Academic journal article Journal of Social History

The New Poor Law and the Breadwinner Wage: Contrasting Assumptions

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

The New Poor Law and the Breadwinner Wage: Contrasting Assumptions

Article excerpt

Feminist historians have long argued that the nineteenth-century poor law enshrined the breadwinner wage and female dependency. The notion originated in Sidney and Beatrice Webbs' 1910 history of the poor law. [1] Building on their work in her pioneering and useful article, Pat Thane declared that the 1834 New Poor Law "took for granted the universality of the stable two-parent family, primarily dependent upon the father's wage," and assumed that women would be dependent wives. [2] In her valuable and magisterial history of the poor law from 1700-1948, The Solidarities of Strangers, Lynn Lees argues that the New Poor Law of 1834 treated impoverished men and women very differently, drawing upon middle-class assumptions that husbands would be strong, independent breadwinners while women should be weak, dependent housewives rather than wage earners. [3] Sonya Rose has pointed out that the New Poor Law therefore contributed to the Victorian refusal to acknowledge women as workers. [4] The pathbreaking and insight ful work of all of these authors has transformed our understanding of welfare and work through a gendered perspective. However, this gendered perspective can be deepened by modifying assumptions about the poor law and the breadwinner wage.

The breadwinner wage is usually understand to mean that a man could earn enough to support his family without his wife having to go out to work. In fact, three very distinct understandings of the breadwinner wage successively shaped nineteenth-century poor law policy: first, the breadwinner wage as a rare privilege and responsibility; second, the breadwinner wage as a normative reward for respectability; and third, the breadwinner wage as a right. The first version originated with the New Poor Law of 1834, which did not assume that all working men should be breadwinners who could keep their wives at home, that women should be dependents rather than wage earners. Instead, inspired by Malthus, poor law promulgators developed a notion of breadwinner status as a rare privilege and onerous responsibility, not a right of working men. They believed that if a man could not support his family, he should not many, and if a woman could not find a husband who earned enough, she must support herself and her children by e arning wages. [5] They aimed to deter working-class men from marrying by withdrawing state allowances for children and forcing entire families into the workhouse to receive any relief.

It is important not to assume that middle-class reformers regarded working-class men and women with the same ideology of gender as they did families of their own class. Their primary goal was not to ensure female dependence, but to relieve government of the burden of supporting poor women and children. Yet, as historians have pointed out, the New Poor Law was the outcome of conflicting interests and ideologies both in its conception and execution, for local officials often resisted central administration, paternalists opposed political economists and social reformers proposed new policies. The overarching vision of a totally deterrent New Poor Law where relief would only be administered in the workhouse clashed with local parish budgets and the reality of the family wage economy. The changing visions of the breadwinner wage enshrined in poor law policy derived as much from political compromises and practical realities as from policy and ideology.

As a result, between the 1850s and 1870s, a second set of attitudes emerged. Poor law officials and social reformers began to believe that a breadwinner wage was a reward ordinary working men should be able to earn by proving their respectability. Charities would aid respectable working-class families if the breadwinner was ill or unemployed so that wives would not have to go out to work. Yet they still expected unrespectable wives, and all single women and widows, to work to support themselves. Central poor law officials, social reformers and philanthropists therefore aimed to instill the values of self-sufficiency into both men and women of the working class. …

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