Passage of the Elizabethan Poor Laws

Before the passage of the 1598 Act for the Relief of the Poor and the 1601 Poor Relief Act, there existed many iterations of legislation regarding how to address the problem of poverty in England. However, the Acts of 1598 and 1601 marked the completion of the Elizabethan poor laws. These laws established parishes as central administrative authorities, which were charged with setting local tax rates, relieving the impotent, setting the able-bodied people to work, and apprenticing poor children. Each member of the community was required to pay a poor-tax or risk punishment, and all begging and almsgiving became illegal unless sanctioned by the parish. Unpaid officials called Overseers of the Poor saw to the daily operations of the poor law, such as providing the necessary materials to put paupers to work, while supervised loosely by Justices of the Peace. These Justices also oversaw the construction of places of habitation for those who could not care for themselves and houses of correction in order to incarcerate criminals, vagabonds, and those able-bodied people who refused employment. There currently does not exist a definitive explanation for the rise of English poor laws, which distinguished England from countries without similar systems (such as France). However, likely contributing factors include rising population pressure, an evolving conception of what governments should do for the poor, driven by humanism, Protestantism or Puritanism, and the political ambitions of various members of the government who wished to control their subjects.

Sources:

Slack, Paul., and Economic History Society. The English Poor Law, 1531-1782. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1990.

Smart, Hentry. “THE ELIZABETHAN POOR LAWS.” The Practical Teacher 25, no. 11 (1905): 572-574.