100 Fixing the Calendar 1582

  The Rise of the Welfare State 1601

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79  The Rise of the Welfare State 1601 
Before England adopted a formal antipoverty program, the destitute relied on begging, thievery and the Catholic Church's ample coffers for survival. But by the late 16th century, the Church, stripped of its holdings by Henry VIII, was no longer in a position to help. The rising demand for wool, then England's leading export, further inflated poverty rolls as greedy landlords forced tenants off their property in favor of more profitable sheep. It was left to the government to lend a hand. As codified in the Poor Law of 1601, though, it was not to be a handout. In exchange for financial assistance, the able-bodied were obligated to labor in workhouses. Children were assigned to apprenticeships. Even the sick and infirm, in almshouses, had to do piecework. Those who did not work were whipped, imprisoned and, in some cases, put to death. The meager earnings these institutional safety nets provided were not enough to pull people out of despair. But the premise behind the law--that a government has a responsibility to its poor--and the resulting public policies affected the future of social welfare. Bismarck's national insurance against illness and old age in the early 1880s, Britain's public-housing policies of the early 1900s and America's Social Security Act of 1935 were all descendants of the Poor Law. Yet, as recent reforms of the American welfare system illustrate, the public's ambivalence toward the poor continues to this day. 

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