I've been considering this post for a while, but two things came together this morning to push me into writing it. First there was this excellent piece by Zoe Williams on the Guardian website setting out her view that Iain Duncan Smith wants to end social security altogether. Then there was a comment from Chris_2812 asking if I'd chosen my nom de plume for a reason.
So, here's a brief history of welfare / social security, and I'll get on to the future of it after that. I am not bothering to check my facts here, so if I get something wrong, feel free to tell me.
Back in the days of small communities, right into what we call the Middle Ages, there was only the security of family and clan. Those who could work, did. Those who couldn't had to rely on the community. For everyone who wasn't part of the elite there was the constant threat of famine and starvation. Disease, injury and warfare took its toll, and most people died young by our standards.
The spread of Christianity, particularly of the monastic movement, provided a basic form of help. The monasteries would give out food, provide a refuge and what healthcare was possible. Wealthy individuals and craft guilds, as well as churches, set up "hospitals" for the "aged poor". There was still famine if a harvest failed, and there were still warring aristocrats destroying what little you had, but the monasteries, convents and abbeys were the only source of help the poor had. So when Henry VIII closed them all down in the 1530s and confiscated their wealth, the consequences were terrible.
The start of something we would recognise as a welfare system came in the reign of Elizabeth I, with the Poor Laws. The unit of local government was the parish, and each was run by a committee or "vestry". These were given the power to levy an annual rate on property and use the money to pay "relief" to those in need. It could be humiliating to ask for this relief, of course, and you wouldn't get it if you were considered to be undeserving. Nor would you get it if you didn't belong to that parish, so people who had travelled in search of work would be turfed out if they didn't find it. If an unmarried mother sought relief, she had to name the father of the child, and the man was then served with a "bastardy order", forcing him to pay for the child's maintenance. Parishes set up buildings known as Charity Halls, or, sometimes, workhouses to provide lodging for those who needed it. The system lasted into the 19th century, but it was creaking by the end of the 18th. In 1795 one parish, Speenhamland in Berkshire, devised a way of compensating agricultural labourers for falling wages and rising grain prices; they would top up the wages. But the men who paid the rates were also the employers who paid the low wages, and they didn't see why they should subsidise someone else's wage bill. So the system failed.
There had to be changes. But this came at a time when the elites were increasingly fearful of the potential power of the masses. The American War of Independence had been followed by the French Revolution. The British government set up an effective network of spies and militias, and the increasing civil unrest was ruthlessly put down. Poverty became increasingly prevalent with industrialisation, and there were many riots and protests. There was also growing agitation for electoral reform. This atmosphere resulted in a blueprint for the system of "relief" which was based on making it as unattractive as possible. In 1834 parishes were combined into unions, each of which set up a workhouse. These would be the only source of relief. (In fact, there was always some form of "out-relief" which paid a pittance to paupers who were not in the workhouse.) The regime in these places was notorious. Men and women were separated, so elderly couples who had been married for many years were forced apart. Children were effectively sold as apprentices to the factory and mill owners. Adult paupers were put to work on humiliating physical labour. Yet these places were the only resort for those who could not fend for themselves. The system lasted well into the 20th century, and most of us have ancestors who died in the workhouse. When I was a child, old people would still talk about claiming benefits as "going on the parish".
The start of change came in 1908 with the Old Age Pensions Act. Some, but by no means all, elderly people were given small pensions which kept them out of the workhouse. In 1911 came the National Insurance Act. People in work paid their "stamp" to ensure that, for a limited period, they would be paid if they were sick or unemployed. As the century went on, a system of social security grew. There were means-tested payments for those who didn't qualify for the NI-based, or contributory, benefits. This means-testing wasn't just about any money you had in the bank. Inspectors would come to your home and assess what assets you had, even down to the quality of the clothes you were wearing. Sickness benefits grew up separately. For some reason, it was always thought that a sick person needed more money to live on than someone who was simply out of work. These higher payments provided an incentive to "go sick" rather than claim unemployment benefit, and this suited governments at times because the sick were not counted in the unemployment figures. Disability benefits also grew piecemeal.
The last Conservative government (which fell in 1997) tried to make some changes. The contributory benefits were kept low while the non-contributory "income support" rose, thus destroying the whole concept of contributory benefits. They introduced tests for people on disability benefits; and they were planning to stop housing benefits for single people living alone. The incoming Labour government stopped this. Labour brought in tax credits for some categories of workers, to top up poor wages (with much the same effect as the Speenhamland system); but they also chipped away at the concept of "income support" as the minimum which anyone needed to live on, by turning emergency grants into crisis loans. The current government has ditched the concept altogether. I don't need to go into what else the current government has done.
I hope this quick gallop through history sets the scene for considering the future of social security.