Welfare Cuts and Crime: Evidence from the New Poor Law

July 27, 2021 | Blog
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By Eric Melander (University of Namur and CAGE) and Martina Miotto (Centre for Economic Research and Graduate Education, Prague, and CAGE)

This blog is based on the authors presentation to the Economic History Society’s 2021 annual conference


The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 (the “New Poor Law”) was one of the most important pieces of legislation in nineteenth-century Britain.  Passed in response to the increasing costs of the old system of poor relief, which had been in place since Elizabethan times and accounted for approximately one-fifth of national expenditure by 1830, it standardised the administration of poor relief across England and Wales (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Cartoon satirising Workhouses in the mid-nineteenth century. Source: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/a-comic-song-about-the-workhouse

Workhouses formed the backbone of the new system: paupers could seek relief in exchange for their work. Relief outside workhouses was formally abolished, and the conditions inside them were purposefully chosen to deter any but the most destitute from seeking relief.
These changes brought about a sharp reduction in overall poor relief expenditures. Interestingly, reductions were not uniform across England and Wales. Rather, counties which had previously been spending relatively more on poor relief (in per capita terms) experienced more pronounced declines following the implementation of the New Poor Law (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Overall Poor-Relief Expenditure, 1820-c.1840. Note: Timeline showing per-capita poor relief spending in English and Welsh counties over the period 1820-1842. Solid line plots the average level of spending each year. Dashed and dot-dashed lines plot average spending by two subsamples of counties: those with above-median (dashed) and below-median (dot-dashed) average pre-reform spending. Vertical red line indicates the year of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. Source: the authors.


What were the effects of curbing poor relief expenditures? Policymakers and other contemporaries – including, famously, the cleric and political economist Thomas Malthus – hoped that a more austere system would deter population growth and eliminate various social costs, such as able-bodied unemployment, allegedly caused by the Old Poor Law. It is unclear whether these goals were achieved, or, indeed, whether the perceived social costs of the old system were very large in the first place (Clark and Page, 2019).
But new county-level data on criminal activity before and after the New Poor Law reveal an unintended consequence of the reform: counties that experienced the sharpest decline in welfare spending in 1834 subsequently witnessed the largest increases in criminal activity (Figure 3). This relationship was most pronounced for non-violent property crimes, including larceny, cattle theft, and poaching.

Figure 3. Scatter plots showing the relationship per capita poor relief spending and increases in criminal charges. Note: Correlational scatter plots showing the relationship between reductions in per capita poor relief spending (defined as average spending pre-1834 less average spending post-1834) and increases in criminal charges per 1000 inhabitants. Left: all crimes. Right: non-violent property crimes only. Each dot represents one county. Source: the authors.

Faced with a less generous system of poor relief under the New Poor Law, the economically vulnerable became more willing to take the risks associated with committing a crime. The risky gains from criminal activity substituted for what had previously been afforded through receipt of poor relief. Qualitative work on the “economy of makeshifts” supports this interpretation (Ager, 2014): illicit activities increasingly became a coping mechanism in the face of economic hardship.
Detailed records of over 250,000 individuals brought to trial between 1828 and 1840, reveal additional important patterns. The relationship between poor relief spending and crime was particularly strong during the agricultural off-season, suggesting that seasonal labourers were particularly hard-hit by the compounding effects of welfare cuts and precarious work opportunities. These findings underscore a key trade-off that must be faced by policymakers: savings from welfare cuts must be weighed against their direct and indirect social costs.


To contact the authors:

Eric Melander, Eric.melander@unamur.be

Martina Miotto, Martina.miotto@cerge-ei.cz