Tag Archives: Speenhamland

Speenhamland: An early experiment in basic income

Sources: Karl Polanyi, 1944. The Great Transformation.; Fred Block and Margaret Somers, 2003. In the Shadow of Speenhamland: Social Policy and the Old Poor Law.

Late 18th century Southern England was having a hard time of it. Rural labourers were losing access to land to support themselves because of enclosures. Cottage craft industries were losing ground to manufactured goods from the North. And grain prices spiked due to the Napoleonic Wars.

In 1795, authorities introduced the Speenhamland Law to help workers cope with all this, implemented at the parish level. Some parishes provided a basic income, with a 100% clawback. Others provided workfare, unemployment insurance, and other variations. Support was geared to the price of wheat, going up and down with wheat or bread prices. It went on until 1834, then was replaced with the workhouse – an institution that separated families and gave them make-work projects for their survival.
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