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Are There No Workhouses?

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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

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About Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle is Executive Director of the Texas Liberty Foundation, Chairman of the Center for Foreign and Defense Policy, South Central Regional Director for the Republican Liberty Caucus and an advisory board member at the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He was Texas State Director for the Gary Johnson Presidential campaign, an adviser to the Ted Cruz senatorial campaign, Communications Director for the Travis County Republican Party and National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. He has also consulted on many political campaigns, specializing in messaging. Before focusing on political activism, he owned or was a partner in several businesses in the publishing industry and taught college-level history for 20 years.
  • Hey, Gonzo Marx is right, this article is more relevant today than ever before. A real, humane solution to poverty and homelessness!


  • Relevant in August and even more relevant today when it’s a year old and still just as valid for this holiday season as it was for the last.

    I actually went to a performance of Oliver today at a local theater and it reminded me of this article during the scene in the foundling home and with the street arabs working for Fagin.

    The problems of poverty were so much greater in Dickens England than they were today, yet they managed to find solutions which required minimal government intrusion and were potentially humane – had they been managed less corruptly.

    It may seem backwards, but perhaps we could learn something from that past culture.


  • There’s also the issue that most people simply wouldn’t co-operate with such a scheme, especially in such an excessively individualised country as the USA. I doubt that would even work in Europe, Dave, where we still generally believe that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the individual.

  • And I agree with the rights of the individual being paramount in a free society, but the workhouse concept can work within that context, if as I suggest in the article, participation is on an at will basis. You would always have the option to leave the system, receive no public assistance and sink or swim on your own.


  • gonzo marx

    until yer busted for “vagrancy” under your plan, eh Mr Nalle?

    as long as Profit is involved for corporate structure you will have abuses….check the history of work programs in our prison system…many instances of abuse…not quite on the Dickensian scale, but still there

    there are some possibilities in this Concept, i just cannot see it working as long as Corporate culture is allowed to be in charge…since Profit is their only motivation rather than the welfare of those Involved…far too easy for a “company store” type scam where these poor folks can never get themselves out of Debt to the “system” and essentially become indentured servants to “the Company”

    does anyone else but me see the Irony of the same person writing this piece AND the Santa Claus piece at the same time?

    could just be me


  • until yer busted for “vagrancy” under your plan, eh Mr Nalle?

    At which point you’d be given three hots and a cot, medical care and a roof over your head for six months ‘recovery’ which would include drying out and detoxing, after which you’d be free to try again.

    as long as Profit is involved for corporate structure you will have abuses….check the history of work programs in our prison system…many instances of abuse…not quite on the Dickensian scale, but still there

    I’m certainly no fan of private prison management, which has a dismal record, but private charities have a much better record, and they’d be in the lead role here.

    there are some possibilities in this Concept, i just cannot see it working as long as Corporate culture is allowed to be in charge…since Profit is their only motivation rather than the welfare of those Involved…far too easy for a “company store” type scam where these poor folks can never get themselves out of Debt to the “system” and essentially become indentured servants to “the Company”

    This is only because you think that businesses are inherently evil, when that’s really not the case.

    does anyone else but me see the Irony of the same person writing this piece AND the Santa Claus piece at the same time?

    You think Santa would not endorse a humane system to provide support for the most needy in society?




  • My Dickens must be off. If Ebenezer grew up in the workhouse, then presumably it must have been that Twist fellow who wasn’t keen on Christmas.

  • bliffle

    Given the 2009 circumstances, the widespread failures of our leaders and rulers, do we need Workhouses for the rich?

  • Siberian labor camps is a much better place.

  • bliffle

    If the purpose of Workhouses is to administer a dose of humility to slackers that, one hopes, will inspire them to go forward and do better, who is more deserving than the rich knaves who precipitated this economic fiasco?

  • Workhouses are for people who have no means of support and need a place to live and 3 square meals. I think that what your class-envy desires for the rich are deathcamps.


  • I don’t subscribe to any class envy concept, Dave, nor do I share it. It’s foreign to me – as it ought to be to every true-blue American. That’s one reason, I maintain, why communist ideology in America is a dead end: we’ve all bought into the bourgeoise values and those of egalitarianism.

    But your anger should be more directed against these greedy bastards rather than the poor.

  • Mar k

    We will (hedge: might well) need ‘workhouses’ along the line of the CCC before this crisis is over. Dave is the humanist in this case.

    As for the other red meat — the French found the guillotine cathartic.

  • I’d like to believe that (about Dave). And it may have to come to that unless we experience a miraculous recovery. The Soviet experiment, though, with forced labor camps for “crimes against society” is more humane and constructive than the Reign of Terror. I sure hope that people like Madoff and Sanford get their proper due.

  • I don’t believe I’ve expressed any anger towards the poor. Read this article. It’s really a pretty sensible suggestion on how to handle the poor and unemployed humanely, adapting the victorian idea which was originally quite liberal in intent to the modern context, while addressing the obvious shortcomings.


  • Well, if it’s going to be like anything that Mark suggested in #14, approximating CCC, I’d have no problem with it – a kind of halfway house. Except I mightn’t go for what was a liberal standard in the Victorian age. I believe we’ve progressed somewhat since.

  • What you’ve got to remember about 19th century liberalism is that while their intentions were usually good, their ability to follow through on them sometimes left something to be desired.

    In the case of workhouses they went wrong because although they had the right idea by putting them out for private management, there was too little government oversight. We’ve gotten better at that since then, plus liberal values have permeated the society far more, so that no one is going to let a workhouse run as a business become abusive. Someone in authority will claim oversight and regulatory power and keep things in line.


  • bliffle

    What silliness has been voiced here since my post #11.

    Workhouses for the poor are NOT instituted to help the poor and provide them with 3 hot meals a day and a warm place to sleep. Anyone with an eye in his head can see that everywhere this has been done that the cheap privatizers responsible ALWAYS drive the expenditures down to gruel and a diseased blanket.

    Do you really think that Dave Nalle suddenly gives a care about the fortunes of the miserable? How deluded must you be?

    Workhouses, which have always been miserable disease-ridden holes within which people die with alarming suddenness, have ALWAYS been with the intention of punishing the poor and unfortunate. “So that they may improve” is always the given excuse.

    That’s why the poor avoid them like the plague. They are horrible. And there is NO way to improve workhouses. Because at the very center of the whole scheme is not help, but PUNISHMENT. They are invented by punishers, not helpers.
    Take a look at the people who advocate workhouses.

    So, as I said before, the purpose of workhouses is to improve the ‘morals’ and behaviour of failed people.

    In that case, why not workhouses for the rich failures we find all around us? Perhaps they’ll do better in the future.

    Isn’t that what Mao did with his “8th of May” camps? And didn’t it work?

  • R. Paul

    “you were put to work in a Workhouse doing relatively unskilled and not terribly physical labor -”

    Who ever said these things were not physical? Children were used in some of the most dangerous jobs the Victorians had. Little boys aged 5-6 were used as chimney sweeps where some suffocated to death or had broken bones that never healed properly. Young girls and boys went to work in textile mills where they were to clean the huge machine while they were running. These kids worked 16 hours days with no sunshine. Women were used as well as children in match factories dealing with yellow phosphorus where they developed Flossy jaw aka necrosis of the jawbone. All this for a paltry 4pence a day which didn’t mean they would get all of the money due to “fines” the employer made them pay.
    How can anyone think that this wasn’t hard work and cruel work.
    Not a way for a caring country to treat its poor and its young.

  • Starlord

    written 7th February 2014
    Very interesting!

    What do you propose to do with those ‘vagrants’ who once sentenced to 6 months in this nouveau-Workhouse refuse to participate or contribute, ie they refuse to work as slaves, try to set-up a Union and call for the Right To Strike, to withhold one’s labour, refuse to wear the uniform, and do as much as they can to cause disruption and revolution?

    After all they are here against their will! Entry and exit is voluntary, just as it was with the old Workhouses, but here you make it compulsory for vagrants.

    Would they simply be thrown out to become a vagrant once again and when picked-up again sentenced to yet another 6 months of ‘worker rehabilitation’?

    Or would they instead now be thrown into a proper prison and thereby gain a criminal record for some crime committed within the nouveau-Workhouse? And what would be their crime given that being a vagrant caused them to be sentenced to 6 months in the nouveau-Workhouse in the first place and without a criminal record because they’d committed no crime. Surely they could argue that they are being held against their will and have not been found guilty of a crime even though sentenced to 6 months.

    Unless perhaps being a vagrant or a pauper or unemployed is a crime in itself or is to be made so?

    Under this system what will stop the unemployed person from entering upon a life of crime in order to have money in their pocket at all times and thereby avoid being arrested for vagrancy? They could completely avoid entry into the nouveau-Workhouse. In fact it seems to me that they would be incentivised to commit crime under such a system in order to avoid the nouveau-Workhouse.

    Love, Light & Laughter