Welfare Reform from Locke to the Clintons

In a draft of his “Essay on the Poor Law,” Locke writes:

Now no part of any poor body’s labour should be lost. Things should be so ordered that everyone should work as much as they can.

That passage, which Locke ultimately deleted, came right after his complaint that women were staying home with their kids and not working. As a result, he wrote, “their labour is wholly lost.”

Locke follows this observation up with a complaint about the existing poor laws in England: the problem with them is that “they are turned only to the maintenance of people in idleness, without at all examining into the lives, abilities, or industry, of those who seek for relief.”

That is what a reformed poor law must do: examine into the lives, abilities, and industry of those who seek public assistance.



  1. SteveLaudig February 13, 2017 at 11:40 pm | #

    sounds like advice from a slave owner or a would-be slave owner. one wonders how much Locke sweated.

  2. Brett February 14, 2017 at 12:55 am | #

    This reminds me of a really good book I was reading over the weekend. The focus was on food and the change in American diet as the Twenties gave way to the Great Depression, but it included a good account of outdoor and indoor relief in the US as provided by (mostly) local communities. This is right fitting in with that, complete with skeptically examining and humiliating the poor to make sure there’s not the slightest bit of chance that they might be trying to cop a free-ride from you.

    • Drew February 16, 2017 at 6:13 pm | #

      Fascinating. Do you remember the name of the book?

      • Brett February 17, 2017 at 2:51 am | #

        The title was A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression.

  3. mark February 14, 2017 at 6:01 am | #

    In ‘Idle Hands: The Experience of Unemployment, 1790-1990 (Modern British History)’ (1994), John Burnett has it that the words ‘unemployed’ and ‘unemployment’ were first used regularly in the 1880s, but had been around for at least fifty years before that and were notably used by the economist Alfred Marshall in 1888.

  4. s.wallerstein February 14, 2017 at 8:02 am | #

    Did Locke believe that the nobility should work “as much as they can”?

    I never quite understood why the rich have the right to be lazy and the poor don’t. I say that as a very lazy middle-class person, who has always worked as little as I can.

    At least Aristotle and the Greeks in general were honest enough to admit that work is no fun and not especially dignifying.

    • abellwordpress February 14, 2017 at 11:00 am | #

      Yes. AEI is out with yet another piece that’s essentially “get to work you slackers and you’ll be happy for it!” https://www.aei.org/press/the-dignity-deficit/ Perhaps they think all those not working are just salivating over the possibility of sewing sweaters for minimum wage. Oh wait, we’re going to give them even more dignity by eliminating the minimum wage.

      Of course, nobody seems to think that there’s any problem among those who are retired, sit in non-productive meetings all day or make a living pushing other people’s money around — very dignified.

  5. Roquentin February 14, 2017 at 10:23 am | #

    I have become convinced that due to technological advancement and the increased mechanization of production, one of the biggest philosophical battles of the coming decades will be splitting the idea of making/having a living from working for wages. While it’s common knowledge that we need less people working now than ever before due to these factors, due to the way capitalism functions we are ethically, philosophically, and politically unable to accept that we can provide for everyone with far fewer people working (or having people work far less hours.).

    The capitalist coupling of earning a living to selling one’s labor-time to an employer, the power this gives said employer, and the society constructed around it are the reasons this needs to continue rather than the process of production itself. People can either accept this and start working to dismantle capitalism as we know it (something like a Universal Basic Income is a good start), or continue down the current path and continue to impoverish and deprive the large majority of the population either of a decent living and a means to obtain it. This would be maintained exclusively so society can preserve the massively unequal distribution of wealth it currently has.

  6. Glenn February 14, 2017 at 10:34 am | #

    In English it is said that “there is”, but in German it is said—translated into English, of course— “it gives”.

    Interesting that what “it gives” becomes property enclosed and owned, so that what “it gives” becomes owned by whom and to whom one owes the product of one’s labor.

    Property is a theft from the commons facilitating the thieving extortion of labor.

  7. b. February 14, 2017 at 11:26 am | #

    There’s a whole knot of gangrene here, all loosely connected to the slaver that’s living inside every noble, struggling to come out. There needs to be sustained breeding – pace Jefferson, the elites are owed their 4% reproductive “interest” from the livestock – lest there is a shortfall of “labor” to build the empire du jour. Why, in times of dire national need, they’d even consider paying some hand-outs to those families that do their patriotic duty for the Fatheringland.

    • b. February 14, 2017 at 11:29 am | #

      But let us not consider the tremendous waste of human potential resulting from the unwillingness to provide paid maternity leave with retirement benefits, free childcare, comprehensive healthcare for children and mothers, or even just – the humanity – free education gated only by aptitude and dedication, if gated at all. There are billions of people on this planet, quite possible exceeding any sustainable carrying capacity, and inbred wealth and its retainers are perfectly content to let most of them go to waste. I suppose the rich and powerful aren’t really that interested in advances in medicine, let alone other technology, or even just plain actual security. Never attribute to inbreeding what could be explained by sheer malice and hatred for their fellow man… can’t live without the poor after all.

      • b. February 14, 2017 at 11:32 am | #

        It sure looks like the Lockes of the world have never quite resolved the need for intelligent, informed, capable workers needed to make up for their own inability to get anything done if they can’t order somebody else to do it.

        It is that dependency – that all the money and influence in the world can’t, at the end of the day, get anything done without somebody else doing the actual work to physically move and shape otherwise inert hardware around – that leads us to such concepts as “Knowledge of Mass Destruction”. The capable individual becomes the threat. If in doubt, keep them ignorant and incompetent, all for the greater good. But make sure they are busy!

        • b. February 14, 2017 at 12:31 pm | #

          What I cannot quite reconcile with this is the related obsession of the inbred with the genetic makeup of the poor. Eugenics and its derivative dog-whistles feature prominently in the circles of the self-selected. Why, it almost appears as if they are attempting to breed better, more capable poverty, but no, the eugenies of the past usually categorically denied that anybody from the lower castes could possibly produce offspring that might qualify for “adoption” among the elites. I suppose in the end, it must have been some muddled thinking about quality control, or upperclass dabbling in breeding motivated by utter boredom.
          Automation, now, might be the new obsession of the Silicon Valley noblesse computeh. The old money would just settle for pervasive surveillance and control. Skynet is people.

      • abellwordpress February 14, 2017 at 12:15 pm | #

        “Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so.” — B. Russell

  8. LFC February 14, 2017 at 3:42 pm | #

    Presumably (?), Locke would have approved of 1834 New Poor Law which (per Wikipedia):

    was intended to curb the cost of poor relief, and address abuses of the old system, prevalent in southern agricultural counties, by enabling a new system to be brought in under which relief would only be given in workhouses, and conditions in workhouses would be such as to deter any but the truly destitute from applying for relief.

    The 1834 Poor Law, one of whose effects btw in some cases was to split up families, remained in force in its essentials until the early 20th cent., iirc. (One classic discussion is in K. Polanyi, The Great Transformation.)

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