A popular way of thinking about history goes something like this: Society is a train that travels along an inevitable, one-way track. As it hurtles ceaselessly forward, progress is made.
We once believed that the sun revolved around the earth, before rightly conceding the error of our ways and embracing heliocentrism. We once allowed black people to be kept as chattel, subjected regularly to torture and rape. But then we learned that slavery was wrong. We once hired children to toil in dangerous mines and factories, where they lost eyes and limbs and succumbed early to occupational diseases like black lung. But we abolished child labor because we know better now.
Yes, things just keep getting better and better. And nowhere does this view of history as an inevitable, one-way progress train seem more evident than in the collective imagining of Victorian poverty, which has become a sort of shorthand for gratuitous cruelty and squalor. We tut-tut at the society our unenlightened forebears built, at the workhouse of Oliver Twist and the overcrowded tenement of Jacob Riis. We sure have come a long way, we tell ourselves.
You might assume that the reality show Victorian Slum House, which debuted on the BBC late last year and has just finished airing for the first time in the United States on PBS, would confirm such a rosy view. The show has, at first blush, a recognizable premise: A group of modern-day people must attempt to survive in a recreated Victorian slum house in East London.
Ellen Gray at the Philadelphia Daily News and Inquirer describes the show as “Survivor-meets-Who Do You Think You Are?” This description isn’t entirely accurate, because unlike Survivor, Victorian Slum House eliminates no contestants and offers no prizes to be won. Interpersonal conflict is minimal by reality television standards and is not played up for dramatic effect.
Instead, the drama comes chiefly from the struggle of making ends meet in an economy where jobs are scarce, wages are low, the cost of living is high, and legal protections for workers and tenants are nonexistent.
Each episode of Victorian Slum House takes place in a different decade: the 1860s, the 1870s, the 1880s, the 1890s, and the 1900s. Real historical events affect the participants’ experience. In the 1870s, the Long Depression following the Panic of 1873 causes skyrocketing unemployment, and participants must figure out how to make a living in a slack labor market. In the 1880s, participants must deal with an influx of immigrant labor in the form of Jews fleeing Eastern European pogroms.
Many of the participants of Victorian Slum House are descended from people who actually lived in the slums of East London — Irish and Jewish immigrants, skilled and unskilled laborers — curious to see how their ancestors lived. For example, Andy Gardiner, a professional golfer who uses a prosthetic leg, wants to understand disability in Victorian England.
Because of this premise, the show appears to be predicated on the “progress train” idea of history. It seems set up to demonstrate to participants and to viewers how much the world has improved since Victorian times.
But the most striking quality of Victorian Slum House is not how different its world is from our own, but how similar.
Take the labor market. The global economy during the fifty-year period covered by the show was pocked by financial crises — particularly the Long Depression, which lasted from 1873 to 1896. Because there was no social insurance and few laws regulating workplaces, the effects of these economic crises were borne disproportionately by the poor.
Victorian Slum House depicts a society where, for the poor, economic precarity is the norm. Wages and working conditions are a race to the bottom, and accidents have catastrophic consequences for individual workers.
In the first episode, set in the 1860s, Graham Potter finds a job at a bell foundry. But he injures his back, which leaves his family short of one breadwinner. In the following episode, Graham’s wife and children try to make up for the lost income by fulfilling piecework orders for artificial flowers. In a subsequent episode, the Potter family tries to make money by selling Victorian street food — jellied eel and sheep’s trotters — for a small profit.
Despite the cuisine from a bygone era, this plot arc contains several analogues to the contemporary economy. Due to massive deregulation, workplaces injuries have once again become commonplace. For instance, a shocking Bloomberg article from March detailed the gruesome working conditions at auto parts plants in Alabama. Regina Elsea, who worked at the Ajin USA factory in Cusseta for $8.75 an hour, was impaled by a machine on the factory floor. She remained “trapped in the machine — hunched over, eyes open, conscious but speechless” until rescue workers arrived and figured out how to free her. She was airlifted to a hospital, where she died of her injuries.
Reco Allen, a janitor at the Matsu Alabama plant in Huntsville, was ordered by a supervisor to operate heavy factory machinery with no training or safety equipment. His hands became trapped inside a hot metal-stamping press for an hour. When emergency crews finally arrived, “his left hand was ‘flat like a pancake,’” and “his right hand was severed at the wrist, attached to his arm by a piece of skin.”
On top of unsafe workplaces, Victorian Slum House participants must deal with a slack labor market, where jobs are scarce and employers can get away with offering race-to-the-bottom wages. Even in a best-case scenario, with parents and children all working, households often could not scrape together enough income to sustain their basic needs — often making it necessary to piece together multiple streams of income just to survive.
Many people today find themselves in a similar position. They take on second and third jobs. They find “gigs” and “side hustles.” They work as drivers for Uber or Lyft, they sell goods for a small profit margin on Etsy or eBay, they become salespeople for multi-level marketing schemes like Herbalife, they sell their own blood plasma.
The gig economy is the piecework economy by another name. A Guardian article from December 2016 reported that “Uber treats its drivers as Victorian-style “sweated labor, with some taking home less than the minimum wage. Drivers at the taxi-hailing app company reported feeling forced to work extremely long hours, sometimes more than seventy a week, just to make a basic living.”
Victorian Slum House also highlights disturbing similarities between the welfare system in Victorian England — which was “reformed” by the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act — and the welfare system in the United States following the passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 under president Bill Clinton. Both laws made material relief from poverty much more difficult to obtain. Moreover, both laws made the receipt of welfare conditional on working.
In Victorian England, welfare benefits for the poor were administered through the workhouse, which provided room and board in exchange for grueling labor. In the United States, those benefits are dependent on recipients fulfilling work and education requirements that force them into minimum-wage jobs and for-profit college programs, and has contributed to the rise in Americans living on less than two dollars a day.
Both of these laws required welfare applicants to plead their cases in front of a board who decides whether the applicant is “deserving” or “undeserving” of aid. If the applicant is deserving, a wide variety of strings are attached. In Victorian England, this meant that, among other things, single mothers would have their children taken from them, and sometimes be forced to wear yellow dresses marking them for public shaming.
In the United States today, at least fifteen states have passed legislation requiring drug testing for welfare applicants. In San Diego, law enforcement officers are permitted to search the homes of welfare applicants, up to and including their underwear drawers.
When Victorian Slum House participant Shazeda is unable to afford her rent as the due date approaches, she is faced with a difficult predicament not unfamiliar to the contemporary poor: she can petition the workhouse for welfare assistance which she may or may not get.
If she is fortunate enough to get into the workhouse, her two children will be taken from her because she is a single mother. If she can’t get into the workhouse, she and her children will face eviction.
Victorian attitudes toward poverty were similar to prevailing notions about poverty today. According to the show’s host Michael Mosley, there were two primary schools of Victorian thought about poverty. One held that the poor were responsible for their own plight. This narrative finds its contemporary analogue with conservatives like Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, who believes that poverty is “a state of mind,” or National Review columnist Kevin D. Williamson, who believes that people find themselves in eviction court deservedly due to poor choices, and that “if it were raining jobs and opportunity, [they] would find a way to walk between the raindrops.”
The other narrative held that poverty was a sad but intractable problem that would always exist in society. This narrative finds its contemporary analogue among liberals, like former president Barack Obama, who called income inequality “the defining challenge of our time” and yet refused to support policies that would ameliorate the problem. Poverty is unfortunate, goes this school of thought, but sadly, nothing can be done at the structural level to get rid of it.
But something was done to ameliorate the conditions of the Victorian slum. Workers fought and died for the right to shorter work hours, safer working conditions, and the right to unionize. Progressive groups fought to outlaw child labor.
And the creation of the British Welfare State starting in 1945 made enormous strides towards eliminating many of the conditions that made life so wretched in the Victorian slums. The Family Allowances Act of 1945 was set up to provide a child benefit. The National Insurance Act of 1946 provided compensation for workplace injuries. The National Health Service was set up in 1948, providing health care to all free of cost.
In the United States, turn-of-the-century progressive reforms and the social programs of the New Deal and the Great Society offered similar relief. These policies — British, American, or otherwise — happened because of people’s activism, not because of “progress.” And their chipping away has been likewise a result of activism and legislation from the other side.
Intentionally or not, Victorian Slum House holds a mirror to the brutality of our own society and the many problems we thought banished to an unenlightened past. It reminds us that we aren’t hurtling inevitably towards progress. Society may be like a train, but if we want it to chug away from the miseries of the Victorian era rather than back towards them, we’ll have to wrest control of the engine.