Poor, an appellation given to persons, whose situation is so reduced as to render them chargeable to the parish.
Previously to the Reformation, the poor received alms, and other benefa6tions, from the monasteries, and religious houses ; but, on the suppression of the latter, the wealth with which they were endowed, was diverted into other channels and the poor, being thus left destitute, became a heavy burthen to the nation at large. in order to remedy this inconvenience, the 14th Eliz. c. 5, and the 43d Eliz. c. 2, were enacted, by which certain rates or assessments are to be levied for their relief; and which have been continued to the present day.
The 43d Eliz. is generally regarded as the basis of the poor-laws in England ; and, though it was framed with great judgment and circumspection, yet experience has evinced, that it is not calculated to produce the salutary effects, that were expected to result from these regulations. It would, indeed, be a task equally invidious and foreign to our plan, to point out the defects of any statutes that have been passed for the relief of the poor; yet, as this national provision (which prevails in no other country in Europe), has been considered as tending to produce consequences prejudicial to society, we shall briefly state a few of the objections that have been urged against its principle.
First, it is argued, such compulsory relief checks the spirit of industry, and frugality ; because the apprehension of being in want at some future period, which would otherwise stimulate persons to exert themselves during heath and youth, in order to provide against the approach of sickness and old age,must necessarily be weakened, when a prospect of receiving assistance from the parish is held out to the indigent. In consequence of such fallacious hopes, many unprincipled or phlegmatic individuals wilfully neglect to seize opportuniE ties of advancing in life, and obtaining an honest competence againt the day of want; so that, on the most trivial occasions, they become chargeable to the parish.
Farther, this legal relief is supposed to destroy every emotion of gratitude in those who receive it, and who are consequently led to imagine that they have a lawful claim to such assistance. These exactions apparently tend to extinguish charity, and to steel the hearts of the humane, even against a truly deserving object. It is true, the covetous are compelled to contribute towards the support of the poor, disabled, aged, and distressed; but the evils arising from such a system, more than counterbalance this advantage, and are eventually oppressive to many industrious families; who can ill afford to pay their quota of the poor-rates.
To remedy these notorious grievances, houses of industry, poor-houses, and work-houses, have been proposed and carried into effect. In c places, they have been attended with the most beneficial consequences : while, in others, the rates have continued to increase in a most alarming degree. This growing evil has been attributed (and we fear, in many cases, with too much justice), to the almost unbounded and resistless power, exercised by overseers in their respective parishes ; who are, for the greater part, illiterate landholders, that are put into office, according to the routine of business, on account of their large farms, or other occupations. One of the most rational expedients that can be suggested, with a view-to check such inconveniences, is the incorporation of the hundreds ; -and the appointment of men of liberal education to the superintendance of all affairs that respect the poor. Influenced by no selfish or pecuniary motives, they would conduct every part of their duty in the most economical manner ; and the necessary consequence would be the reduction of the poor-rates : -indeed, experience has proved, in parishes, where the attention of liberal-minded men to parochial-business was obtained, that a saving of several hundred pounds per ann. resulted to the benefit both of the poor, and of the house-keeper; but, as soon as gentlemen resigned their office, the old abuses were, renewed, and the rates were annually augmented in arithmetical progression.
In the 25th volume ofAnnals of Agriculture, there is an account of a most humane method of assisting the poor, which must be interesting to every reader, who possesses the smallest drop of the " milk of human kindness."—In the parishes of Ashley, and Newton, "Wiltshire ; and Shipton-moine, Gloucestershire; the landlord,THO. Estcourt, Esq. allotted fifteen perches of land to every cottager, which were inclosed in one large tract, that contained a sufficient number of acres. As some | of the soil were not perfectly level, lots were drawn, for the choice, by the cottagers, to whom every encouragement was offered, in case they diligently cultivated their gardens. The happy effects of this donation soon became evident : employment was furnished for the women and children, in planting potatoes, etc.; while the poorer inhabitants of those parishes, who had been dissipated, idle, and addicted to drunkenness, were gra-dually, by shutting up an ale-house, and repairing their dwellings, converted into honest, industrious, and valuable members of society.
We cannot, in justice, omit to mention the benevolent plan proposed by Lord Somerville. It consists in vesting a fund, for the reduction of the poor-rates, and the support of the aged, sick, etc. in the hands of proper persons. This fund is to be levied " either parochially, by hundreds, counties, or by one general accumulation of the whole kingdom," in certain proportions, according to the different classes, under the direction of respectable commissioners. For a minute account of his design, together with the arguments for and against the probability of its execution, the reader will consult his lordship's work, entitled, The System followed during the two last years by the Board of Agriculture, further illustrated, etc. (8vo. 2d edit. 1800.)—Some valuable remarks also occur in Mr. Saunders's Observations on the present State, and Influence of the Poor-Laws, etc. (8vo. pp. 190, 3s.6d. Sewell, 1800);—in Mr. Blea-mire's Remarks on thePoor-Laws, and the Maintenance of the Poor (8vo. pp. 36, Is. 6d. Butterworth, I8OO);—and, lastly, in the Reports of the Society for bettering the Condition, and increasing the Comforts of the Poor ; of which the third volume is in the press; a work that is periodically continued under the patronage of that benevolent association.