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Poverty and Welfare in England, 1700-1850: A Regional Perspective

Author(s):King, Steven
Reviewer(s):Ziliak, Stephen

Published by EH.NET (October 2001)

Steven King, Poverty and Welfare in England, 1700-1850: A Regional

Perspective. New York and Manchester: Palgrave and Manchester University

Press, 2000. x + 294 pp. $74.95 (hardback), ISBN: 0-7190-4939-3; $29.95

(paper), ISBN: 0-7190-4940-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Stephen Ziliak, Department of Economics, Georgia

Institute of Technology and Emory University.

In courses on the history of economic thought, students get introduced to the

great debates concerning the English Poor Laws. Rather, it used to

happen that way. And yet to speak of the willful erasure of economic history

and the history of economic thought from college curricula is to write a

begging letter too many. Nowadays when an economist tells a colleague in an

American university that he is an economic historian the response is something

like this: “That’s great! I remember liking my course on the history of

economic thought. Are you into Marshall or what?” No, Smith. Heh heh. A

beau only in his books. Like you, I have witnessed the costs of the

decline in demand for historical knowledge, in pretty much these same words,

at Ph.D.- granting institutions and liberal arts colleges. It’s like not

knowing the difference between Ricardian rent and rent control. Or not

realizing that welfare was handed to private charities in the nineteenth

century. Or, worse yet, not caring. In each case the economist was under age

45, and was looking to hire an economist. Hmm.

Steven King, an historian at Oxford Brookes University (England), is facing a

different hurdle. The historical scholarship is voluminous. In England the

scholarship on the Poor Laws is so vast, so valued, and so well-known, that

King can assume his readers (even the undergraduates) to be familiar with

institutional, administrative, and legal approaches to the subject (pp. 2,

18). Concerning the legal approach — as exemplified by Sidney and Beatrice

Webb — and how local administrators might have interpreted the law, King

shrugs: “This is an old potato, and one which has been covered in a variety

of other works” (p. 18).

The novelty of the book is in its attempt to establish a “regional picture”

(p. 4) in the interpretation of poverty and welfare. King wants to “refocus

attention” away from “enormous generalizations” about a national system and

towards regional and therefore multiple stories of “community responses to

poverty.” It’s easy to sympathize with King’s desire. In the United States

even the diligent reader could be pardoned for believing that America had no

Poor Laws west of the Great Lakes or south of the Ohio River: a leading text

by Michael B. Katz, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse (New York: Basic

Books, 1986), tells the nation’s story with a couple case studies of Erie

County, New York. Unfortunately, King grieves over the proper methodology for

mapping distinct regions — grieves long and hard (pp. 4-14, chapter 4, and

throughout) — and triples the length of the book.

Drawing upon primary and secondary materials, collected from scattered attics

and archives for more than a decade, King argues “there was a distinct

spatial flavour to the character and role of the old and new poor laws” (p.

256; his emphasis). He pulls back from the emphasis, of course: he’s a

historian of English Poor Laws, not a game theorist. “[T]he southern and

eastern old poor law in particular may have intervened early in the descent of

individuals and families into poverty, may have recognised relative as well as

absolute poverty and on balance probably turned down relatively few people. By

contrast, communities in the north and west had a narrower definition of

entitlement and devoted fewer resources . . . not because they had

insufficient money or there was no demand for welfare, but because they chose

not to” (p. 256). May have. An examination of account books allows King to

observe that the benefit package in the south “tended to be substantially

higher than the package offered in the north and west. By the end of the

eighteenth century, regular allowances of at least 2-3s. per week were common

in southern and eastern communities, and regular pensioners could expect to

supplement their pension income by an average of 30 per cent through irregular

payments in cash and kind” (p. 257).

He believes that relief in the south and east was given “with good grace;”

that southern welfare — including the workhouse — was “humane.” By contrast,

King finds that the income replacement in the north and west was 10 or 20

percent. He distinguishes “two cultures” of welfare: a “harsh north and west

against a more relaxed and inclusive south and east — a culture of making do

against a culture of dependency” (pp. 258-59).

It is too bad the book does not contain a statistical appendix, showing how

data were collected and statistics estimated. King’s interpretation of Figure

4.1, “National welfare expenditures in England,” does give one pause: the

figure suggests little change in capital and administrative expense, 1813-1850

– an odd constant, to say the least, for a nation of workhouses. But the

expenditure data are suggestive of regional differences, a point I would

concede much faster than it seems his intended audience might. Indeed, I would

go further and suggest an Anglo-American pattern. In 1976 Stanley Lebergott

showed evidence that the United States provided a “guaranteed income” between

1850 and 1970: at 25-30% the wages of common labor (Lebergott, The American

Economy [Princeton: Princeton University Press (1976), pp. 53-69]). To be

sure, Lebergott found regional difference: the Northeast and Middle West

tended to give more. Yet recent updates to the Lebergott data suggest that

nationwide the replacement ratio has remained constant through the 1990s (so

too have other key indicators of social welfare: S. Ziliak, “A Variation on

Klein’s Constants: Some Tendencies of Social Welfare and the Problem of

Interpretation,” Cato Journal [forthcoming, Winter 2002].) In other

words, King’s findings on southwest England, 1700-1850, when added to the

Lebergott and Ziliak data, provide more evidence that linear stories of

progress or decline are in need of repair: generosity — and spells of relief

and exits to higher wage jobs — are remarkably constant.

King’s chapter 4, “Defining and Measuring Poverty,” obscures more than it

reveals. And more importantly — for the blemish it puts on the book — the

chapter is on a meaningless and anachronistic search for a “foundation” to the

line of poverty. (Note above, similarly, his use of a 1980s American and

conservative neologism, “culture of dependency,” to describe 150 years of

eighteenth and nineteenth century England.) King struggles through his own

speculations to suggest “one-third” were “in poverty;” later, it’s “a half,”

before he retreats to the attitude that maybe this is all too “ambiguous” (p.

82). It’s an old potato. I agree with Gertrude Himmelfarb and Amartya Sen: the

search for a poverty line in eighteenth century England is not the worthy

enterprise of an historian. Begin with Booth and Rowntree and work your way


For all its grieving and posturing Poverty and Welfare in England is

difficult to read. Example: “It uses intensive mining of local sources to

understand the real manifestations of poverty and welfare.” And:

“Deciding between competing regional boundaries of this sort is an unenviable

task. It is also a task that yields potentially uncertain results.”

Undergraduates will need guidance to locate the main points. Still, King’s

book should not be forgotten when one is preparing to speak on the English

Poor Laws. (In my model I assume someone is preparing.) Just don’t look

here for words by Malthus or Smith: they’re in my afternoon class.

Steve Ziliak teaches economics at Emory University and the Georgia Institute

of Technology. Recent publications include “Pauper Fiction: Paupers in

Almshouses and the Odd Fit of Oliver Twist,” Review of Social Economy

(forthcoming, 2002), and “D. N. McCloskey and the Rhetoric of a Scientific

Economics,” in S. T. Ziliak, editor, Measurement and Meaning in Economics:

The Essential Deirdre McCloskey (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2001).

Subject(s):Military and War
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century