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English Poor Laws in United Kingdom

History of Welfare: The English Poor Laws

Introduction to English Poor Laws

The English Poor Laws, a system set up by the government of England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, attempted to establish a clear public responsibility for care of the poor. Under these laws, government authorities divided the poor into two groups. The “deserving poor” were those deemed unable to work-primarily the disabled, blind, and elderly. The able-bodied unemployed were labeled the “undeserving poor.” Those considered unable to work were generally eligible for cash or other forms of assistance in their homes, known as outdoor relief. Those who could work were provided with what amounted to public-service employment. Such government-funded work was known as indoor relief, because it was usually done inside large public facilities called workhouses. As a last resort, some of those unable to work and provide for themselves sought refuge in poorhouses or almshouses, publicly funded institutions that offered food and shelter.

The Poor Laws made local government the primary administrator of welfare. To keep welfare beneficiaries under the supervision of their providers, the laws also discouraged the migration of the poor among administrative regions, or parishes. From their inception, the Poor Laws generated controversy. Opponents of the laws argued that if the poor received public assistance, some of them might avoid work, not work hard enough, or not save any of their earnings.

Despite such criticism, some Poor Law administrators hoped they could prevent welfare dependency by making people work for benefits. In a major work initiative begun in the late 1700s, administrators assigned relief recipients to work at private farms and businesses. Public funds were used to supplement the wages of those assigned to this work requirement and to those privately employed at starvation wages. This plan became known as the Speenhamland System, after the British parish in which it was pioneered.

In the late 1830s, many local governments also established workhouses, where the able-bodied poor worked when no private work was available. Workhouses were often made to be unpleasant places, so that people would seek even meagerly paid menial jobs before taking workhouse employment.” (1)


Notes and References

  • Information about English Poor Laws in the Encarta Online Encyclopedia
  • Guide to English Poor Laws

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    Schema Summary

    • Article Name: English Poor Laws
    • Author: Danny W.
    • Description: History of Welfare: The English Poor Laws Introduction to English Poor Laws The English Poor Laws, a system set up by the [...]

    This entry was last updated: May 28, 2015


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