welfare programs in elizabethan england -- 5/27/14

Today's selection -- from The Economic History Review, "Poor relief in Elizabethan English communities: as analysis of Collectors' accounts" by Marjorie K. McIntosh. Although welfare has often been portrayed as a modern development, there is ample evidence that laws of this type were present in societies centuries ago. In medieval and Elizabethan England, for example, laws existed that mandated rates (or taxes) be collected from citizens in parishes and boroughs by "Collectors for the Poor" and then distributed as income to the needy.

"Collectors for the Poor in Elizabethan England ... were appointed by parishes and incorporated boroughs in accordance with the poor laws of 1552 and 1563, but few of their fragile records survive. The accounts ... document early use of compulsory rates to provide income [for the poor]. Adult male recipients outnumbered women in many of the parishes; children were frequently helped directly; and cities and towns assisted a smaller fraction of their total populations than did villages but awarded larger per capita payments. ... Elizabethan Collectors were moving away from the late medieval practice of providing only occasional aid; increasingly they awarded regular payments to a selected subset of the local poor. ...

Woodcut-16th century, gentleman giving alms to beggar

"The standard historical narrative has been that a formal system of relief based upon compulsory rates was introduced by the poor laws of 1598 and 1601. Scholars working on assistance to the needy, however, have long observed that the late Elizabethan legislation built upon earlier local experiments and Parliamentary measures. [Paul] Slack pointed out that many of the country's major urban centres, facing severe problems with poverty starting in the mid-sixteenth century, imposed poor rates and distributed that income. Slack and [Steve] Hindle noted that in the late Elizabethan period a few parishes in smaller communities, located mainly in south-east England, were likewise starting to use rates. Dyer pushed the history back several centuries earlier, showing that some late medieval parishes or 'the village community' administered charitable bequests to the poor, on a one-time or continuing basis. ...


Marjorie K. McIntosh


Poor Relief in Elizabethan English Communities: An Analysis of Collectors' Accounts


Wiley and Sons


Volume 67, No. 2, May 2014


331 - 332
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