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History shows that cutting welfare to protect the economy is misguided

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Professor Simon Szreter is the co-author of a paper in The Lancet today drawing together his research on early modern English economic growth with contemporary discourse on public expenditure on health coverage and welfare. The paper, co-written with Ann Louise Kinmonth, Natasha M. Kriznik and Michael P. Kelly, argues that the perception of welfare payments as a burden on the economy, and a luxury only wealthy economies can afford, is shown by the history of England's welfare system to be incorrect.

According to the authors, modern English welfare has its roots in the Elizabethan Poor Law, a pragmatic system grounded in principles of common good, which established a nationwide system of social security funded by a progressive local tax, and enshrined a "right to relief" for every Crown subject. Although limited by the standards of today, this was a unique degree of redistribution in the world at the time. The tremendous growth of the English economy between 1600 and 1800, the authors argue, is inextricably bound up with this system:

Elizabeth I’s Poor Law released the populace from overattachment to the family’s land patrimony as the only source of security, and offered a collective alternative support in old age, so older people were less reliant on children. Consequently, labour, the most crucial variable factor of production, was highly mobile with young adults regularly moving for work. England’s rate of provincial and metropolitan urban growth was exceptional. The Poor Law also underpinned a buoyant level of effective demand for consumption of basic goods, even in times of dearth, by maintaining the purchasing power of the poorer section of society when food prices rose. Overall, it facilitated the most sustained period of rising economic prosperity in the nation’s history.

The authors are clear on the implications for policy-makers today: universal public services are not a luxury for modern economies, they constitute an investment in human and social capital which form the vital underpinning to success, providing both stimulus and social cohesion. 

Read a fuller account of the Lancet paper and view this animation of Simon Szreter's work.

Professor Szreter's Lancet article has also been covered in the National Press:

The Independent online:

The Daily Mail online:

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