With the holiday season you’re likely to have heard the line from Dickens’ Christmas Carol at least once this month. You know, when the charity fundraisers come to Scrooge’s office looking for a handout for the needy and Scrooge responds grufly with “Are there no prisons… and the Union workhouses, are they still in operation?” Referencing the way in which the early Victorians dealt with the problems of homelessness, debt and unemployment.
Dickens uses this as an example of Scrooge’s miserly inhumanity and lack of charity. The fundraisers visiting him are embodiments of the liberal movement which was just catching on at that time, and Scrooge the symbol of the harsh old system liberalism would eventually do away with. And there’s no question that the prisons, almshouses, poorhouses and other ‘charitable’ institutions of that era were horrible places which we’re well rid of. No one has seriously considered returning to that sort of system because of the evil reputation which still lingers from that time, but perhaps it’s sensible this Christmas season to look at the possibilities of a reinvention of the concept of the Victorian workhouse for the modern era.
Workhouses were the Victorian way of dealing with the poor, homeless and unemployed. Their equivalent of today’s guys on street corners with signs saying “will work for food”. If you were indigent and could not provide for yourself or get a job, you were taken care of by state-sponsored charities. They would clothe you (in a nice warm wool uniform), feed you three meals a day, and house you (in dormitories segregated by age and gender). To cover the expense of these services you were put to work in a Workhouse doing relatively unskilled and not terribly physical labor – basically the kind of work we’re farming out to 12 year olds in Indonesia and Malaysia today. Under this system there was no tax burden for welfare, no problem with unemployment and no one starving or wandering homeless in the streets.
On paper it looks like a fantastic solution to the problems of social welfare. The catch was in the way that the system was administered. Because the standards set for workhouses were very basic and government oversight was minimal, they were a way for operators to take both government money and money earned from the labor of the workers and pocket as much of it as they could skim. By providing bare minimum sustenance and shelter and working the laborers as hard as possible there was real money to be made by those at the top. These abuses could have easily been resolved by a relatively modest increase in government oversight and enforcement, but by the time the government in England was willing to address these issues the system had already gotten such a bad reputation that they ended up doing away with it instead, and because of that reputation no one has been willing to look at the concept or anything even vaguely similar for more than a century.
The workhouse as a general concept is past due for rehabilitiation. With proper care taken to make sure that abuses are controlled it might be a superior solution to a lot of the social welfare problems our country faces at a much, much lower cost than the alternatives. We already have a precedent operating in our prison system. Prisoners in many states are put to work at a variety of tasks – telemarketing more than chain gangs these days – with the money going to pay reparations to their victims or to offset prison expenses or even to the prisoners themselves. Why not extend the concept to help out those without jobs or homes as well?
Here’s how the system would work. Everyone would get 6 months of unemployment benefits to give them time to look for a new job. Those who remained unemployed after that period would no longer receive benefits but would become eligible to apply for a ‘worker rehabilitation’ program. These programs would be state supervised with some federal grant money for startup. They would provide workers with basic communal housing and food in exchange for which workers would be given work to do. They would also have access to basic job and money management education and would have a portion of their earnings reserved in an account from which they would receive a lump payment when they ‘graduated’ from the system.
Yes, it would be an awful lot like putting poor people in prison – or more like a combination job, public housing project and school. But it would work, and it would be humane, avoiding the problems of the workhouses of the past. Participants would be protected by a ‘bill of rights’, and an arbitration system if there were problems with management. All of their needs would be provided for, including on-site medical care and daycare for children. Families would be kept together and the complexes would include facilities for entertainment and exercise. Participants days would be strictly controlled. There would be 6 hours of work, 4 of education, 3 hours for meals, 2 hours for recreation and 9 hours for sleep every day. Life would be highly regimented for participants, but discipline is part of the training which they need. I’d even go so far as to suggest uniforms and organized team sports to develop a sense of community, as well as taking away most peronal possessions on a temporary basis, including automobiles and televisions – all to be returned on ‘graduation’.
Another pitfall we would want to avoid is making this part of a new, huge government bureaucracy. The solution is to privatize the entire system. While some money would come from federal and local government in the form of start-up grants and a per participant subsidy (much lower than current welfare costs per person), the system would largely be funded by the proceeds of working participants. The operators would be able to hire out their participants either on-site or transported by bus to other locations to do all sorts of jobs which are currently being outsourced or filled by illegal immigrant labor. These are jobs which we have trouble finding adult citizen workers to do, so why not fill them with program participants rather than sending them overseas or using illegals? This would both help our economy and dry up the demand for illegal workers. Wages might be fairly low, depending on the work, but expenses per participant would also be low. If take home pay averaged $48 per participant per day, one third of that would go into a savings fund for the worker and two thirds would go to pay their expenses. Government subsidies would match what each worker earned for the system. This would be less than half the amount currently paid by government for each welfare recipient, and the total money for expenses would be more than enough to cover costs plus reasonable profit. Workers would end up doing things like assembly work, telemarketing, telephone support and even farm, construction and demolition labor. Why send this work overseas when they could be done here?
Lest you fear that this would turn into a huge civil rights problem, the basic principle would be that entry into the system and exit from the system would be entirely voluntary. If you want to remain unemployed you can, up until the point you are picked up for vagrancy, at which point you could only be put into the system involuntarily after a trial. No criminal record would be created but you would be sentenced to at least 6 months of ‘work rehabilitiation’. Once in the system, if you get a job you can get out immediately and take your saved earnings with you. Possible abuses and exploitation could be monitored fairly easily by regular inspections and a state-sponsored grievance process.
This system would also save enormous amounts of money for the taxpayer. Currently it costs us between $17,000 and $25,000 for every person living entirely on welfare, including children. A system like this could cut that cost by half or more and direct the money into the private sector while also making the participants productive members of society. Regimented, communal living and dining can cut expenses per person substantially, with the leftover money being used to pay for facilities and educational resources – easily farmed out to local community colleges which would be eager to participate. Being able to hire workers out as a group would open up employment opportunities in many areas by saving potential employers the difficulty of groing through the time and expense of worker recruitment.
The homeless and the unemployed are already a financial drain on society, receiving welfare and other assistance from taxpayer money. Once they have essentially gone on the dole and become a burden on society they have essentially become endebted to society. Wouldn’t it be better to offer a different route, where they can be productive and useful and live a decent life, and get some preparation to move back into society and carry their fair share of responsibility?
My only concern with a program like this is that I think some participants will become dependent on the system, especially on the imposed structure of the lifestyle, and be unwilling to ever leave it. There’s also the issue of permanent participants and old age. The system might not be able to accomodate those who cannot work well, though some sort of semi-retirement element could be built into it.
There’s more to be worked out, but it is something to muse on.
Henderson, Davis et al. The Life and Economics of David Ricardo
Dickens, Charles, A Christmas Carol
Dickens, Charles, Oliver Twist
Wood, Peter, Poverty and the Workhouse in Victorian Britain