PM’s ‘paralysis and failure’ on poverty law

Victorian values: All social help for the Victorian poor came from private sources.

How much help should the poor be given? A furore has built up over universal credit — a simple way of claiming benefits. The government has been accused of harking back to the 19th century.

Yesterday Theresa May announced that people would be able to call the government’s universal credit helpline for free. But Labour has called on the government to "pause and fix" the benefit, citing six-week waits and rising indebtedness as reasons the policy is not working.

In a purely symbolic vote, MPs backed a pause after Conservative MPs were told to abstain.

The benefits system is complicated and controversial. For years, politicians on all sides have looked for ways to simplify it.

This was how the policy of universal credit came to be. It replaces six benefits and merges them all into one payment. It can be claimed by people whether they are in or out of work and is designed to mean that no-one faces a situation where they would be better off claiming benefits than working.

At the heart of all debates about the welfare state is the so-called “moralisation of poverty”.

In Victorian times, poverty was seen as a moral disease. Going bankrupt was a criminal offence, while the unemployed were sent to workhouses, where conditions were deliberately harsh.

Charles Dickens separated the hard-working, “deserving” poor — such as Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol — from the “undeserving” poor. Integral to the character of Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist and of the revolutionaries in A Tale of Two Cities is the notion that the poor are predisposed to crime and violence.

During the 20th century, there emerged a consensus that the poor simply needed help, whatever their background. Distinguishing between the “deserving” and “undeserving” was pointless.

This attitude was summed up by the socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw, who believed that there was no relationship between poverty and any lack of a work ethic. Shaw’s primary political goal was the de-moralisation of poverty.

For years, this has been the accepted view. But in The Guardian, Fintan O’Toole writes: “We live again in a world where people struggling to survive have to prove that they are ‘deserving’ of the welfare payments they need to keep body and soul together.“

Just desserts

“We could do with returning to those Victorian values,” say some. Everyone can see the difference between a hard-worker in a low-paid job and someone who lacks the self-motivation to find work and be successful. And if no poor people deserve to be poor, does that not mean too that no rich people deserve to be rich?

“Reactionary nonsense!” cry others. That is the opinion of someone who has never experienced poverty. People fall into poverty for any number of reasons: they fall ill, they are born poor, they are unlucky. It does not matter. They are all human beings who deserve the same access to the necessities of life.

You Decide

  1. Do some people deserve to be poor?
  2. Which matters more: ensuring those who work get a fair reward, or ensuring that those who don’t – or can’t – work, are protected?


  1. Class debate: “This house believes that the Victorian era was Britain’s golden age.”
  2. George Bernard Shaw proposed what he called a “universal pension for life”, or what we now call a universal basic income. Research this idea, and write 500 words on whether you think it would be a good idea.

Some People Say...

“From each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

Karl Marx

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The 0345 (ie, local call charge) number for the Department of Work and Pensions, including the hotline for universal credit, will be amended to a freephone number. Universal credit is a benefit for working-age people which combines six different benefits into one payment. We know that the attitude towards how to help the poor has changed radically over the last 100 years, with a general acceptance that all poor people deserve some form of government help.
What do we not know?
Whether universal credit will one day be replaced. In the coming age of automation, many predict that universal basic income (UBI) will replace several current benefits. UBI means that the government would make a fixed payment every week or month to all citizens – working or not – with no strings attached.

Word Watch

Six benefits
Income support, income-based jobseeker's allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit and working tax credit.
Criminal offence
People who were unable to pay their debts were sent to debtors’ prisons. Bankrupt people unable to pay a court-ordered judgement would be sentenced to these jails until they had worked off their debt by earning pay for prison labour, or secured funds from outside to pay their debts.
Although workhouses provided free education and medical care to children, they were still primarily places of hard labour. It was only in 1948 that the last vestiges of the Poor Laws which had created the workhouse disappeared.
Bob Cratchit
Scrooge’s clerk who works long hours in unpleasant conditions without complaint. He obeys Scrooge's rules and is timid about asking to go home to his family early on Christmas Eve.
Bill Sikes
A thief and a pimp, Sikes eventually murders his prostitute girlfriend Nancy.
George Bernard Shaw
His most famous works include Pygmalion, Man and Superman and Saint Joan.

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