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The Poor Laws
Poor laws are laws designed to give help and relief to poor people. The best-known poor laws were the British poor laws, which were in effect from the 1500’s to the 1900’s. Other countries have had similar laws. However, most countries today have public welfare systems that make poor laws unnecessary. See United Kingdom, History of the (The welfare state).
In the late 1500's and early 1600's, the English Parliament passed legislation requiring local authorities to provide assistance, care, and work opportunities for people in need. The 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor required local officials—called overseers of the poor—to collect special taxes and use the funds to provide services for people in their parish (district). The law allowed authorities to use such punishments as whipping on people who were unwilling to work.
English, and later British, poor laws recognized two forms of assistance—outdoor relief and indoor relief. Outdoor relief was aid given to people in their own homes. To get indoor relief, people had to live in institutions known as workhouses or poorhouses. People in workhouses had to do the work they were given, and the relief offered in these institutions was often inadequate. The harsh conditions discouraged all but the most desperate people from seeking indoor relief.
Parliament passed the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834. The act set up a Poor Law Commission and created local boards of guardians to provide indoor and outdoor relief for the poor. The act, with few exceptions, prohibited people in good health from obtaining outdoor relief. People who were able to work were expected to find jobs or receive indoor relief in workhouses. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Parliament replaced the poor laws with new public welfare programs.
Source Citation: "Poor laws." World Book Student. World Book, 2012. Web. 6 Dec. 2012.