Wednesday, 11 December 2013

A brief history of "welfare"

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.


  1. So, as ever (in the words of the old song):
    "It's the rich what gets the pleasure,
    It's the poor what gets the blame."
    I'll get my coat!

  2. Excellent and informative post. I don't have anything to add, other than that the concept off 'less eligibility', contained in the New Poor Law of 1834, seems especially relevant to an era where benefits are uprated at less than inflation, housing benefit is often insufficient to allow a household to be accommodated, and the unemployed are routinely forced to undertake largely useless tasks that seem designed specifically to harass and humiliate, rather than to act as a route into paid work.

    For any readers interested in a little more history, Nicholas Timmins 'The Five Giants' is an excellent place to start.

  3. Your post doesn't quite hit the spot today.

    i) non-contributory benefits are the ones which have been cut since 1979 (i.e. invalidity benefit was cut and became incapacity benefit; and incapacity benefit was cut and became ESA; and ESA will in turn be cut with the introduction of UC).

    ii) you completely missed out the post-war revolution (when social security was established - with the full consent and support of the masses, as a collective reaction to pre-war means testing and "welfare"). Crucially, benefits were paid in the context of, and with the expectation of, full employment.

    iii) The expectation of continued full employment (the "post war consensus") was undermined by Thatcher - to the extent that no-one ever talks about it any more (indeed if unemployment were ever to fall below 6% governments of either colour would actually create some in order to curb wage inflation).

    iv) Punitive "conditionality" has increased since 1979, as has the creeping introduction of means testing (e.g. through the shortening of the time you receive contributory benefits - 1yr under UB down to 6mths under JSA - or through the lowering of savings thresholds.

    v) the right-wing press has collectively been very successful in changing attitudes (i.e. "social security" which we get, to "welfare" which they get - i.e. the average working person in the street no longer sees it as something they benefit from.

    vi) As a proportion of GDP we spend 7% on it today (even after the Crash) against 8% under Thatcher, and 9% under Major. So, the bill's going down, not up!

    1. That's a lot to take on, and a little mean-spirited, but I'll try.

      i) By "non-contributory benefits" I mean those like income support which have no relation to NI. By the 1990s, for some categories of people, income support was actually slightly higher than JSA.
      ii) I didn't miss out the "post-war revolution". It was implicit, and I was keeping it brief. You are right about the expectation of full employment (or as near to full as you can ever get). The aim was to show that welfare evolved through the 20th century.
      iii) I could blame Thatcher for lots of things, but your point here is simplistic. Capitalism requires a degree of unemployment, but it wasn't really that which undermined the benefits system.
      iv) There has always been conditionality. I tried to make a distinction between the means-testing of today and that of the past. They are very different.
      v) I have made this point many times on this blog.
      vi) You may well be right. But this was not something I was considering here.

      I challenge you to produce a better history of welfare in the same number of words.

    2. I wouldn't dare to try! This is a very complicated subject and both IDS (and many right-wingers before him) and the Press have actively put out so much misinformation and downright propaganda that the waters have become so very muddied. One could write volumes.

      That said, we can't afford to let the propagandists rewrite history. So, lest we collectively forget:

      i) The introduction of Income Support in the late 80s was itself a cut. It replaced Supplementary Benefit which was a) more generous and b) based on individual need (another link and principle which Dunkin' Doughnut is attempting to break).

      ii) You are right about post war attitudes. But the important thing to note is that social security did evolve from the late 70s onwards – because it had to. Full employment as a priority for governments was dropped during the linked Capitalist crises of the 70s and 80s. No-one could ever choose a "lifetime on benefits" back then because there were real jobs to be had. The Right's narrative had to change.

      iii) Benefit cuts in the 70s and 80s did then as they do now: portray the victims of economic crisis as the cause of economic crisis. Right-wing governments (and, yes, I include New Labour) cut benefits to misdirect attention and blame for crises away from the financiers and bankers etc to the unemployed ("See how the powerless are exploiting the powerful"). So social security has evolved over time for all the wrong reasons – "tough on scroungers".

      iv) Conditionality in the 80s amounted to nothing more than signing on once a fortnight and attending a Restart interview every six months. No so now! (Having said that, many commentators – who should know better – have forgotten that YTS in the 80s was a compulsory 2-year work-for-dole scheme which you had to go on if you were young. So, workfare and compulsion for the vulnerable aren't new.)

      v) Probably the Right's finest triumph. I rank it way up there with Hitler's Big Lie.

      vi) I'm right. A much bigger proportion of it is now paid to people who are in work too.

    3. We could argue interminably about small points, but let's not. A couple of things, however, from my own experience. I worked in what was then the Labour Exchange in the mid-60s. Conditionality was real; claimants were given "green cards" with details of a job vacancy which they had to apply for there and then. The employer had to sign the card to confirm that they'd turned up (and that was checked). When snow fell, the unemployed were sent out to clear the streets. That did stop and there was a more relaxed period. There was low unemployment in the 60s, but there was still a pool of people who had probably never worked and never would. Most were unemployable.
      I was trying to avoid a blatantly partisan summary, which is your approach.

  4. Thank you for that informative, if a little dark, history into welfare. Your name was well chosen. ;)

    Did Henry VIII "confiscate" the wealth of the monasteries, convents and abbeys [in the 1530's] because of taxation, or was he just being a mean person because he was richer than everyone else? Who knows who died during those years? It could have been someone influential. Someone who could have gone on to do something historical, such as Jesus and Christianity 500 years earlier. We all know that the life expectancy was a lot lower in those days, but it might have been longer if people had food and somewhere to live. Henry VIII's action probably put end to that, or at least made it much harder. No wonder there were thieves as far back as then, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. ;)

    I finished the Work Programme recently and had my post WP appointment at my local JC today, even so, I'll keep reading this blog.

    1. There's plenty on the internet about Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries. A little light reading for you!

  5. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) replaced the quota scheme, the designated employment scheme, and registration as a disabled person under the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act 1944. This qota system was (to me) an opportunity for those (like me) who had a slight dissadvantasge when seeking work. It seems to me now I will not work and no amount of money can compensate for this.

  6. I also predict that they will do the following if they win the next General Election

    1. End the NI scheme. This will be replaced by a seperate Social Insurance fund for NHS/medical treatment. This will be paid by those in work and employers i.e. similar to the Workplace Pension.

    2. End the state pension. This will be replaced by the Workplace Pension.

    3. Introduce school fees. These will paid by a Education Insurance Scheme

    Medical treatment/pension payments/school fee payments will be related to how much you have paid in i.e. there will be NO safety net.

    In short, they will break-up the seperate parts of the welfare state and make them contributory related.

    The Tories have conned the English middle-classes that they don't need the welfare state when of course they rely on it for medical treatment, schools, social housing, pensions.

    How many of those IN work could afford to pay for ALL above?

    1. Having worked all my life and paid thousands of pounds'into the system' I certainly havent got my moneys worth, five hour wait at A & E, dirty utensils used on me at my local dentist. G.P surgery bursting at the seams.I dont visit the doctor very often, but when I do I expect to be taken seriously,and be shown some respect. If I had a choice to stop paying NI now never mind it being replaced, I would in a heartbeat and pay into something else worthwhile instead, then I can rely on good care and respect. Instead I am robbed by this government on a monthly basis, and god knows where my money is going, because it certainly isnt being saved for my benefit in the future.


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