How important were formalized charity and social spending before the rise of the welfare state? A long‐run analysis of selected western European cases, 1400–1850

Bas van Bavel, Auke Rijpma
Published Online:
30 Jun 2015
Volume/Issue No:
Volume 69 Issue 1

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Poor relief in the pre‐industrial period is a much‐investigated topic, but we still lack an idea of its quantitative importance and development, especially in a comparative perspective. This article estimates the magnitude of the various kinds of formalized relief for three present‐day countries (Italy, England, and the Netherlands) in the very long run (1400–1850). The results show that in this period a substantial share of GDP, up to 3 per cent, could be spent on formal relief, offering subsistence to up to 8–9 per cent of the population, with a gradual rise over time and the highest figures being reached in the Netherlands in the eighteenth century. The three cases show a steep decline around 1800, a pattern found more generally in Europe. Next, these results are placed in a broader geographical perspective. This highlights the sharp differences within countries—which could be even larger than those between countries—and the high levels reached in the regions bordering the southern shores of the North Sea. In the last section, the results are used to discuss the possible causes underlying these long‐run patterns and geographical differences, including urbanization, wealth, religion, and social‐organizational features.

© Economic History Society 2015

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