In primitive society, sometimes referred as the ‘folk society’, the larger family or tribe took over the support of those whose needs were not satisfied in the normal way. Children deprived of parental support were taken into the homes of relatives or adopted by childless couples. Food resources were shared among relatives and neighbors. In course of time, when the feudal system gave way to the wage economy, legislation was enacted to compel the poor to work. Whipping, imprisonment, and even death punished begging.

Role of the Church

In Europe, in the early Christian era, the folk tradition continued and the faithful considered it a religious obligation to care for those members of the group who could not care for themselves. Religion provided the greatest motivation for charity. The church, especially the monasteries, became the centers for distributing food, medical aid, and shelter. Alms were collected in the parish and distributed by the parish priest and other clergymen who knew the individuals and their situation.

Welfare Becomes a State Responsibility

The shift from church responsibility to government responsibility for relief is seen first in the restrictive legislation forbidding begging and vagrancy. In England between 1350 and 1530, a series of laws were enacted, known as the “Statutes of Laborers,” designed to force the poor to work. The decreasing authority of the church and the increasing tendency to shift responsibility to governmental authorities gave rise in England to a series of measures that culminated in the famous Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601.

The Elizabethan Poor Law 1601

The Poor Law of 1601 was a codification of the preceding poor relief legislation. The statute represented the final form of poor law legislation in England after three generations of political, religious, and economic changes that required government action.

The law distinguished three classes of the poor:

  1. The able-bodied poor were called “sturdy beggars” and were forced to work in the house of correction or workhouse. Those who refused to work in the house of correction were put in stocks or in jail.
  2. The impotent poor were people unable to work-the sick, the old, the blind, the deaf-mute, the lame, the demented, and mothers with young children. They were placed in the almshouse where they were to help within the limits of their capacities. If they had a place to live, they were given “outdoor relief’ in the form of food, clothes, and fuel.
  3. Dependent children were orphans and children who had been deserted by their parents or whose parents were so poor that they could not support them. Children eight years and older able to do some domestic and other work were indentured with a townsman.

The Poor Law of 160 1 set the pattern of public relief under governmental responsibility for Great Britain for 300 years. It established the principle that the local community, namely the parish, had to organize and finance poor relief for its residents. The overseers of the poor administered the poor law in the parish. Their function was to receive the application of the poor person for relief, to investigate his or her condition, and to decide whether he or she was eligible for relief.

Influence of The Elizabethan Poor Law

Though there were similar reform plans advocated in Europe; it is the Poor Law of 160 1, sometimes known as 43 Elizabeth, which was most influential in the development of public welfare and social work. There are several important principles in the English Poor Law, which continue to have a dominating influence on welfare legislation four centuries later.

  1. The principle of the state’s responsibility for relief is universally adopted and has never been seriously questioned. It is in tune with democratic philosophy as well as with the principle of the separation of church and state.
  2. The principle of local responsibility for welfare enunciated in the Poor Law goes back to 1388 and is designed to discourage vagrancy. It stipulates that “sturdy beggars” return to their birthplaces and there seek relief.
  3. A third principle stipulated differential treatment of individuals according to categories: the deserving as against the undeserving poor, children, the aged, and the sick. This principle is based on the theory that certain types of unfortunate people have a greater claim on the community than other types.
  4. The Poor Law also delineated family responsibility for aiding dependents. Children, grandchildren, parents, and grandparents were designated as “legally liable” relatives.

The Elizabeth& Poor Law was noteworthy and progressive when it was enacted. It has served as the basis for both English and American public welfare.

The Poor Law Revisions: 1834-1909

In 1834 a Parliamentary Commission presented a report which aimed to revise the Elizabethan and post-Elizabethan Poor Laws. Upon the basis of the committee’s report legislation was enacted enunciating the following principles:

  1. The doctrine of least eligibility: The doctrine of least eligibility meant that the condition of paupers shall in no case be so eligible as the condition of persons of the lowest class subsisting on the hits of their own industry. In other words, no person receiving aid was to be as well off.
  2. Re-establishment of the workhouse test: According to the second principle, the able-bodied poor could apply for assistance in Social Work in the public workhouse, but refused to accept the lodging and fare of the workhouse debarred them from qualifying for any aid. Outdoor relief was reduced to an absolute minimum.
  3. Centralization of control: As per the third principle, a central authority consisting of three Poor Law Commissioners had the power to consolidate and coordinate poor law services throughout the land. Parishes were no longer to be the administrative units.

Between 1834 and 1909 there were numerous changes in Poor Law legislation, the cumulative effect of which was to veer the entire system away from the principles of 1834. The most important changes were those that began to develop specialized care for certain disadvantaged groups. For instance, for dependent children district schools and foster homes were provided, and for the insane and feeble-minded specialized institutions were started.

A more positive approach to the poor laws can be seen in The Poor Law Report of 1909. The report stressed curative treatment and rehabilitation rather than repression, and provision for all in the place of the selective workhouse test. If the principles of 1 834 provided a ‘framework of repression’, those of 1909 may be termed as the ‘framework of prevention’.

The Beveridge Report

In 1942, Sir William Beveridge, chairman of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services, presented the Committee’s Report to the government. The report emphasized four major principles:

  1. Every citizen to be covered,
  2. The major risks of loss of earning power – sickness, unemployment, accident, old age, widowhood, maternity- to be included in single insurance,
  3. A flat rate of contribution to be paid regardless of the contributor’s income, and
  4. A flat rate of benefit to be paid, also without regard to income, as a right ‘to all ‘who qualify.

Beveridge emphasized that the underlined social philosophy of his plan was to secure the British against want and other social evils. Everyone is entitled to benefits, which include maternity, sickness, unemployment, industrial injury, retirement, and grants for widows. The related services are Family Allowances, National Health Services, and National Assistance.

The Beveridge Report of 1942 takes its place as one of the great documents in English Poor Law history – 60 1,1834,1909, and 1942. The Report became the foundation of the modem social welfare legislation for the UK.

Beginnings of the COS Movement and Settlement House Movement

In England, where the problem of competing and overlapping social services in London had been increasing over the years, a group of public-spirited citizens founded in 1869 the London Charity Organization Society (COS). Octavia Hill and Samuel Barnett were two of these founders. In her work as a housing reformer, Octavia Hill introduced a system of “friendly rent collecting” as a method of improving slum housing.

Octavia Hill communicated to the volunteers certain principles or laws to be followed in their activities, through weekly meetings and ‘Letters to Fellow Workers’. She stressed that ‘each case and each situation must be individualized.’ Everyone must be treated with respect for his or her privacy and independence. She advised her workers not to judge the tenants by their personal standards. She believed in the value of dignity of even the most degraded of her tenants.

Samuel Augustus Barnett was the founder of Toynbee Hall, the first settlement house, in which wealthy Oxford students “settled” in an attempt to improve living conditions in the slums of Whitechapel. The basic idea was to bring the educated in contact with the poor for their mutual benefit. The realization had dawned on the Christian Socialists that the mere distribution of charity does not solve problems. In order to better understand the situation of poverty and underdevelopment, one needed to live with the poor and listen to their problems.

After outlining the beginnings in England, we shall now see the growth and spread of the social work profession in the United States.

(Source: Emergence of Social Work Abroad)

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