Poor-Laws. The obligation of providing for the poor has been recognized by all civilized nations. Among the primitive peoples of the earth the giving of alms to those who were in need was inculcated as a religious observance, and ancient European nations regarded a provision for the poor as a matter of state policy. In early times Athens could boast of having no citizen in want, “nor did any disgrace the nation by begging.” But war at length brought poverty, and the state decreed the maintenance of those who were wounded in battle and afterward of the widows and children of those who fell. There also were societies for the relief of distress among some of the Grecian states. Among the Romans the distribution of grain was introduced by Gaius Gracchus, and continued till the fall of the empire. In the time of Augustus 200,000 people were thus fed. Cicero mentions this provision of the Roman law as one in high favor with the people, since it furnished them abundant subsistence without labor; other Roman writers describe its results as injurious, creating a nation of idlers and mendicants and leaving the soil uncultivated.

In the middle ages the great body of the laboring classes were in a condition of serfdom, and looked to their feudal lords for support. But the church constituted herself the great receiver and dispenser of alms. The rich monasteries and abbeys distributed doles to the poor, as is still done at the mosque under the Mohammedan system. In most states of continental Europe the church remains to a greater or lesser extent the source of relief to the poor, the state only stepping in when the contributions of the church and of private charity are insufficient. In England the statute of 1388 is the first that makes provision for the impotent poor. Various statutes were passed after that time, culminating in the statute of 1601, which has formed the basis of the poor-law system of England to the present time. It taxed every inhabitant of every parish for the relief of the poor and directed the justices in every county to appoint three or four substantial householders in each parish to be overseers of the poor in connection with the churchwardens.

Various efforts were made to remedy abuses which arose under this system, of which the workhouse-system was one of the earliest. All who refused to be lodged in the workhouse were refused relief. But the act of 1796 repealed the workhouse test and allowed relief to be given in aid of wages, so that the poor-laws were practically turned into a mode of paying wages. Various changes were made from time to time, and finally in 1871 the poor-law board was abolished and its powers transferred to the local government-board. The fundamental rule in England and Wales is that each parish is bound to maintain its own poor, and this is done by a poor-rate which churchwardens and overseers may levy on all persons occupying land in the parish. In 1906 the poor-rates raised for the year, under the local-government act of 1894, amounted to £16,741,663.

In the United States a system of relief somewhat similar to that of England prevails in most of the states. Poor-houses are established by the county, to which persons unable to support themselves are transferred and cared for, such work as they are able to do being provided for them. In some states provision has been made for children's homes, where all children under a certain age, whose parents are dead or unable to provide for them, are fed, clothed and educated. Happily thus far the number of dependent persons in America is so small that the tax for their support is not seriously felt.