Thursday 25 November 2010

'The Poor' in the Twenty-First Century?

As is often the case for PhD students - bright-eyed, naive, and maybe plain daft - I've recently been working as a teaching assistant on an undergraduate course. Remember the person who smirked one moment and wrung their hands the next, alternated between mind-blowing arrogance and unbelievable ignorance, and packed you into a drab office-tower seminar room on a Thursday morning when you'd rather be in bed, they'd rather be in bed, and the seconds ticked by as slowly as the sands of time... Well, that's me now. Only more ignorant.

One of the ploys I like to use to engage students on something that they might not know much about, and probably don't want to know much about, is the idea that beliefs of 'the past'
are just as apparent today, but expressed in a different type of language. Structurally apparent in, say, a class-based system, if you will. So, this week on a miserable autumn's morning, our discussion passed onto the subject of perceptions of the equally miserable British poor in the nineteenth century. In particular, we highlighted the concerns of the Reverend Thomas Malthus. In a nutshell, Malthus wrote that methods of poor relief like the Speenhamland System, which gave higher amounts of money based on the size of your family, 'encouraged' people to be poor. Consequently, the poor as a group would keep growing disproportionately in relation to the rest of society.

What an absolutely luuuuuudicrous idea!!!!!!!!! What kind of out-of-touch, dinosaur, elitist, know-nothing-no-good-right-wing-lunatic would believe such a thing?!?!?!

Ahem. In step New Tory peer, Howard Flight.

"We're going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it's jolly expensive.... But for those on benefits, there is every incentive. Well, that's not very sensible."

He may be talking about benefits rather than 'outdoor relief', but is the point being made really that different?

My students managed a wry smile, but they may have just been humouring me - or, perhaps, with the way this current government is working out, nothing surprises them that much anymore? Either way, and not that surprisingly, history repeats itself.