Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter VIII.: WHAT IS CHARITY? - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 3
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Chapter VIII.: WHAT IS CHARITY? - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 3 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1832). Vol. 3.
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WHAT IS CHARITY?
Ned heard of Jane's return to the workhouse, and of her confinement, from Mr. Burke, who attended Mr. Effingham's family, and who recognized, to his great surprise, Ned Bridgeman in the boy who one day opened the gate for him, and followed to hold his horse. Whenever he came, from that time forward, he inquired for Ned, and was ready to make the wished-for reply to the customary petition, not to tell the officers or anybody belonging to them, where he was, but just to inform cousin Marshall and his sisters that he was well and likely to go on earning a living. It was in vain to reason with him, that the parish could desire nothing more than that he should maintain himself, and that the officers would be glad to leave him unmolested. He had eloped, and was possessed with the idea that he should be carried back whence he came; and had, moreover, such a horror of the place and people connected with his short period of pauperism, that he longed above all things to keep out of sight of the one, and be forgotten by the other. The pauper labourers who worked with him in the field, discovered something of this, and amused themselves by alarming him with dark hints, from time to time, that some danger impended. They were not over-fond of him, harmless and good-natured as he was. The bailiff was apt to hold him up as an example to them in an injudicious way, and Ned's horror of pauperism,—his pride, as his companions called it,—was not exactly the quality to secure their good fellowship. They teazed the boy sadly, and Mr. Burke thought he looked more and more grave every time he saw him. The gentleman was not, therefore, much surprised when he was told one day that Ned was missing, nor did he give much heed to the remarks on the unsteadiness of the boy who had twice absconded. On finding that, so far from having done anything dishonest, Ned had left nearly half-a-crown of his savings in Mr, Effingham's hands, Mr, Burke made inquiry into the circumstances, and found that, as he suspected, Ned had been assured that the officers were after him, and so cruelly taunted with his sister's shame, that it was no wonder he had gone farther up the country, where he might work in peace, if work was to be found. Nothing could be done but to take charge of his money, and invest it where it might increase till the owner should be forthcoming to claim it. So Mr. Burke pocketed the two shillings and fourpence half-penny as carefully as if it had been a hundred pounds, and saw that it was placed in the Savings Bank with Ann's, and made as light as he could to the family of the fact that he no longer knew where the lad was; adding that Ned was a boy whom he would trust all over the world by himself, and prophesying that he would re-appear some day to be a credit and a help to his orphan sisters.
On one occasion when Mr. Burke was entering the village of Titford, he overtook Mr. Effingham walking slowly with his head bent down, and his hands in his pockets. He looked up when greeted by his Friend, who accosted him With—
“I am afraid you are to be one of my patients to-day, to judge by your gait and countenance. What can be the matter? No misfortune at home, I hope?”
“No; but I have just heard something that has shocked me very much. There is an execution at Dale's”
“How hard that poor math has struggled!” observed Mr. Burke. “And has it even come to this at last?”
“Even so; and through no fault of his own that I can see. They are distraining for the rate.”
“Aye, that is the way, Effingham. Thus is our pauper list swelled, year by year. It grows at both ends. Paupers multiply their own numbers as fast as they can, and rate-payers sink down into rate-receivers. This will probably be Dale's fate, as it has been that of many little farmers before him. And if it is, he will only anticipate by a few years the fate of others besides small farmers, of shopkeepers, manufacturers, merchants, and agriculturists of every class; always providing that some radical amendment of the system does not take place.”
“God help us!” cried Effingham. “If so, our security is gone, as a nation, and as individuals.”
“At present, Effingham, the security of property is to the pauper, and not to the proprietor, however rich he may be. The proprietor is compelled, as in the case before us, to pay more and more to the rate till his profits are absorbed, and he is obliged to relinquish his undertakings one after another; field after field goes out of cultivation, his capital is gradually transferred to his wages-fund, which is paid away without bringing an adequate return; and when all but his fixed capital is gone, that becomes liable to seizure, and the ruin is complete. There is no more security of property, under such a system, than there is security of life to a poor wretch in a quicksand, who feels himself swallowed up inch by inch. The paupers meanwhile are sure of their relief as long as the law subsists. They are to be provided for at all events, let what will become of other people. While Dale has been fretting by day, and tossing by night under the burden of his cares, his pauper labourers have been supporting a very different kind of burden, —the burden of the pauper song.
“This very security of property which is the most precious of an independent man's rights,” said Effingham, “seems to be the most pernicious thing in the world to the indigent. One may fairly call it so in relation to them, for they seem to consider the produce of the, rate as their property.”
“It is really so,” replied Burke. “They know it to be the lawful property of the pauper body, and that the only question is how it is to be distributed? As long as they know this, they will go on multiplying the claims upon it till nothing is left with which to satisfy them.”
“It is very odd,” said Effingham, “that none of the checks that have ever been tried have done any good; they seem rather to have made the matter worse.”
“I do not think it strange, Effingham. None of the remedies have struck at the root of the evil, and none could therefore effect lasting good. The test is just this: do they tend to lessen the number of the indigent? Unless they do this, they may afford relief to a generation, or shift a burden from one district to another, or from one class of producers upon another; but they will not improve the system. Look at the experiments tried! First, paupers were to wear a badge, a mark of infamy. Of course, the profligate and hardened were the readiest to put it on, and those who had modesty and humble pride refused it, and obtained help only through the compassion of overseers, who evaded the regulation so perpetually, that it was abolished as useless. While it lasted, profligate pauperism increased very rapidly. Next came the expedient of workhouses, in which the poor were expected to do more work, and be fed less expensively than in their own houses. But here again the rogue and vagabond class reaped the advantage, the houses being detested by the sober and quiet; and the choice of the latter to pine at home, rather than be shut up in a workhouse, occasioned a diminution of the rate for some time; but that time has long been over, and now the maintenance of a pauper costs three or four times as much in a workhouse as out of it, there being no inducement to the paupers to work, and but little to their managers to economise. And this is just what any one might have foretold from the beginning, if he had seen what experience has plainly taught us, that indigence must spread while numbers increase, and while the subsistence-fund, on which they are to be supported, is consumed unproductively.”
“But why unproductively?” said Effingham. “I cannot help thinking that there must be some mode of management, by which manufactures might be carried on by paupers with pretty good Success.”
“Suppose it to be so, according to what I imagine you to mean by success,—suppose a certain quantity of produce to be achieved and disposed of,—this is in itself a great evil. Capital raised by forcible, arbitrarily applied, and made to bring a return from an artificial market, can never be so productive as if it found a natural channel; and its employment in this artificial manner is a serious injury to individual capitalists. In the neighbourhood of a workhouse where work is really done, a manufacturer, while paying to the rate, bitterly feels that he is subscribing the means by which his trade is to be stolen from him. It is adding insult to injury to set in the faces of rate-payers workhouse manufactures, which are to have a preference in the market to their own. In all these cases, however, the object fails. To all remedies yet tried, the same fundamental objection applies: they all encourage the increase of population, while they sink capital. What we want is the very reverse of this,—we want a reproduction of capital with increase, and a limitation of numbers with in a due proportion to this fund.”
“What do you think, then, of the methods proposed for the amelioration of the system?”
“Which? There are so many.”
“The cottage system, for one.”
“It will not bear the test. Under no system does population increase more rapidly;—witness Ireland; and in addition to the worst evils that afflict Ireland, we should have that of a legal claim to support, which effectually prevents the due improvement of capital. Cottages would prove no better than workhouses, depend upon it.”
“Well, then, what do you think of assessing new kinds of property?”
“Worse and worse! This would be only casting more of our substance into the gulf before its time. It would be helping to increase the number of paupers; it would be encouraging the unproductive consumption of capital; it would be—”
“Like pouring water into one of your dropsical patients,” said Effingham, smiling.
“Just so, Effingham; and it needs no great skill to foresee the result in both cases.”
“Then there are Benefit Clubs,” replied Effingham. “Some think that if they were made obligatory by law, they might soon supersede the poor-rate. What do you think of them?”
“No man approves such societies more than I, as long as they are voluntary; but fellowship of this kind would lose its virtue, I doubt, by being made compulsory. There are no means that I know of, of compelling a man who will not earn to store his earnings; and the frugal and induetrious will do it without compulsion, as soon as they understand the matter: so that in fact the worst classes of society would be left as free to roam, and beg, and steal, as if the institution did not exist.”
“But Friendly Societies and Benefit Clubs will bear your test. They tend to the increase of capital, and, by encouraging prudence, to the limitation of numbers.”
“True; and therefore I wish they were in universal operation among the working classes; but this must be by voluntary association. It will be a work of time to convince our whole population of their advantages; and even then the less industrious part will rather depend on the poor-rate, if it still subsists. We must have recourse to some speedier method of lessening our burdens, giving all possible encouragement to Friendly Societies in the mean time.”
“What method? It seems to me that relief is already given in every possible way.”
“Aye; there is the mistake, Effingham. People think they give relief in giving money.”
“I seldom give money,” replied Effingham.
“No; but you give what money will buy, which is, begging your pardon, worse than ineffectual. Now, if you have no objection, I should like to know how much you spent on coals and blankets the first Christmas you settled here, and how much last year?”
“I began with devoting five pounds a-year to this purpose; but it increased sadly. I stopped short two years ago at twenty pounds; but it grieved me to the heart to do so, for more objects remain now unsupplied than I supplied at first.”
“Probably; and are these new applicants strangers from other parishes brought round you by your bounty, or are more of your near neighbours in a condition for receiving charity?”
“Dale reproaches me with having brought an inundation of paupers from a distance; but really our own population has increased wonderfully.”
“And the more support you offer them, friend, the more surprisingly they will increase, them, if there can be anything surprising in the case. Surely you do not mean to go on giving coals and blankets?”
“What can I do? You would call me cruel to withdraw the gift, if you could see the destitution of the poor creatures. I am completely at a loss how to proceed. If I go on, poverty increases; if I stop, the people will freeze and pine before my eyes. What a dilemma!”
“Much like that of government about its pauper subjects. I should recommend the same method to both.”
“To fix a maximum, I suppose; to declare the amount beyond which relief shall not be given? I have tried that, and it does not succeed. Twenty pounds a-year is my maximum, and is known to be so; but every one hopes to have a portion of it, and reckons upon his share nearly as confidently as if all were sure of it.”
“Of course; and there is the additional evil of admitting the principle of a claim to support, which is at the bottom of the mischief.—No; to fix a maximum is to unite the evils of the maintenance and the abolition of the pauper system; and both are bad enough singly. If I were you, and if I were the government, I would immediately disavow the principle in question, med take measures for ceasing to act upon it. If I were you, I would explain to my neighbours that, finding this mode of charity create more misery than it relieves, I should discontinue it in the way which appears to inflict the least hardship. I would give notice that, after the next Christmas donation, no more coals and blankets shall be given except to those aged and sickly people who at present look for them; and that no new applicants whatever shall be placed on the list, the object being to have the charity die out as soon as possible.”
“But I shall be railed at wherever I turn my face. I should not wonder if they pull my house about my ears. They will rob my poultry-yard, and burn my ricks. They will—”
“Very like the situation of government!” exclaimed Mr. Burke. “The very same difficulties on a smaller scale. Friend, you must bear the railing for a time, since it comes as a natural consequence of what you have already done. I am sure so benevolent a man as you would rather endure this personal inconvenience than add to the misery around you. You are capable of heroism in retrieving a mistake, Effingham As for your house and other property, you must take measures to protect it. You must firmly and gently repress tendencies to violence which arise, as you now perceive, from an error of your own.”
“I will consider, resolve, and act; and that without delay, for the evil is pressing,” Said Effingham.
“I wish government would do the same,” replied Mr. Burke. “We hear much of consideration, but the resolve is yet to be made; and how long the act may be in following, it is impossible to guess. Meanwhile, we are going headlong to ruin as fast as you would do if you answered all the petitions for charity which would be brought upon you by unbounded readiness to give. Your private fortune would be gone in a twinkling, and so will vanish our national resources.”
“What period would you fix for abolishing the rate?”
“The best plan, in my opinion, yet proposed, is this:—to enact that no child born from any marriage taking place within a year from the date of the law, and no illegitimate child born within two years from the same date, shall ever be entitled to parish assistance. This regulation should be made known, and its purpose explained universally; and this, if properly done, might, I think, prevent violence, and save a vast amount of future distress. The people should be called together, either in their places of worship or elsewhere, in such a manner as to attract the whole population to listen, and the case should be explained to them by their pastors or others. It is so plain a case, and so capable of illustration, that I see no great difficulty in making the most ignorant comprehend it.”
“And yet the details are vast.”
“Vast, but not complicated; so the whole might be conveyed in a parable which any child can understand. I think 1 dare undertake to prove to any rational being that national distress cannot be relieved by money, and that consequently individual distress cannot be so relieved without inflicting the same portion of distress elsewhere. A child can see that if there is so much bread in a country and no more, and if the rich give some of the poor two shillings a day that they may eat more bread, the price of bread will rise, and some who could buy before must go without now. Since no more bread is created by this charity, the only tiling done is to take some of it out of the reach of purchasers to give it to paupers.”
“True: the only real charity is to create more bread; and, till this can be done, to teach men to be frugal of what they have.—I happen to know a case which illustrates your doctrine, Owen, who lives in this village, earned ten shillings a week before the last scarcity. He bought eight shillings' worth of flour for his family, and had two to spare for other necessaries. During the scarcity, he received fourteen shillings a week from his parish, in addition to the ten he earned; but the price of corn had risen so much that he now gave twenty-two shillings out of his twenty-four for the same quantity of flour; so that he had still two shillings left for other necessaries; and thus, was no richer with twenty-four shillings than he had been with ten,”
“If there had been many such cases,” observed Mr. Burke, “the price of corn would have been even higher than it was. The best charity to the public as well as to this man would have been to teach him that he had better look after other kinds of food, and not insist on such an abundance of flour. Do not you think he could have understood this? and if he could, why should not his brethren understand the state of the pauper system, and be brought to acquiesce in the measures now necessary to be taken?—If the regulation I have described had been made when first proposed, there would have been much less difficulty than now. If not done now, there is no saying how soon it may be out of our power to do anything. We are now borne down, we shall soon be crushed, by the weight of our burdens.”
“We must hasten to give our testimony,” said Effingham: “I, by withdrawing my donations, and declaring why; you, by—but you have given yours, I suspect. I see now the reasons of your resigning your offices at both the charitable institutions where I and others took so much pains to get you in. I was more than half angry at it when I thought of our canvass, and all the disagreeablenesses belonging to it;—and all done and endured for nothing. But I see now how it is. I can only hope that your going out of office may do more good than your going in; and what more can I say?”
“Nothing more gratifying to my self-complacency, I am sure,” said Mr. Burke, smiling “I have had my recompense already in finding that many more than I expected attend to my reasons, and take them into consideration as a matter of real importance. My hopes sometimes mount so high as to flatter me that all Great Britain may soon be effectually employed upon the problem—How to reduce the number OF THE INDIGENT.”