When Ebenezer Scrooge wondered aloud in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” — “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” — in response to a request for a charitable donation, that inquiry should make us wonder today if, indeed, we should make a reformed visit to the workhouse ideal.
The workhouses of the Victorian era were dingy, dull, repressive places that were based on a good idea — if you were poor or indigent, you would be taken in by a charity-sponsored workhouse and be fed and clothed and given a bed in exchange for your labor.
Workhouse dormitories were segregated by age and gender and were mainly populated by women and children. Indigent men were more often placed in prisons than in workhouses.
Workhouses were not only found in the UK.
The idea of a Workhouse in exchange for room and board was a worldwide phenomenon that suffered from a lack of governmental oversight and so many people were abused and forlorn in what quickly became filthy sites of existence.
I don’t think a Modern Day Workhouse needs to be stuck in the muck of the past. Is it possible to reinvent the workhouse as a safe haven for the homeless, the eternally poor and the forever misbegotten who could all begin to live and earn their way back into society via a government-sponsored program that finally reaches beyond common welfare gifts and housing subsidies?
If we removed child labor from the workhouse equation, could workhouses once again become reputable safe havens for those without shelter or a hope in the world?