By the eighteenth century many American workhouses had become combined prisons, almshouses and workhouses. The mixing of the unemployed, the poor and the criminal in workhouses reflected common attitudes to poverty and unemployment as being the result of the same immoral character as criminals.
Workhouses expanded and by the nineteenth century some of these workhouses lodged thousands of inmates. The workhouse was part punishment, part deterrent. In towns where there was no workhouse, cash relief was miserably low. The idea was to ensure that there was little choice for those offered extremely low wages for regular work outside of the workhouses.
At the same time prominent members of the public questioned whether these people should be aided with public taxes: “if the poor had pauperized themselves through drunkenness, impiety, idleness, extravagance, and immorality, public relief would only reinforce such habits” Efforts were made to reform the poor through conversion to a Christian life of hard work and sober living and through teaching middle-class values.
The common attitude that the lazy poor might prefer relief to good honest work ensured that cash relief was always less than any worker could earn and that increasingly work houses were favoured over cash handouts so the poor could be forced to work. In this way the workhouse was not only deterrent but also punishment.
Similarly English reformers such as J. T. Becher described early nineteenth century English workhouses as “a system of secluded restraint and salutary discipline, which, together with our simple yet sufficient Dietary, prove so repugnant to their dissolute habits that they very soon apply for a discharge, and devise means of self-support, which nothing short of compulsion could urge them to explore.”
A Royal Commission into the Poor Laws in 1832 in England recommended that “people supported by the parishes should not enjoy the same lifestyles as workers” and that cash relief payments should be abolished. Anyone who wanted help would have to come and live in a work house. Similar measures to deny relief to the able-bodied were established in Scotland.