Solving Poverty by Reforming Moral Character: How the New Poor Law Failed 19th Century British Society

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was widely accepted as a law enacted in good faith. It eliminated the shortcomings of the Elizabethan Poor Law (hereafter referred to as the Old Poor Law), which, through loosely controlled local administration, fostered dependence and slow population growth, and demoralized the labor market.

In its place was the New Poor Law, an effective state benefit that standardised practice everywhere and – in theory – helped to free the poor from dependence. One of the main problems that the New Poor Law was designed to solve – as the upper classes of the time called it – was the moral disintegration of the poor, which was seen as a central cause of poverty. Fixing it means easing the poor man’s problem in general.

So it’s interesting to decipher where this perception comes from: how it affects poor law reform, from local and relief-intensive programs designed to help, to moralist state programs designed to punish and deter. To do this, it is important to also understand the reasons for this changing perception of the underclass and the validity of the old poverty laws.

As such, it has been argued that the legislators of the new Poor Laws sought to address what they perceived to be the problem of the poor—moral disintegration—rather than the actual problem that led to poverty. In this sense, the New Poor Law became a self-fulfilling prophecy: an approach against moral disintegration would only dehumanize the poor, not make them respectable citizens.


PIC: Oliver Twist, SkyMinds, Inquiries Journal, Significado Concepto

Leave a Comment