle 'Prentice at Play in the Church Yard, during Divine Service.png

William Hogarth - Industry and Idleness, Plate 3; The Idle 'Prentice at Play in the Church Yard, during Divine Service

During the reign of Edward VI of England, the poor laws imposed the death penalty for those twice found guilty of vagrancy. First offense was just two years of servitude and being branded with a V, which surely must have helped former vagrants find a new position.

After all, if you want people to stop being poor, you must make being poor more horrible than hunger, cold and want already are, right?

Nowadays, Republicans argue that extending unemployment insurance makes people more dependent, causing them to remain unemployed. I believe this reflects our English legal and cultural heritage. They aren't yet heating up the branding iron, though I suppose I should hesitate to bring up that old custom in certain  company.

At this writing, there are three job seekers for every open job, so it's hard to see how motivating people to look harder for a job would reduce the rate of joblessness. I suspect most people haven't really examined past approaches to the problems of poverty, so perhaps a quick review is in order.

One pipe dream for conservatives is that the poor will be supported voluntarily, preferably through religious organizations. And in fact, in Medieval England, that's how it was done. Monasteries ministered to the poor and the infirm.

This pretty much stopped when Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, set up the Anglican Church, closed down the monasteries and used the property to reward those who helped him with this high-handed highjacking of things ecclesiastic. I know of no advanced economy where churches have the kind of wealth and power the pre-Reformation Catholic Church had, so that model appears to be irretrievably broken. Let's review the history of England trying to deal with poverty in the absence of such a powerful church.

Henry VIII's move to privatize the monasteries meant that there were no more monasteries to minister to the poor. Instead, their care went to the government, and was paid for by a tax.

Just to be clear, the state was already involved, not in dealing with poverty per se, but in dealing with idleness. When the Black Plague wiped out as much as 40% of the population of Europe in the 1340s, there was a labor shortage. The cost of labor went up dramatically, causing the cost of food and clothing to go up, and changing the balance of power between landholder and laborer.

To keep the cost of labor from going up too much, the 1351 Statute of Laborers passed, requiring that everyone who could work did so and restricting wages to pre-plague levels, so that landowners would not be faced with a choice of raising wages or leaving land fallow.

And it was these laws that the Tudor kings built upon in their approach to the poor. In 1495, under Henry VII, the law was modified so that "vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town." This provision led to a system where if you were poor and received any assistance, such as staying in a shelter, you had to walk to the next town to get another meal and another roof over your head. You would, as they say, have to tramp from town to town, giving us a new noun based on the word tramp. Now, a person who was poor was known as a tramp.

Some people were still unemployed, so Henry VIII tried substituting whipping for the stocks. You might think, "that will teach the blighters not to be unemployed!" but in fact, people continued to be periodically out of work.

During the short and unhappy reign of Edward VI, the monarch saw that people still persisted in being poor, so in 1547 he instituted the branding and penal servitude for the first offense of vagrancy and the death penalty for second offense, as mentioned above. You might think that would keep people from being caught unemployed more than twice, because after that they'd be dead, but justices proved squeamish about sentencing people to death for not having a job.

English law made no provision for those able-bodied persons unable to find a job until fairly late in the day. Under Queen Elizabeth I, able-bodied poor who refused to work would be sent to a house of correction, where they would be beaten to mend their attitude. But what of those willing to work, but unable to find a job?

The next approach was the workhouse, where people were fed the bare minimum, worked in harsh conditions, and experienced a shortened lifespan, which made them an example to all. It seems throughout the Tudor period and later, poverty was deemed necessary so that people would be motivated to work, so the authorities did not wish to make poverty tolerable. Keep those workhouses in mind the next time someone proposes that the poor should have to work to get welfare.

In fact, the whole root of this approach to poverty was based on those laws passed after the Black Plague, which were aimed not at poverty, but at idleness. A worker able to demand higher pay might choose to spend the money on relaxing for a while, and these little vacations would reduce the size of the work force for their duration, putting further pressure on wages. Soon, the laborer might think himself as good as his master!

This approach was never about the relief of poverty, only about power relationships within society. Under Elizabeth I, the law came to recognize the existence of the "deserving poor," at first called the impotent poor because they did not have the power to improve their situation.

The approach of punishing the poor, the approach of making them work, and the approach of making life as a poor person as difficult as possible have all been tried. We've had debtor's prisons, even indentured servitude for debtors. None of this seems to keep people from becoming poor, and many who are poor from remaining so.

Laws can change quickly, but culture changes slowly. The attitudes behind those laws are still with us, still bubbling up in our politics. But as Edward VI showed, even the death penalty will not keep people from being poor.