I have reproduced the article in full, highlighting the "history lesson" bit in red.
"Rich and poor: deserving and undeserving
The attempt to distinguish between different categories of the poor is almost as old as the modern British state
When the Archbishop of Canterbury warned against "a quiet resurgence of the seductive language of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor" he may not have expected his immediate predecessor to lead a charge against "hand-outs given to the long-term unemployed", as he did this week. Yet Lord Carey's attack upon his fellow bishops for resisting the government's welfare reform legislation breathes new life into that most unhelpful of distinctions. According to Lord Carey, we now have a "bloated" welfare system that "rewards fecklessness and irresponsibility". In contrast, the former archbishop offers his own story of how hard work and diligence led him from a Dagenham council estate to Lambeth Palace. By so doing he reinforces the view that there are a whole category of people who are responsible – and thus to be blamed – for their own misfortune.
The attempt to distinguish between different categories of the poor is almost as old as the modern British state. The Elizabethan poor laws were designed to keep the poor at home – and thus to stop them from becoming vagrants. By the time of the Napoleonic wars, however, the rise in population, the escalating cost of war, and sharp differences in the scale of poor relief between urban and rural parishes, all led to the conclusion that the old poor law wasn't working. Utilitarians insisted that a great deal of poverty was not inevitable but a product of fecklessness. Economists like Rev Thomas Malthus argued that the Elizabethan poor law encouraged irresponsibly large families. All this has a horribly familiar ring again today.
The result was the introduction of an increasingly uniform system based around the idea of the workhouse – a place where paupers would be incarcerated and made to work. In 1834 the new poor law was promulgated. At its heart was the notion of less eligibility: reducing the number of people entitled to support, so that only those who could not work (rather than those who would not work) would receive support. It's here that the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor became a legal one. To deter those who would not work from applying for poor law support, workhouses were made deliberately unpleasant, often resembling a prison as much as a refuge. Critics condemned them as "the new Bastilles". As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens, we are witnessing a return of just the sort of language about the poor that he did so much to expose as cruel and inhuman.
Who are today's new undeserving poor? The familiar tabloid assumption is that you know them when you see them. The undeserving poor drink White Lightning in the daytime, have too many children, keep dangerous dogs and spend their lives lolling about on the sofa. Now as in the past, the undeserving poor make an easy and popular target, especially when public money is tight again. Which is why references to fecklessness and irresponsibility have become such effective drivers of the coalition's welfare reform legislation.
During the last recession in the 1990s, public attitudes towards those living on benefits were considerably more sympathetic than they are today. Anxieties involving welfare and work, immigration and housing shortage, have all contributed to a hardening approach. As the latest British Social Attitudes survey demonstrates, 55% of the English subscribe to the view that high benefits encourage poor people to remain poor. Which is undoubtedly why even the Labour party is hesitant to challenge the prevailing mood to limit state support for some of the most vulnerable in our society. Like any other government programme, welfare must be open to serious reform. Yet a society that cannot cap the income of the undeserving rich – witness the latest row over bank bonuses this week – but is quite happy to cut off funds to the poor is a society that has learned nothing from its own history."