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The Logic of Charity: Amsterdam, 1800-1850

Author(s):Leeuwen, Marco H. D. van
Reviewer(s):Boyer, George R.

Published by EH.NET (November 2000)

Marco H. D. van Leeuwen, The Logic of Charity: Amsterdam, 1800-1850.

New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. xv + 242 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by George R. Boyer, Department of Labor Economics, School

of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University.

This book presents a detailed analysis of the role played by poor relief in

Amsterdam in the first half of the nineteenth century. Marco van Leeuwen

examines poor relief from the perspectives of both the local elite, who

administered the system, and the poor. He contends that Amsterdam’s system of

relief served an important function for both groups. It was a major part of a

cost-minimizing control strategy for the elite, and also part of a low-risk

survival strategy for the poor, who viewed relief as a right and made frequent

use of it.

In Chapter 1 van Leeuwen develops a model of the role played by poor relief in

pre-industrial Europe. He argues that the local elite had several reasons —

both economic and non-economic — for providing poor relief. Economically, the

payment of poor relief to underemployed low-skilled workers in seasonal or

casual labor markets was a low cost method for maintaining a reserve of labor.

Socially and politically, poor relief was a means of stabilizing the existing

social order and preventing unrest. The medical services associated with poor

relief — such as mandatory smallpox vaccinations — reduced the threat of

infectious diseases and epidemics, which often began in poor districts but

spread to middle and upper class neighborhoods. Finally, some of the elite

viewed assisting the poor as their religious duty, a “prerequisite of

spiritual salvation.” The poor viewed poor relief as one of several

complementary sources of income. They combined wage income, poor relief,

credit from local shopkeepers, the pawning of goods, assistance from friends

and relatives, and sometimes semi-legal activities, such as begging, in their

constant struggle to achieve a subsistence income. The elite offered poor

relief, and the poor accepted it, because both groups felt that it was in

their interests to do so.

Chapter 2 provides a broad outline of how the system of poor relief worked in

early nineteenth century Amsterdam. Poor relief largely was administered by

religious denominations. The major relief institutions were the Reformed

Charity, the Municipal Charity, the Catholic Charity, the Lutheran Charity,

and the Dutch-Israelite (Ashkenazi) Charity, corresponding to the major

religious denominations in the city. Small religious groups such as the

Mennonites also ran their own charities. The Municipal Charity was a public

institution, which offered assistance to poor Protestants who were not aided

by one of the religious charities. All of the charities except the Municipal

Charity, which was funded by taxes, were financed by voluntary donations.

Chapters 3 and 4 examine poor relief as a control strategy of the elite and as

a survival strategy of the poor, while Chapter 5 examines alternative control

and survival strategies. Each of the religious charities provided relief only

to people who had been church members for some specified number of years.

Those Protestants who did not qualify for relief could apply to the Municipal

Charity for assistance. The number of poor people assisted by Amsterdam

charities was enormous. From 1829 to 1854, approximately 25 percent of the

city’s population each year received “regular assistance, either throughout

the year or in the winter only.” Given van Leeuwen’s estimate that a third of

Amsterdam’s population lived at or below the poverty line, it would appear

that nearly four out of five poor persons received regular poor relief. The

vast majority of those assisted received outdoor relief; only about 10 percent

were relieved in orphanages, old-people’s homes, or workhouses. A quarter of

those on outdoor relief were assisted by the Municipal Charity, the rest were

assisted by the religious institutions. Those granted poor relief fell into

certain groups: the elderly, the sick and infirm, able-bodied workers with

large families, and widows with children.

To determine how poor relief was financed, van Leeuwen examined the account

books of the five largest charities for the period 1829-54. He found that 37

percent of the income of these charities came from collections (offertories,

alms boxes, door-to-door collections), donations, and bequests, 23 percent

came from the municipal subsidy, and 31 percent came from income from

properties owned by the charities, and the sale of property. Given that the

city obtained the majority of its revenue from taxes on food, van Leeuwen

concludes that the municipal subsidy largely represented payments by the poor

for their own relief. Even if we assume that all collections, donations, and

bequests came from the elite and the middle classes, they still paid less than

40 percent of the cost of relief.

Data on the occupations of adult able-bodied males granted relief shows that a

large share were unskilled casual laborers employed in port-related work. In

1830-54 51 percent of the men newly registered for relief with the Municipal

Charity were employed at the port; in 1859 the port provided work for 16

percent of the male labor force. The data support van Leeuwen’s labor reserve

theory. However, the amount of assistance given to each family was meager. It

was not possible to live on poor relief alone; relief benefits had to be

combined with other sources of income. While benefit levels were small, van

Leeuwen argues that they were large enough to keep most of the poor from

adopting undesirable (from the point of view of the elite) survival strategies

– from migrating elsewhere in search of work, turning to crime or begging,

deserting their children, or precipitating unrest. That is, the system of poor

relief enabled the elite to maintain a necessary labor reserve at a relatively

low cost. Alternative control strategies, such as wage increases, putting the

poor in workhouses or “pauper factories,” employing seasonal migrants, or

regulating the price of bread, were more expensive or less reliable.

Similarly, van Leeuwen contends that poor relief was “the key survival

strategy of the Amsterdam poor,” although it had to be combined with other

strategies such as obtaining credit from shopkeepers and landlords and

assistance from neighbors. The poor made frequent use of poor relief because,

compared to alternative survival strategies, it was relatively remunerative

and entailed no risks.

Overall, van Leeuwen’s arguments concerning the role of poor relief are

convincing. However, there are important issues that relate to the role of

poor relief as a control and survival strategy that are not discussed. In

particular, there is little if any discussion of how charities responded to

economic downturns. Most of the data on relief expenditures, numbers and types

of paupers relieved, and occupations of applicants for relief are reported

only for long periods of time. For example, Table 3.10 reports that on average

in 1829-54 the five largest Amsterdam charities spent 580,000 guilders per

year on relief, but does not report how much was spent each year from 1829 to

1854. Fluctuations in economic activity must have caused the demand for poor

relief to vary considerably from one year to the next. If the elite used poor

relief as a control strategy to maintain a labor reserve, then expenditures to

able-bodied workers should have increased during downturns. How did charities

cope with the additional demand for relief? A quarter of their funds came from

income generated by properties they owned. This income was presumably fixed,

or might even have declined during downturns. Did collections increase, or

were charities forced to sell some of their property to raise money to assist

the poor? Did the role of the Municipal Charity increase significantly during

downturns? Finally, it would be useful to know more about where the property

owned by the religious charities came from. The income generated by these

properties significantly reduced the cost to the elite of relieving the poor,

and must have been a key reason why poor relief was less expensive than other

control strategies.

In sum, while there remain issues to be addressed, The Logic of Charity

is an important book that significantly increases our knowledge of poor relief

in early nineteenth century Amsterdam, and provides a model of the role played

by poor relief that will be of use to scholars studying relief elsewhere in

pre-industrial Europe. Marco van Leeuwen has done a good job of laying out the

alternatives faced by both the upper and middle classes who paid for and

administered poor relief, and the poor who made use of it.

George R. Boyer is the author of An Economic History of the English Poor

Law, 1750-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 1990), and of “The Historical

Background of the Communist Manifesto,” Journal of Economic

Perspectives, Vol. 12 (Fall 1998).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century