What Determines Welfare Expenditure? Climate Risk, Mutual Aid, and Public Spending under Britain’s New Poor Law | ABSTRACT

I use annual county-level Poor Law data digitized as part of my doctoral work to test whether counties with greater historical climate variability, and thus greater agricultural risk, developed norms of social trust and cooperation resulting in more generous welfare provision. Early results indicate that greater climate variability over the period 1500-1750, particularly in temperature, and especially on an inter-temporal basis, is indeed strongly and significantly associated with higher levels of later welfare spending—both per capita and per recipient. Since communities with a history of climate variability might also be likelier to employ private strategies for coping with risk, I test whether private insurance provision was a complement to public welfare provision or a stopgap measure where public safety nets did not exist. Lastly, to understand whether culture more strongly influenced spending patterns than contemporary circumstances, I test whether welfare expenditure was responsive to recipient need, and whether expenditure was constrained by shocks to rate-payer incomes especially where these shocks can be separated from simultaneous shocks to recipient employment and income. Here, I find that relief payments were highly sensitive to shocks to the local export industry. Ongoing work includes the collection of data on annual mutual aid society membership, as well as tests of the effect of exogenous policy shocks (e.g., changes in trade policy) that would provide causal evidence of Poor Law responsiveness and allow for the disentanglement of rate-payer constraints from recipient need.

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