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The Speenhamland system was a form of outdoor relief intended to mitigate rural poverty in England at the end of the 18th century and during the early 19th century. The law was an amendment to the Elizabethan Poor Law. It was created as an indirect result of Britain’s involvements in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815). The system was named after a 1795 meeting at the Pelican Inn in Speenhamland, Berkshire, where a number of local magistrates devised the system as a means to alleviate the distress caused by high grain prices. The increase in the price of grain most probably occurred as a result of a poor harvest in the years 1795–96, though at the time this was subject to great debate. Many blamed middlemen and hoarders as the ultimate architects of the shortage.
The authorities at Speenhamland approved a means-tested sliding-scale of wage supplements in order to mitigate the worst effects of rural poverty. Essentially, families were paid extra to top up wages to a set level according to a table. This level varied according to the number of children and the price of bread. For example, if bread was 1s 2d a loaf, the wages of a family with two children were topped up to 8s 6d. If bread rose to 1s 8d the wages were topped up to 11s 0d.
Speenhamland has been seen by Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation to aggravate the underlying causes of poverty in any particular parish,[further explanation needed] but more recent research has shown that it helped prevent chronic poverty and malnutrition, thus avoiding declining productivity in the workforce. The immediate impact of paying the poor rate fell on the landowners of the parish concerned. They then sought other means of dealing with the poor, such as the workhouse funded through parish unions. Eventually pressure due to structural poverty caused the introduction of the new Poor Law (1834).
The Speenhamland system appears to have reached its height during the Napoleonic Wars, when it was a means of allaying dangerous discontent amongst a growing rural proletariat faced by soaring food prices, and to have died out in the post-war period, except in a few parishes. The system was popular in the south of England. William Pitt the Younger attempted to get the idea passed into legislation but failed. The system was not adopted nationally but was popular in the counties which experienced the Swing Riots during the 1830s.
The Poor Law Commissioners' Report of 1834 called the Speenhamland System a "universal system of pauperism". The system allowed employers, including farmers and the nascent industrialists of the town, to pay below subsistence wages, because the parish would make up the difference and keep their workers alive. So the workers' low income was unchanged and the poor rate contributors subsidised the farmers.
Thomas Malthus believed a system of supporting the poor would lead to increased population growth rates because the Poor Laws encouraged early marriage. No empirical evidence shows a strong correlation between population rates and Speenhamland though.
This system of poor relief, and others like it, lasted until the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834.
Evidence in the last thirty years shows that the bread scale devised during the Speenhamland meeting in 1795 was by no means universal, and that even the system of outdoor relief which found one of its earliest, though not the first, expressions in Speenhamland was not completely widespread. Allowances, or supplements, to wages were used generally as a temporary measure, and the nature of their execution changed in various regions. Mark Blaug's classic 1960 essay The Myth of the Old Poor Law charged the commissioners of 1834 with largely using the Speenhamland system to vilify the old poor law and create will for the passage of a new one.
Speenhamland appears to have been one among many systems of bread scales, but it most likely owes its notoriety to Frederick Eden's The State of the Poor (1797). Eden attacked the system as an impediment to agricultural progress. Though some of Blaug's more drastic assertions may be ill-founded or overly polemical, it appears evident that Speenhamland was by no means a household name, and that since the practice was by January 1795 (the famous meeting was in May) being used in various villages, usually in conjunction with other means of relieving the poor. Because of failed attempts to reform the existing poor law at a national level, the scarcity of 1795 was largely dealt with by innovations in a haphazard way at the local level, and it seems improbable that a national and uniform policy existed.
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- Himmelfarb, Gertrude The Idea of Poverty
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