Subscribe to History Today

Welfare Pasts and Futures

British systems of welfare and adult social care are not so different from aspects of the traditional Poor Laws.


The London Beggar, 17th century. © Bridgeman Images
The London Beggar, 17th century. © Bridgeman Images
At the end of 2016, the government responded to fears that the system of adult social care in Britain is about to collapse by allowing councils to bring forward rises in council tax. At the time, many local government leaders warned that a few per cent added to tax bills would do little to redress what they saw as decades of underfunding: for adult social care on the one hand and rapidly rising demand and costs on the other. Unsurprisingly, a few councils have mooted going further and putting big council tax rises to a local referendum.

For a historian, there is little new to find in these debates but some important lessons to convey. The link between local need and local resources was enshrined (though not new) in the 1601 Elizabethan Old Poor Law. It was firmly established on three foundations: that localities had a duty to consider the claims of those who belonged to them; that local officials should have discretion over what welfare benefits they gave, in what forms and for what duration; and that such benefits were to be paid for by a tax on local property – the poor rate – with both the rate of tax and its cut-off point determined by local ratepayers. 

By the 1720s, England and Wales, almost without exception, had a functioning local property tax. Up to the mid-18th century it has been argued that, with regional and local differences, the Old Poor Law was relatively generous. Certainly it allowed the aged to withdraw slowly from the workforce as physical incapacity reduced their scope for independence. 

This situation was not to continue. By the later 18th century – and with considerable resonance for the modern problem of adult social care – a range of other factors drove up the local cost of welfare, both inexorably and steeply: falling infant mortality, increasing life expectancy, war and inflation. Political and social commentators blamed some of this on the poor themselves and the records of the Old Poor Law are replete with local worries over how costs might be contained. There are also striking instances of parsimony and the harsh treatment of the poor, which match the stories of the charlatans and scroungers who undoubtedly sought to take advantage of parochial and community welfare. 

The Old Poor Law met its demise in 1834 with the advent of the English and Welsh New Poor Law. Yet while historians of this period have concentrated on the salient features of this New Poor Law – such as the establishment of the workhouse, the formation of ‘unions’ of parishes and communities to administer welfare, a tightening up of eligibility, paupers eating the bones they were supposed to be grinding up – it often escapes attention that this remained a locally financed system. Until 1865, parishes contributed to union costs according to the scale of their local poverty. Even thereafter, most unions were small enough for the union rate to feel like a local tax. Indeed, it was not until the 20th century and the progressive removal of certain groups (the elderly and those with physical impairments) from the ambit of the New Poor Law system that the link between local poverty and local resources began to break down.

Almost certainly unintentionally, councillors seeking to raise council taxes are part of a centuries-old tradition of thinking about local welfare. While they have a statutory duty to provide certain forms of adult social care, much of it is in essence discretionary, just as it was for the elderly under the Old and New Poor Laws. In seeking to equate local welfare more closely to the raising of local resources, councils confront once again the perennial question that lies at the heart of all welfare systems: how should one seek to balance the demand for welfare with its supply. 

Under both Poor Laws people were, in effect, asked to tax themselves. Moreover, in the 1800s, when welfare bills shifted sharply, they taxed themselves at a level which the state would have found hard to do. The principle of local welfare funded by local taxation was deeply ingrained and the economist’s truism, that if one asks someone to tax themselves they will do so at a higher rate than they would have done had it been imposed upon them, is proven. 

And when localities had government approval for swingeing cuts to welfare – as they did for instance during the state-sanctioned crusade against outdoor relief in the later 19th century – there is clear and unambiguous evidence that most did not take the option. They continued to tax themselves for the aspects of welfare that we now casually wrap up under the label of adult social care. Whether an electorate would place its trust in councils that have, arguably, become ever more distant from ordinary people is unclear, but this is a very different question. For now, it is just possible that centuries of welfare practice could, if properly conveyed, help to shape the future of adult social care.

Steven King is Professor of Economic and Social History at the University of Leicester.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email

X