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English Poor Laws

English Poor Laws: Historical Precedents of Tax-Supported Relief for the Poor


In 1601, England was experiencing a severe economic depression, with large scale unemployment and widespread famine. Queen Elizabeth proclaimed a set of laws designed to maintain order and contribute to the general good of the kingdom: the English Poor Laws.  These laws remained in force for more than 250 years with only minor changes. Essentially, the laws distinguished three major categories of dependents: the vagrant, the involuntary unemployed, and the helpless. The laws also set forth ways and means for dealing with each category of dependents. Most important, the laws established the parish (i.e.,local government), acting through an overseer of the poor appointed by local officials, as the administrative unit for executing the law.

The poor laws gave the local government the power to raise taxes as needed and use the funds to build and maintain almshouses; to provide indoor relief (i.e., cash or sustenance) for the aged, handicapped and other worthy poor; and the tools and materials required to put the unemployed to work. Parents were required to support their children and grandchildren. Likewise, children were responsible for the care of their unemployable parents and grandparents. Children whose parents could not support them were forced into mandatory apprenticeships. They had no right to object to the compensation or the interference with their own child-rearing activities. Vagrants and any able bodied persons who refused to work could be committed to a house of correction or fined.

In response to concerns that dependent persons would move to parishes where financial assistance was more generous, in 1662 a severe Law of Settlement and Removal was enacted in England.  The law made it possible for local authorities to force individuals and families to leave a town and return to their home parish if they became dependent. In effect, this law allowed a local government to restrict aid only to persons and families known to be “residents.”

The American colonies and state governments modeled their public assistance for the poor on the Elizabethan Poor Laws and the Law of Settlement and Removal.

More information about English Poor Laws can be found at

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J.E. (2011). English poor laws: Historical precedents of tax-supported relief for the poor. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from

5 Replies to “English Poor Laws”

  1. This is an encouragement. as one may see here that the Queen did not just sit back and do nothing. She observed and took action. Although there are tough times within a community or country, leaders – people in authourity must take interest in the people.

  2. I would like to cite this site as a reference for my mid-term and am having trouble finding the an author and Sponsor for the Elizabethan Law page. My mid-term is due the 18th of October of 2013. Any help would be appreciated. You may email the email address above.

    Thank you,

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