Welfare in the community: taking the long view

Recently, The Guardian reported that applicants for social housing would need to have lived in an area for four years and pass a residency test. The idea that welfare should only be provided for those who can prove a long-term link to the place of provision is not a new idea. In the early sixteenth century debates raged over the best strategies of charity, and who was eligible to receive it. In 1525 the Ypres Scheme of Poor Relief called for tighter restrictions on the poor, and in 1526 the Valencian humanist Juan Luis Vives wrote the landmark text De Subventione Pauperum whilst living in Bruge, which advocated a range of restrictions on the poor and their freedom to beg for alms. Treaties on poverty and charity proliferated and were taken up in the design of poor laws, which also proliferated in the sixteenth century. Under the rubric of discourses on charity, poverty became increasingly criminalised. In Spain the category of ‘natureleza’ became important; the supplicant must seek alms in his own city, and the wandering mendicant was not welcome. Within this legislation the movement between places was restricted, and the persecution of ‘the stranger’ intensified.
But who is ‘the stranger’, and why is he or she feared? The essay of the important early-nineteenth-century sociologist Georg Simmel still provides insight into the category of the stranger. In his understanding, the stranger is not ‘the wanderer who comes today and goes tomorrow, but rather the person who comes today and stays tomorrow’ (George Simmel, 1908). Simmel contended that the position of this stranger is determined ‘by the fact that he has not belonged to [the group] from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it, which do not and cannot stem from the group itself’. Simmel continued, ‘the stranger, like the poor and like sundry “inner enemies,” is an element of the group itself’. The stranger, like the poor, is a disruption, prompting enough hesitation for an unwanted reflection on our social condition.

History has presented us with many different examples of how to achieve ‘full society’. In early Christian texts poverty was represented as a sacred identity and charity was to be extended to the stranger. When the first hospitals were established in late Antiquity they did not only accommodate the domestic poor but also strangers, refugees or victims of shipwrecks. History has also given us many examples of how the deconstruction of full society can occur. The sixteenth-century poor laws increasingly criminalised mendicancy, especially those soliciting charity outside their place of birth. These poor laws were an attack on the poor, and especially the poor stranger, but they were also an attack on what the historian Peter Brown called the ‘aesthetic of society’, a sense of what constitutes a good society (Peter Brown, 2005). For Brown, historically this has meant remembering the poor who, like the stranger, have often been cut off from support networks and have become ‘eminently forgettable persons’. History teaches us that communities face tough choices when they craft their ‘aesthetic of society’, and one indicator of this has been the treatment of ‘eminently forgettable persons’. As we craft our new welfare policies it is worth remembering the value of such historic indicators.

Julia McClure

This blog was written as part of the launch of the poverty research network


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