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Current government policy documents have been concerned with reforming welfare policy, with matching rights with responsibilities, and especially with reducing the numbers of incapacity benefit claimants. This article places these debates in historical perspective, and revises the existing historiography on poverty and unemployment, by exploring the concept of the ‘unemployable’ in the period 1880-1940. Up to 1914, unemployability embraced those unable and those unwilling to work, and in the 1920s, similar anxieties were reconstructed in the concept of the ‘social problem group’. However, interwar social surveys were concerned more with the effects of long-term unemployment in creating unemployability. There are thus both changes and continuities between historical concerns with unemployability, and contemporary anxieties about incapacity benefit and worklessness.