Although the Poor Law Commissioners (later the Poor Law Board) regulated conditions, it was an elected Board of Guardians who managed each union with waged staff to run the workhouse. The Act faced initial hostility, especially in the industrial north in 1837/8, where it was felt to be unsuitable for the patterns of industrial workers' needs, and amongst those in rural areas who felt that they best understood their area and its inhabitants. Radical politicians, such as the Chartists, likened workhouses to 'bastilles' and argued that the Act was an attempt to reduce wages and create a subservient workforce.
In the 1980s, "babies having babies" became popular, and in the 1990s, "illegitimacy" was revived to call particular attention to the poor single-parent family. Two further types of labels deserve separate attention.
Perkins, like most other Americans at that time, accepted the older distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, a distinction based on moral conduct.
Let us step back for a moment and look at poverty from a wider perspective. If we rank poverty and welfare policies in terms of quantity of money and material goods given to people who are poor, then today’s policies are far more effective than the Founders’. Benefit levels are much higher, and far more people are eligible for support. That is what leads historians like Michael Katz to condemn the earlier approach as a failure.
These placed an emphasis on the role of charity in encouraging moral regeneration and on the virtues of self-reliance and respectability. Like the poor law, charities sought to distinguish the 'deserving' from the 'undeserving' poor. The Charity Organisation Society, founded in 1869, at a time when outdoor relief was being further curtailed, was partly an attempt to ensure that charity did not undermine the intent of state provision. Their use of an early form of social investigation - visiting homes and interviewing the poor - was designed to link assistance to observable conditions.
My historical survey of the labels for the undeserving poor is cursory and meant to be merely illustrative. The label with the greatest longevity may be "pauper," although over the years it underwent several changes in meaning.
The following year, the Act to Amend the Law for the Relief of the Poor (59 Geo. III c.12) was passed. This added a resident clergyman to the members of the vestry. Vestries were told to distinguish between the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor. The latter group was deemed to be idle, extravagant and/or profligate. This Act provided for the employment of salaried overseers, better-kept accounts and either the building or enlargement of workhouses. Also, under this legislation, two JPs were needed to agree to force the Vestry to give poor relief, rather than only one JP as before. This was intended to prevent "generous" JPs from helping anyone who appealed for assistance. Together these two pieces of legislation are known either as the Select Vestries Acts or the Sturges-Bourne Acts after the MP who was responsible for them.
Despite the hostility the better-off classes have long felt toward poor people who were not supporting themselves, there are not many words for those solely or primarily dependent; in rough historical order, these include "paupers," "hard-core poor" (although people with this label are also viewed as stubbornly, almost delinquently poor), and (today) "welfare dependent" and "illegal immigrant." The latter is a good example of a term that has become a label.
Yet, many Victorians struggled to understand and explain poverty. Was it because of personal misfortune, because of social circumstances beyond an individual's control, or, the direct result of a person's character, their laziness and indolence? Were the poor, therefore, 'deserving' or 'undeserving'? Who was responsible for those who became so poor that they could not maintain themselves and how should these paupers be cared for?
We see in Franklin’s diagnosis a striking anticipation of today’s welfare state, in which, as we will see, poverty has remained stagnant as the welfare system has swelled since the 1960s. Franklin’s understanding of the welfare paradox—that aid to the poor must be managed carefully lest it promote indolence and therefore poverty—was shared by most Americans who wrote about and administered poverty programs until the end of the 19th century.
From the earliest colonial days, local governments took responsibility for their poor. However, able-bodied men and women generally were not supported by the taxpayers unless they worked. They would sometimes be placed in group homes that provided them with food and shelter in exchange for labor. Only those who were too young, old, weak, or sick and who had no friends or family to help them were taken care of in idleness.
The practice of giving child allowances under the old Poor Law was seen as encouraging large families while the alleged generosity of outdoor relief was seen as benefiting the feckless and reducing the resources available to the deserving poor. Jeremy Bentham's philosophy of Utilitarianism advocated judgement by rational criteria, underpinned the principle of 'the greatest good of the greatest number'. Government action was to be based on careful study of the 'facts'.