History of welfare.

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    I’m in a debate with a sociology / history professor. The claim being made is that “England passed public welfare law in 1511, precisely because private charity didn’t handle the problem. The US Colonies brought welfare law with them, and reaffirmed it after the Revolution. See Trattner, From Poor Law to Welfare State.”

    My response was that Trattner admits in america, “In fact, so rapidly did private agencies multiply that before long America’s larger cities had what to many people was an embarrassing number of them. Charity directories took as many as 100 pages to list and describe the numerous voluntary agencies that sought to alleviate misery, and combat every imaginable emergency.”

    So I believe that was really happened is that the state crippled the fraternal system then took it over under the claim it wasn’t working, just like it does everything else.

    What is the appropriate response?

    Jason Jewell

    I’m not sure where this person got the 1511 date. I learned in grad school that the Poor Laws were Elizabethan in origin.

    You can see a more detailed chronology with some of the key points of legislation at this pro-welfare-state site: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/poorlaws/oldpoorlaw.shtml

    As you can see, nothing before 1601 called for any taxation. The 1601 legislation looks like it’s directed toward people who would fall outside the fraternal system. The taxation was done at a local level, as was the administering of assistance through the parish church.

    Most conservatives and libertarians see the churches and voluntary associations as the appropriate dispensers of aid to the poor, and that’s what happened here. The complicating factor is that the Church of England was controlled by the state, so the argument can be made that there was a crowding-out effect on the church side.

    The assertion that the Poor Laws were passed because “private charity didn’t handle the problem” is dubious. For one thing, the legislation doesn’t say that. For another, you could just as easily argue that the preexisting restrictions on the movements and wages of laborers created or exacerbated the problem of unemployment in various localities. In other words, the Poor Laws can be interpreted as a response to a problem previous legislation had created.


    Virginia had one almshouse for the entire colony/state. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he never once saw a Virginian so poor as to be homeless. Able-bodied people worked, while the halt and the lame, the retarded and the blind were supported by the local parish vestry.

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