Malthus was severely critical of the old poor law, especially when the payments paid to recipients were made in conformity to the principles adopted by the local magistrates in Speenhamland in 1795. He considered that it encouraged early and improvident marriage with unfortunate consequences. There have been a number of attempts to determine whether Malthus was justified in supposing that the old poor law had this effect, some concluding that he was correct in his assumption, others that he was mistaken. The information contained in the first four English censuses did not include a breakdown of the population by age, sex, and marital status, and therefore did not provide a basis for a definitive test of Malthus's assertion before the repeal of the old poor law in 1834. The 1851 census, however, did provide this breakdown for five-year age groups which makes it possible to compare marriage patterns in counties in which a large proportion of the male workforce were ‘peasants’ (Malthus's term for agricultural labourers), and the Speenhamland provisions were widely adopted, with other counties. The results show that Malthus was mistaken.
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