Mr. Settelmeyer’s Poor Law

workhouseFrom the Amen CornerJ. Patrick Coolican nails it.  IF Nevada Senator James Settelmeyer’s ill conceived S.B. 89 is about “helping people” avoid the dangers of addictive contraband drugs, then why does it target so few people?  As Coolican explains, only 1% of Nevada’s population receives TANF benefits.  Those who receive SNAP (food stamp) help or Medicaid might be tossed into Settelmeyer’s categorizations as well and the numbers still wouldn’t move the dial that much at all.  So, why is Senator Settelmeyer so taken with this project?

Join The Parade

Let’s begin with the assertion that this is not exactly a new idea.  States such as Florida and Georgia have drug testing requirements, and several state legislatures looked at similar proposals last year.  All evidently predicated on acceptability of the stereotypical “Person on Welfare Isn’t White.”  The statistics show most welfare recipients are white; the face of welfare is a single non-white female with a child, or a single non-white male sitting on the stoop chugging brew with the neighborhood toughs.   There’s no mystery about the origin or legislative strategy of legislation like SB 89 — affirm the stereotypes; associate public assistance with the stereotypical welfare recipient; then cut benefits because the “failures” are obviously not the Worthy Poor.

“Like many conservative legislative movements, drug testing poor people isn’t an idea that’s spreading through happenstance. According to interviews with Republican state legislators in several states, these bills are moving through familiar and well-trod pathways connecting conservative think tanks and state legislators scattered around the country. The legislation has made its way from state to state in the briefcases of anti-government ideologues who’ve spent their whole careers decimating the safety net—often using racially loaded attacks on the poor.

The bills are chatted about in conference rooms at ALEC conferences and on calls between wannabes who think they’ve spotted they’re golden ticket to political fame. As one Kentucky legislator told, after he introduced a welfare drug testing bill, “I started getting standing ovations. I stop in Wal-Mart and they line up to thank me.”  [Colorlines.Org]

Now we come to the part with the Tea Party Darlings and the helpful folks from the American Legislative Exchange

“In early December 2011, a baby-faced man named Terran Bragdon traveled from Florida to Arizona to speak at ALEC’s Health and Human Services Taskforce.  Bragdon had only recently moved to Florida, but had already made a name for himself among national movement conservatives. He’d just left a job in Maine as the director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a right wing think tank, to start a new organization, the Foundation for Government Accountability. And his first move in Florida was to release a report on drug testing.

Bragdon penned a study that offered some of the only data, in any state, purporting to show the fiscal benefits of a drug testing program. It gave Tea Party Republicans just what they needed: the appearance of social science to back up their poverty bashing.  On its website, Bragdon’s organization highlights a congratulatory quote from the director of the ALEC task force.

“Tarren showed why members should look to Florida for free market Medicaid welfare reforms that strengthen these safety net programs for those who truly need them, and save money for the taxpayers who fund them,” the note reads.”

Let’s focus on that congratulatory note for a moment.  What’s a “free market Medicaid reform?”  That would be at least turning the Medicaid program into a block grant from federal funding, which could then be cut more easily by Congressional deficit chicken-hawks.   So, how does one “strengthen” programs by cutting them?  Well, by making sure not a penny goes to anyone who might be the least bit unworthy!  And all for the benefit — not of the recipient necessarily, but the taxpayers.   From whence this perspective that the donors are the prime consideration, and that the poor are the villains of the piece?

The Tale of Two Poor Laws

After the Black Death (circa 1350) English landlords were faced with a declining labor force and demands for higher wages.  Some workers voted with their feet, left traditional bounds and bonds, and the gentle-folk were moved to enact statutes to keep laborers in place, and keep wages at pre-plague levels.  By 1388 the system to keep’em down on the farm after they’d seen higher wages in some other regions, crystallized in the Cambridge Statute; laborers and beggars were to come under the jurisdiction of the Hundred.  ” Each county “Hundred” became responsible for relieving its own “impotent poor” — those who, because of age or infirmity, were incapable of work. Servants wishing to move out of their own Hundred needed a letter of authority from the “good man of the Hundred” — the local Justice of the Peace — or risked being put in the stocks.”   By 1600, the tenets of the Cambridge and later statutes, moved into the parish realm, in which each parish was to have overseers of the poor (who will always be with us…) to direct those who could not provide for themselves.  The 1601 Poor Act was the culmination of English thoughts on who should be working where and how.

#1. Church wardens were to collect the Poor taxes and oversee their expenditure.

#2. The wardens were to provide resources for people to work (hemp, flax, wool etc.) and those who would not work would be put in prison.

#3.  The relief for the impotent poor — lame, disabled, blind, aged — was the legal responsibility of their relatives if they could bear it.

#4. Child were to be assigned to appropriate apprenticeships.

The old system for carrying out the commands of Matthew 25 (feed the hungry, clothe the poor, visit the incarcerated, bury the dead…) moved from the Hundreds to a national system in the 1601 Act.   For all the parochialism of the configuration, the 1601 Act laid the national foundation for the Work House of Dickensian horror.  The Poor Law of 1834 was the triumph of Bentham’s view of humanity.

Bentham believed in animal rights, women’s rights, de-criminalization of homosexual acts and all manner of modern tastes.  Unfortunately, he also set forth the notion that man is guided solely by pleasure and pain, and since work is necessarily painful then man would prefer to avoid it.  Combine Bentham with Ricardo’s Iron Law and Malthusian population theory and we have the Poor Law of 1834.   It doesn’t take a mental flight of fancy to connect the dots between the (1) control the workforce to keep wages down 15-17th century doctrine and the (2) imposition of parochial organization and vestry judgment on the “merits of the poor” in the early 18th to meet the (3) 19th century Whig “reformers” who would combine the wage controlling impetus of Ricardo with the old parochial judgment of the parish vestrymen.   It seems Mr. Settelmeyer would be right at home.

When the BBC looked back at English attempts to address the issues of poverty through the 1834, and subsequent, amendments the work-house comes center stage:

“Designed to reduce the costs of poor relief, the Act placed the workhouse (provided by a union of parishes) at the centre of provision, with the guiding principle of ‘less eligibility’ – that workhouse conditions should be worse than the lowest living standards of the independent labourer – as its central tenet. Those entering the workhouse would find life there harsh, monotonous and characterised by the intent of improving the inmate’s moral character. It was felt that local resources should be used more effectively and costs would be further reduced as paupers would be deterred by the appearance of the workhouses and knowledge of the harsh treatment of their ‘inmates’.”

Ah, yes, if it’s “harsh, monotonous, and worse than anything imaginable” then it’s bound to “improve one’s moral character?”  Right?

If this is beginning to sound close to the contemporary “Makers and Takers” theme, …

Makers and Takers

Certainly, our current incarnations of the Workhouse Wardens wouldn’t care to be associated with the Dickensian image of the waifs, families, and abandoned of old London.  However, there’s no escaping from the conclusion that  mindset which holds that Man is By Nature A Lazy Beast; Lazy Beasts Must Be Whipped Into Shape; and Spare the Rod And Spoil The Family is perilously close to the manual of thought for workhouse wardens.  Or, to Jeremy Bentham’s grandiose plan for “Pauper Management” in 1796.

Bentham thought a National Charity Company (private) could invest in the construction of 250 giant “factories” each of which could hold about 2000 workers/inmates.   The workers would “benefit” from the work and a “spartan diet.”

Since Senator Settelmeyer has already adopted the basic tenet of Maltusian/Benthamite utilitarianism — the poor should be happy to work in order to breathe — and shouldn’t be too happy lest they breed more impoverished souls — perhaps he’d like to make the transition from merely making poverty yet more stereotyped and stigmatized toward a more utilitarian view of poverty as a way to return to the work house era from which the philosophy derives and toward the privatized prisons with “prison industries” where this logically leads?

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