État général des répartitions de numéraire, farines ordinaries, farines blanches.
BUREAU GENERAL DE BONFAISANCE (1798)
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PRECARIOUS EARLY WELFARE PROVISION IN REVOLUTIONARY FRANCE
Printed in letterpress on paper, single sheet (325 x 425mm). Stamp of the Bureau Général de Bienfaisance in upper left corner (one vertical fold, one horizontal, closed tear c.1cm where vertical fold meets outer edge of sheet, very slight browning along lower edge and vertical fold).
Paris: Bureau général de Bienfaisance,
An extremely rare survival: a detailed account of poor relief in Paris, issued as an internal memorandum by the Revolutionary government's body for social welfare, the Bureau général de Bienfaisance. A fascinating snapshot of the work of the first dedicated welfare system in France; we have found a reference to just one other copy, at the Archives de Paris (D 403. VD 6976).
Printed in Floréal an 6 (April, 1798) for a meeting of the legislative body the Conseil des Cinq-cents in July of the same year (see Journal, below), this document outlines the forms of provision, both monetary and in kind, given to the poor and destitute populations of each of the 48 divisions of Paris from 1796-1797. From left to right, the columns list the capital's twelve municipalities and the four named divisions within each; the names of the heads of each division's welfare committee; the total indigent population in each division; the total financial relief provided; and any additional extraordinary financial relief provided. The remaining seven columns detail aid given in kind, 'à domicile', that is, home relief: flour for bread for the destitute; white flour for infants; rice; wood for cooking; wood for the elderly; bundles of sticks; and peat. All such items are provided in each area of the city apart from wood for cooking, which only around a quarter of Paris' 48 divisions received.
Though giving an impression of efficient and effective aid relief in operation in Paris, the Bureau général's meticulously ordered self-accounting here belies a precarious welfare system under considerable and constant pressure, which relied heavily on local, unsalaried volunteers. First established in 1789, the first few commissions to assist the needy were replaced by the centralised Commission centrale de Bonfaisance (referenced at the head of the present document) in 1793, which in turn was replaced by the Bureau général in August 1796. 'Welfare was organised by the forty-eight sections, which elected unsalaried local committees rather than relying on an impersonal municipal bureaucracy. Forced to make hard choices with scanty resources, the committees established clear priorities in favour of the elderly and infirm, the ill, and working parents with small children. A modicum of aid in kind - a subsistence entitlement - was distributed in ways adaptable to differing types of need' (Woloch, p.188). The pressure on this system was unceasing, and was exacerbated by political instability, profound economic crisis and currency failure in 1795-1796 which drove up the numbers of those dependent on state relief. That included many of the welfare commissioners themselves; mostly retired or semi-retired and 'drawn from the sans-culotte bourgeoisie of master artisans, tradesmen merchants, entrepreneurs, functionaries and professionals', many were plunged into financial difficulty by economic failure (Woloch, p.789). Not only that, but 'a year or two of relentless demands on their time and energy broke the health of some commissioners' (ibid.).
The thinness of the aid provided can be gleaned from the information here; the total indigent population for the whole of Paris is given as 100,000, which comes to a little over 2fr. per head of monetary aid, just under a fifth of a sack of flour, and around a fifth (100g) of a livre (500g) of rice. It is worth noting however that meagre though it appears, state provision in Paris was exceptional, far from representative of that to be found in the rest of France, building as it was on the profile and position of the city at the vanguard of political and social change in this period (see Woloch, p.811). This data thus offers numerous avenues for further research into the nascent welfare state in France, and the early workings of a system that, though precarious, would persist into the late nineteenth century.
This document is described in the proceedings of a legislative meeting of the Conseil des Cinq-cents, and that it was evidently not intended for general consumption or display is reinforced by both its format - not easily legible if pinned up at a distance - and treatment; the central vertical fold line suggests that it was folded, perhaps to be tucked into a folder of administrative documents though not to be bound in, as there is no evidence of holes for stitching or fastening.
One other copy listed here: Archives de Paris, Administration municipal pendant la révolution (1789-1900), D 403. VD6976 [open access].
Refs: Journal des Débats et Lois du corps legislatif, Thermidor, An 4 (Paris: Baudouin), no.67, p.47. I. Woloch, ‘From Charity to Welfare in Revolutionary Paris’, The Journal of modern History, 58.4 (1986), 779-812..
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