Thomas Chalmers and the Poor Laws

Outdoor relief undermined the economic conditions of the poor and laboring classes.

Clifford Thies is Durell Professor of Money, Banking and Finance at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia.

Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) was ordained in the Church of Scotland in 1803. In his first ministry, in Tron parish of Glasgow, Chalmers quickly developed recognition as a great speaker from the pulpit. A Calvinist, he was deeply impressed by the importance of faith, as distinguished from good works, for salvation.

In 1819, he was appointed minister of St. John’s parish, the largest and the poorest in Glasgow. In this position, he got permission to completely substitute church charity for public welfare, and achieved great success both in relieving poverty and in reducing the cost of relieving poverty.

His method was to treat each person’s need individually, seeking always to uplift the disadvantaged, distinguishing between the “deserving” and “undeserving poor,” and involving family and community in the fight against poverty. During the next century, followers would implement these ideas throughout Great Britain, the United States, and other parts of the English-speaking world.

Chalmers’ efforts to reform the poor laws went hand in hand with his opposition to the Corn Laws, which restricted international trade in order to “protect” domestic agriculture; to grants of legal monopoly to industry; to prohibitions against free unions; and, to the heavy burden of taxation upon the laboring classes. In all these cases, he saw government interferences with the workings of a free society—including both its competitive and cooperative spheres as disrupting the natural, or even the divine order of things.

Later appointed to university positions at St. Andrews and at Edinburgh, Chalmers gained increasing recognition as a leader of the evangelical wing of the Church of Scotland, seeking independence of the church from civil authority, and the right of parishioners to elect their own ministers. Accordingly, after “the Disruption of 1843,” when 203 commissioners walked out of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Chalmers was named first moderator of the Free Church of Scotland.

A prolific writer, his more significant books include An Enquiry into the Extent and Stability of National Resources (1808), which concerned the probable effects of the Napoleonic blockade; Christian and Civic Economy of Large Towns, in three volumes (1821-26); On Political Economy (1832); On the Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man (1833); and Institutes of Theology (1849).


Outdoor Relief

As the nineteenth century got underway, the effects of eighteenth-century changes in the poor laws were becoming evident. These changes included the authorization of “outdoor relief” for the able-bodied poor. No longer were the able-bodied poor required to enter the poorhouse, in which they would have to perform work, including make-work if necessary; they would now be able to subsist in their own homes. These changes were thought to be more humane to the poor and economical to the taxpayer. But over time they had exactly the opposite results, increasing misery among the poor and laboring classes, and increasing the financial burden placed on the taxpayer.

Influenced by the writings on population of Thomas Robert Malthus, also an evangelical, Chalmers argued that any increase in relief for the poor would result over time in an increase in their numbers, absorbing the increase in relief in an increase in poverty. (Chalmers argued that this rule wouldn’t apply to extending relief to the “deserving poor,” who were impoverished by reason of mental or physical disability, old age, or orphan status.)

For several reasons, outdoor relief undermined the economic conditions of the poor and laboring classes:

Unskilled workers would have to compete against those receiving outdoor relief, who because their earnings were augmented could work for a lower wage. Without such subsidized competition, wages for unskilled workers would be higher.

The increase in taxes needed to finance outdoor relief would increase poverty among otherwise self-sufficient people, whom we now refer to as the working poor. Thus, distress wasn’t relieved, but merely shifted to a class far more deserving than the class being aided.

As a result of the extension of outdoor relief, “the springs of gratuitous benevolence have been well nigh dried up . . . .” Men were subtly encouraged to abandon their families, parents their infant children, and grown children their aged parents. Furthermore, the ability of private charity to exercise “delicacy” and “discrimination” in the administration of relief, responding generously to those in true need, and denying relief to the undeserving, was replaced by “the regulated ministrations” of the poverty officials.

The able-bodied but idle poor were prone to “the mischief which proceeds from idleness”; including “relaxed industry,” intemperance, licentiousness, and degraded respect for honesty and property. Indeed, patriotism was replaced by class struggle between “the higher and lower divisions,” the former viewing the latter as a burden, and the latter viewing the former as unjustly withholding its due.

Finally, regarding those who truly needed to be supported, their support was cut short by the increased financial strain on the treasury. Funding was cut and economies forced in the public infirmaries, dispensaries, and asylums that served the enfeebled aged, the disabled, orphan children, and that responded to the periodic needs of the laboring classes for assistance in times of distress. Thus, “public charity has been profuse where it ought not, and it has also been niggardly where it ought not.”

To Chalmers, there was a clear distinction between justice and charity: “Justice, with its precise boundary, and well-defined fights, is the fit subject for the enactments of the statute book; but nothing can be more hurtful and heterogeneous, than to bring the terms, or the ministrations of benevolence, under the bidding of authority . . . .” The problem with outdoor relief wasn’t that it incorrectly asserted that we have an obligation to help the deserving poor, but that we turned to the government to fulfill this obligation. The sphere of the civil magistrate is justice, not charity.

Chalmers argued for nothing less than an immediate and complete abolition of outdoor relief. “Would it not be better that all this bungling and mismanagement were cleared away at once?” he argued. To those who criticized his radical approach, he answered, “How comes it that he who questions the expediency of poor-rates is usually regarded as a man of visionary, or at least of adventurous speculation; and that he who resists every change of habit, or of existing institution, is deemed to be a man of sound and practical wisdom, who, unseduced by any ingenious or splendid sophistry, sits immovably entrenched within the safeguards of experience?”


Progress Against Poverty

In 1834, the English Parliament ended outdoor relief; as more or less did the several states of the United States at about the same time. There followed a century of progress against poverty, spearheaded by the harnessing for good of both self-interest and compassion that occurs in a free society. Private charities sprang up on both sides of the Atlantic like flowers in the springtime, bringing help to almost everyone in need, especially during times of natural and economic distress.

So successful was this effort that the very definition of poverty came to be revised again and again, so that what we now consider to be the minimum standard of living consistent with human decency would be beyond the imagination of those in Chalmers’ day.

But with the return of “outdoor relief,” this progress against poverty has now come to halt. The government’s definition of poverty hasn’t been changed since the 1960s, and the numbers and percentage of people who are poor by that definition have been on the increase. Standards of living among working people have been falling, and the taxpayers of our generation have been forced to send their wives and children into the labor market.

It was one thing for the compassionate people of the eighteenth century to wish to use the awesome powers of the government to “do something” for the poor. The same could be said about the compassionate people of our own century. It was and is another thing to resist changing the welfare system that was supposed to help the poor once the disasters of that system become obvious. At such times, it is for men of faith, men like Thomas Chalmers who trust in God’s providential design, to have the moral courage to advocate real change.