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Concept.png Workhouse Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png

A workhouse or poorhouse was for the most part a form of exploitation which forced beggars and people who could not support themselves (men/women) into a residence along with others, where they were cut off from the wider community for a prolonged time to teach them work ethics and earn a living ("The one that does not work, should not eat either.").


There are different accounts how caring the situation was for humans who were forced to live in these institutions, or who have been under such economic pressure that there was basically no other chance to survive for them than to "sign up" for it. Workhouses have become a focus point when there was a labour shortage after the black death, or a surplus of people without employment had to be addressed. The first dedicated workhouse was established in London in 1555, the last remnants of related legislation and practice have come to an end in Germany in 1969.


The German Meyers Konversations-Lexikon from 1888 to 1890 describes three basic forms of workhouses:[1]

  • 1) Institutions in which forced labor was used as a means of punishment, and which in addition to punishment, also seek to achieve the moral improvement of the convicts [...]. The punishment of the workhouse, which was first methodically applied in England in the 16th century and imposed in several German states before 1871, was abolished in Germany by the Reich Penal Code. However, the state police authorities are to be authorized to place certain persons (beggars, prostitutes) in a workhouse or to use them for community service for up to two years after serving their sentence. [...]
  • 2) Forced labor houses for stubborn beggars and idlers who are harmful to the community, where they are forced to work hard. Today's German workhouses, according to their nature and purpose, could be compared to their English counterparts, the latter playing a major role in the care of the poor. The furnishing of the English workhouse is based primarily on the theory of deterrence. It is calculated to discourage the use of public assistance as much as possible and to avoid being accepted into a workhouse by own acquisition.
  • 3) Workhouses into which working poor people can be voluntarily admitted or are accommodated in the sense of humane care of the poor. These can be private or public institutions. In favor of such workhouses speaks that the earnings can to a certain extent cover the costs of the support, which are very much reduced due to common use, etc., and that through the conduct of the institution it gets possible to create a sense for the pleasure of work in the supported person, which at the same time secures him the consciousness that he has not yet sunk down to the class of alms recipients. Since people who are willing to work but unemployed deserve philanthropic participation, the workhouse must never be associated with institutions for criminals and idlers; rather, everything must be done to spare the sense of honor of these guiltless unfortunate people.

Future developments

Universal Basic Income

Full article: UBI

Going from the experience of the suppression of workers rights throughout history, Universal Basic Income may not end in utopia and come down to circumstances that are not so different from what the workhouse of the past has been, in a new feudal system.

20/80 society

Full article: 20/80 society

The 20/80 society is a projected society of the 21st century. 20% of the population will be enough to keep the world economy going. The other 80% live on some form of welfare.[citation needed]