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The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure

Department of Geography and Faculty of History


Malthus and welfare revisited

Malthus and welfare revisited

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This broad area of research brings together a number of concepts and empirical investigation relating to the operation of the English Old Poor Law. The focus of this work is on the period c. 1650-1834 in England but it attempts to be comparative in considering welfare provisioning in the centuries prior to the formal establishment of the Poor Law in 1601 and the period following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Some research comparing the interconnections between welfare practices and demographic behaviour in England and France is also undertaken within this research area.

The principal work to date has been concerned with the ways in which family organisation and kinship patterns have created welfare problems for those who among the sections of society dependent on their own labour power for an income. Investigations have concentrated upon the welfare problems of widowhood, orphanhood, old age and ill health. Particular attention has been paid to the problems of the elderly and the extent to which the community as a politically constituted collectivity has responded to the needs of those in old age how the nature of these responses has impacted upon the relations the old have with their families. Widows with children and families burdened with large numbers of dependent offspring are another group that has received attention largely through community-based case studies in which evidence from poor law sources, accounts, rate books settlement examinations and pauper letters has been linked with census-type sources and family reconstitutions of parish registers. Attempts have been made to monitor the efficacy of welfare delivery by reference to infant and child mortality levels.

Another area of enquiry has concerned an investigation of the preference in the Old Poor Law era for the provisioning of welfare in the form of outdoor relief in the homes of recipients principally, although not exclusively in the form of cash doles or pensions rather than through residence in indoor institutions such as hospitals and workhouses. The implications of this for population movement from rural areas in periods of harvest failure or from urban areas during periods of trade recession and rising unemployment are considered. This investigation is also connected with an attempt to understand why in the context of the English Old Poor Law expenditure on relief has always far exceeded that provided for urban populations and why there was a longstanding tendency for relief expenditure per capita in southern England to exceed expenditure per capita in the north. In this respect English relief stands in marked contrast to many areas of Europe where urban-based welfare provisioning far exceeds that available in rural areas

A more recent area of enquiry concerns the ways in which the funding provision for welfare based upon a parochial tax has required notions of eligibility and entitlement to be specified in such a way as to require communities to establish resident-based entitlement rules. This work also concerns a larger consideration of notions of 'welfare citizenship' to be addressed as well as to consider issues of moral hazard, adverse selection and correlated risk in the spatial arrangements for poor relief in the Old Poor Law period.


  • Richard Smith, 'Social security as a developmental institution? The relative efficacy of poor relief provisions under the English Old poor Law' in C.A. Bayly, V. Rao, S. Szreter and M. Woolcock (eds.) History, Historians Development Policy: A necessary dialogue (Manchester 2011), pp. 75-102