The reform of the Poor Laws extended the growing chasm between the middle classes and the working population. The poor law, as it existed in the early 1830s was not a system but, in Sidney Checkland's words, "an accretion", determined by statutes passed two centuries earlier in a different economic and social world, without central organisation and left to the discretion and vagaries of local parishes. Any attempt to reconstruct the poor law would have to be both bold and grand. The old poor law, constructed in the late sixteenth century, touched almost every aspect of domestic government. It provided the only general social securities and the only general regulation of labour. But its main characteristic was perhaps the almost compete lack of either central control or uniform policy. The old poor law also provided no clear answers to certain critical questions: was unemployment to be regarded as an offence or a misfortune? Was relief to be administered as a deterrent, as a dole or as a livelihood? Economic distress in the mid 1790s led to the introduction of 'allowances on aid of wages', generally though not accurately known as the 'Speenhamland system' after its first application in Berkshire in 1795. What was initially perceived as a temporary expedient became a necessity for the labouring population in the depressed agrarian south after 1815. Escalating costs, changing ideological perceptions and the 'Swing' riots of 1830 led to an increasingly focused challenge to the existing system which was seen as corrupting and lenient and for demands that more rigour should be imposed on the poor.
Broadly speaking, opinion on the poor laws was divided into three: into those who wished to retain them, those who wished to modify them and those who wished to abolish them.
- Humanitarians, sentimental radicals and paternalistic Tories belonged to the first group. They believed that there was a strong imperative of humane social responsibility in providing a basic measure of social security for the labouring poor and this seemed to them to outweigh its disadvantages.
- The second group, who wished to modify the existing system, were to some degree motivated by the same sentiments but were alarmed by its escalating cost and sought to reduce it.
- The third group was the most influential and powerful if the least numerous. Its guiding lights were political economy and Malthusianism. They believed that labourers must operate within the framework of the free market economy and 'social discipline'.
The latter had the better of the argument and by the early 1830s it had become a commonplace wisdom among the middle classes and many of the aristocratic elite, especially the Whigs, that the poor laws encouraged indolence and vice.
The Royal Commission set up in 1832 to investigate the workings of the poor law was weighted towards 'progressive' opinion and quickly confirmed what the Commissioners had set out to prove. There may have been exaggeration of the abuses of the old poor law in the 1834 Poor Law Report. Mark Blaug has shown that its economic consequences were not understood by contemporaries or by later historians but there was no misunderstanding of purpose by those who framed the Poor Law Amendment Act, especially Edwin Chadwick its guiding force. Chadwick could not adopt any of the approaches argued by the three groups. He objected to the basic security conception of the humanitarians and to the notion of the 'parish in business'. He, however, differed from the Malthusians and political economists in two important respects:
- The idea of abandoning any attempt at control was deeply opposed to his bureaucratic temperament.
- He did not agree with the Malthusian proposition that population must inevitably outrun resources and asserted that there was no economic problem that greater and freer productivity could not solve. His primary objection to the old poor law was that they held down productivity by effectively pauperising the independent labourer and the laws of settlement immobilised a huge labour force that factories were crying out for. Chadwick wanted to 'de-pauperise' the able-bodied poor and drive them into the open labour market.
This could be achieved, Chadwick believed, by making it the labourer's interest to join the free labour market through the process of less eligibility. This would induce the majority of able-bodied paupers to refuse poor relief and provide capital for development and productivity.
The 1834 Act did not aim to deal with the nature or lack of provision, but only with excess. It had not been politically practical to abolish public relief completely but the relief for those unwilling to unable to make provision for themselves was to be on terms less favourable than those obtained by the lowest paid worker in employment [the principle of 'less eligibility']. This would eliminate abuse and fraud. Pauperism was a defect of character as there was always work available at the prevailing market price if it was sought strenuously enough. Hard work and thrift would always ensure a level of competence, however modest the level at which individuals were working. These values, reflecting emergent middle class ideology, made a lasting impression on society for the rest of the century. The sense of shame at the acceptance of public relief, the stigma of the workhouse and the dread of the pauper's funeral were central facets of the attitudes of the working population. They played a major role in the definition of 'respectability' that emerged among both the middle classes and labourers. The 1834 Act embodied the ideology of the political economists but it could be presented by its opponents as an abuse of the poor: the poor law agitation before 1834 was aimed at amelioration but after 1834 the rigour of the system generated a counter-pressure in favour of easement.
The 1834 Act was important in three respects.
- First, unlike factory or mine reform, the thinking behind the act was rural rather than urban in basis. This led to the adoption of a programme entirely unsuitable and unworkable in the industrial urban setting of northern England and accounted for the widespread opposition to its introduction after 1836. A simple reversal from relaxation to rigour could succeed in the agrarian south to a considerable extent but matters were different in the industrial north. There the new poor law was politicised, first by the anti-poor law agitation and then by the effects of the introduction of the electoral principle into poor law affairs.
- Secondly, 1834 was the result of a generalised view of a whole range of problems and contained a moral rather than an environmental view of the poor and within this framework aimed at comprehensiveness and internal consistency.
- Finally, it created the first effective element of centralised British bureaucracy, intended to preside over a general social policy with central control and supervision with local administration.
The standardising intentions of national legislators almost immediately came into conflict with the responses of local people who dealt with the realities of immediate situations. Localities could and did ignore or evade the instructions of the Commissioners. Outdoor relief could not be withheld in seasonal employment like agriculture or during trade depressions in industrial centres. Checkland has argued that this "generated a kind of schizophrenia when placed alongside the concepts embodied in the governing Act of 1834....[producing] concessions to common sense and common humanity."
Despite this there is no doubt that imposing 'rigour' resulted in much hardship under the Act. There are accounts of deficient diet, penal workhouses, families torn apart and the denial of dignity to the old. The poor were abused because of a combination of indifference to their plight and social zealotry because of the dogma enshrined in the enabling legislation.
The Act was intended as an attack on a structural problem: the conditions and behaviour of the labouring poor, especially in agrarian regions, the intention of reducing abuse, and to stop confusion between wages and relief. Can this be seen as an expression of middle class values grounded in the ideology of political economy? In simplistic terms it probably can but the relationship between political economy and poor law policy was in practice far more complex. The uniformity of support by the middle classes for political economy can be easily over-exaggerated and the nature of the trade cycle resulted in their refusal to implement the full rigour of the 1834 Act in their industrial centres.
The Poor Law Report may have been over-optimistic in believing that uniformity of practice was possible but its principles established attitudes to poverty, which still have current significance. Ursula Henriques maintains that "In 1834 the new development was given a scope, a momentum and a character which made it irreversible. The change was more immediate and more complete in the south than in the north, but it was lasting.... The Victorian workhouse and all it stood for.... was perhaps the most permanent and binding institution of Victorian England. Not until the working class had obtained the vote and entirely different attitudes to poverty in general and unemployment in particular began to creep in at the turn of the century did the principles of 1834 start to lose their grip."
 The debate over the poor laws is best approached through J.R. Poynter Society and Pauperism: English Ideas on Poor Relief 1795-1834, Routledge, 1969 and R.G.Cowherd Political Economists and the English Poor Laws, Ohio U.P., 1978. G.R. Boyer An Economic History of the English Poor Law 1750-1850, CUP, 1990 is an important defence of Malthusian ideas. G. Himmelfarb The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age, Faber, 1984 is a challenging study. J.D. Marshall The Old Poor Laws 1795-1834, Macmillan, 2nd. ed., 1985 is a brief bibliographical essay.
 A. Brundage The Making of the New Poor Law 1833-39, Hutchinson, 1979, S.G. and E. Checkland (eds.) The Poor Law Report of 1834, Penguin, 1974, A. Digby The Poor Law in Nineteenth Century England and Wales, The Historical Association, 1982, D. Fraser (ed.) The New Poor Law in the Nineteenth Century, Macmillan, 1976, M.E. Rose The Relief of Poverty 1834-1914, Macmillan, 2nd ed., 1985 and P. Wood Poverty and the Workhouse in Victorian England, Alan Sutton, 1991 are the most useful books on the introduction and operation of the 'new' poor law.