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Oliver Twist was published serially in 1836-37. Just a few years before, in 1834, Parliament had passed the Poor Law Amendment Act, sometimes known simply as the New Poor Law. The law changed the conditions under which the poor could receive public assistance, or "relief." Perhaps the two most noteworthy aspects of the law were these:

  • The law reversed a centuries-old assumption (dating to the time of Queen Elizabeth) that public assistance for individuals in financial distress was a right or (as we would these days say) an "entitlement."
  • The law set about actively to discourage the poor from seeking public assistance through the principle of "less-eligibility"; that is, the principle that the condition of the person receiving relief should be "less eligible" than that of a person earning the lowest possible wage.

One way that the less-eligibility principle was realized was by requiring those receiving relief to do so "indoors" — that is, by entering a workhouse or (in the disparaging terminology of the poor themselves) a "poor law Bastille," where shelter and food, deliberately kept minimal and unappealing, had to be "earned" by labor. Families inside the workhouse were broken up. Inhabitants were required to wear coarse clothing.

It's not our purpose in English 315 to reach political conclusions about the past or present. However, two facts must be noted. First, Charles Dickens found the 1834 poor law abhorrent and set out, in Oliver Twist, to attack it. Second, the thinking behind the poor law remains very much alive today. See, for example, this recent news story about Lt. Governor Andre Bauer of South Carolina, who compares providing government assistance to "feeding stray animals."