Measuring need
Speenhamland, hunger and universal pauperism
in The politics of hunger
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In May 1795 the Berkshire magistrates met in the small parish of Speenhamland to set a scale of ‘minimum incomes’ by family composition and the price of bread. The effects of the decision are now notorious, not least due to Malthus’ critique. The sociologists Fred Block and Margaret Somers have suggested that the ‘shadow of Speenhamland’ looms large over our attempts to understand the workings of the English poor laws but also retains a haunting presence in welfare debates in the neo-liberal age. Yet the actual mechanisms and subsequent history of ‘bread scales’ remain little understood. This chapter remedies this imbalance, and in so doing argues that subsequent perversions of the initial intentions behind Speenhamland-type payments meant that all agrarian workers became pauperised. Farmers mindful that the parish would supplement working incomes duly cut wages, thereby making need, and thus the discourse of hunger, universal. This extension of relief counter-intuitively required new modes of surveillance to limit costs, with parish officers essentially engaging in ‘means testing’ and otherwise excluding claimants on moral grounds. Hunger was now measured and quantified, the poor rendered as an undifferentiated body.

The politics of hunger

Protest, poverty and policy in England, c. 1750–c. 1850


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