An Act for the Relief of the Poor 1601
Henry VIII (1491–1547), Elizabeth I (1533–1603)
Although the legislation does not establish a distinction between rich and poor, it does provide provisions for the poor in some cases, indicating that the state recognizes its responsibility to provide for the welfare of its citizens. That recognition is usually the result of religious custom or indoctrination, if it isn’t the result of intrinsic benevolence. In England, the Church primarily provided for the impoverished, mainly through monasteries and parish priests, until the end of the sixteenth century. Parishioners’ kindness and tithes provided the required funds.
In 1535, Parliament established a law condemning vagabonds and beggars, and the following year, Henry VIII began his infamous Dissolution of the Monasteries, which drastically reduced parochial finances and resulted in a major rise in poverty.
The Act for the Relief of the Poor was passed by Parliament in 1601, just a few years before Queen Elizabeth I died, and it was the first complete statute aimed explicitly to address the economic needs of the poor, rather than simply punishing them. It was known as the Elizabethan Poor Law since it was based on Henry VIII’s legislation and changed the administration mechanism from clerical to secular.
Compulsory, state-enforced levies replaced voluntary parish contributions as the primary source of charity. The law also established a legal classification of different sorts of poor people and their treatment. The “impotent poor,” those who were unable to work, were entitled to direct help, which was funded by taxes. Under the supervision of overseers, the able-bodied, employable poor were put to work, usually in manufacturing.
The “idle poor,” those who were capable but refused to work, were imprisoned. Apprenticeships were assigned to poor youngsters. Another element imposed on parents, grandparents, and children was the requirement that they bear financial responsibility for each other.
The legislation “established the character of poor relief for three centuries not just in England but also in America,” according to political scientist and former head of the California State Social Welfare Board Jacobus tenBroek. Its main components are still present in all of our states’ welfare systems today.”
Legal Aid Societies (1876);
Congressional Power to Tax Income (1909);
The Social Security Act (1935).
The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)