Incentives, Information, and Welfare

Incentives, Information, and Welfare - Incentives...

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Incentives, Information, and Welfare: England's New Poor Law and the Workhouse Test Timothy Besley London School of Economics Stephen Coate Cornell University and Timothy W. Guinnane * Yale University This version: May 2001 Abstract The Poor Law Act of 1834 sought to change the organization and basis of English poor relief policy. Central to the New Poor Law was the reduction of the authority of local parishes and the elimination of outdoor relief for the able-bodied through the use of the workhouse test. Workhouses were large, centralized institutions for housing and feeding paupers. The workhouse test was a simple administrative device: when an individual applied for poor relief, officials could make relief conditional on entering the workhouse. Two features of the New Poor Law have not received sufficient attention. First, the workhouse test was viewed by its advocates as a substitute for direct information on the poor. Industrialization and agricultural modernization had changed English society in ways that made it much more difficult to judge who was poor and why. Second, much of the cost savings and poverty reduction claimed for the new system would come in the future if at all; the New Poor Law faced the great difficulty of credibly committing to a new regime in poor relief. Some features of the New Poor Law reflect efforts to overcome those credibility problems. Our emphasis on the changing technology of poor relief poses a counterbalance to historians who have emphasized increasingly harsh attitudes toward the poor. * Address any correspondence to Guinnane. We thank Mary MacKinnon and Peter Mandler for helpful comments on an earlier draft. This paper was revised while Guinnane was a Visiting Scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation.
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1 I. Introduction In 1834 England adopted a set of reforms to its poor-relief system that sought to overturn a system dating back to the time of Elizabeth I. Local parishes under the old system granted outdoor relief to a wide class of persons, including able-bodied workers, and did so in many forms, including in-kind grants, cash, and several forms of wage supplements. The 1834 reforms, collectively referred to as the New Poor Law, established large administrative units beholden to a central authority and attempted to abolish outdoor relief for the able-bodied. Central to the New Poor Law was the workhouse test. Relief officials could not refuse to grant relief to a poor person, but they could "offer the house" which meant requiring that the applicant enter the workhouse to obtain relief. Since those in the workhouse were maintained in deliberately unpleasant conditions, this was not an attractive option. This paper offers a new interpretation of the role of the workhouse test in the New Poor Law. Our interpretation rests on two key premises, the firts of which concerns the objective of policy makers. They divided the poor at a point in time into two categories: the needy and the non-needy. The former are those
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Incentives, Information, and Welfare - Incentives...

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