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In English and British history, poor relief refers to government and ecclesiastical action to relieve poverty. Over the centuries various authorities have needed to decide whose poverty deserves relief and also who should bear the cost of helping the poor. Alongside ever-changing attitudes towards poverty, many methods have been attempted to answer these questions. Since the early 16th century legislation on poverty enacted by the English Parliament, poor relief has developed from being little more than a systematic means of punishment into a complex system of government-funded support and protection, especially following the creation in the 1940s of the welfare state.
In the late 15th century, parliament took action on the growing problem of poverty, focusing on punishing people for being "vagabonds" and for begging. In 1495, during the reign of King Henry VII, Parliament enacted the Vagabond Act. This provided for officers of the law to arrest and hold "all such vagabonds, idle and suspect persons living suspiciously and them so taken to set in stocks, there to remain three nights and to have none other sustenance but bread and water; and after the said three days and three nights, to be had out and set at large and to be commanded to avoid the town." As historian Mark Rathbone has discussed in his article "Vagabond!", this Act of Parliament relied on a very loose definition of a vagabond and did not make any distinction between those who were simply unemployed and looking for employment and those who chose to live the life of a vagabond. In addition, the Act failed to recognise the impotent poor, those who could not provide for themselves. These included the sick, the elderly, and the disabled. This lack of a precise definition of a vagabond would hinder the effectiveness of the Vagabond Act for years to come.
The problem of poverty in England was exacerbated during the early 16th century by a dramatic increase in the population. This rose "…from little more than 2 million in 1485,… about 2.8 million by the end of Henry VII's reign ". The population was growing faster than the economy's ability to provide employment opportunities. The problem was made worse because during the English Reformation, Henry VIII severed the ecclesiastical governance of his kingdoms of England and Ireland and made himself the "Supreme Governor" of the Church of England. This involved the Dissolution of the Monasteries in England and Wales: the assets of hundreds of rich religious institutions, including their great estates, were taken by the Crown. This had a devastating impact on poor relief. According to the historian Paul Slack, prior to the Dissolution "it has been estimated that monasteries alone provided 6,500 pounds a year in alms before 1537 ; and that sum was not made good by private benefactions until after 1580." In addition to the closing of the monasteries, most hospitals were also closed, as they "had come to be seen as special types of religious houses". This left many of the elderly and sick without accommodation or care. In 1531, the Vagabonds and Beggars Act was revised, and a new Act was passed by parliament which did make some provision for the different classes of the poor. The sick, the elderly, and the disabled were to be issued with licences to beg. But those who were out of work and in search of employment were still not spared punishment. Throughout the 16th century, a fear of social unrest was the primary motive for much legislation that was passed by parliament.