1 Dec 2015

Marriage, poverty relief and industrialization in the early modern England

Camelia writes*

In the famous Shakespearian play “Romeo and Juliet”, Juliet is only 14 when she falls for the 17-year-old Romeo. Some say Shakespeare made his characters so young in order to illustrate the dangers of teenage love, not as a typical example of love in the Elizabethan period. Because the age of the demographically typical Juliet would have been at least 10 years higher. But does it really matter how old was the regular Juliet when she met the regular Romeo?

Developmental economists say it does. In fact, at the dawn of modernity, the woman’s age at marriage mattered so much, that it can partly explain why industrialization occurred first in England!

Voigtländer and Voth (2009) model industrialization as the result of a probabilistic process. In this model, growth surges happen sporadically in many regions (for example, in Venice, Florence, some cities of the Hanseatic League), but only take roots and lead to qualitative development in places with particular conditions.

One of these favorable starting conditions in England was the fertility restriction determined by the institution of late marriage. The so-called European Marriage Pattern – a unique combination of late marriage with voluntarily chosen partners who were expected to separate their new household from the household of their parents – was actually the norm in most of Western Europe. But the features of this pattern were particularly strong in England. Delayed marriage acted primarily as check on the number of offspring, ensuring that the capital accumulation would not be outpaced by population growth – Malthus’s nightmare – but it likely had many other positive effects which are more difficult to prove.

Another condition that Voigtländer and Voth emphasize for England was the existence of redistributive institutions. The Poor Law was a set of policies formalized and expanded by Elizabeth I which aimed at providing for the extremely poor Englishmen. Namely, the people owning land in each parish were obliged to pay ‘poor rates’ that would be used for poverty relief in ways decided locally by the parish. Through either building workhouses for those able to work, giving child allowances to the poor families with more than three or four children or providing shelter and food to infirm persons, the Poor Law helped increase the income of the bottom 40% of the population [pdf].

Now, the problem is that the redistributive condition seems to contradict the fertility condition. Starting with Malthus, economists have argued that child allowances increased the number of children a family could afford without starving and that by allotting land for the poor families – a substitute for poverty relief in some parishes – more marriages were stimulated. Moreover, some criticized the Poor Law benefits for discouraging able-bodied poor to search work.

Such arguments miss the bigger picture. First, a couple purposefully deciding to have more children in order to get welfare benefits was an anomaly in England at that time. Fertility was believed to come from God and historical accounts show that couples never discussed family planning until at least the second half of the 19th century.

The land argument might hold some truth in it. In a country with a strong European Marriage Pattern, those wanting to marry had to first secure housing for their new household, so the availability of land was a factor that could speed up the decision. But a look at the actual size of the allotments – rarely exceeding half an acre for a family of four – makes it clear that their impact was not enough to overcome the fertility restriction.

As for the old welfare-disturbs-market argument, it must be noted that poor workers in pre-industrial times generally lived at subsistence level. Data is available for a similar country – France – that up to one fifth of the workers did not eat enough to be able to work more than several hours per day. In the absence of redistributive mechanisms, such workers could not make the transition to hard, energy-consuming industrial work. Therefore, the Poor Law is likely to have supported the move to new jobs instead of preventing it.

Bottom line: Successful industrialization in England depended on the fertility restrictions and the redistributive institutions. The Poor Law in England did not cause a population growth amongst the poor that would threaten capital accumulation – it actually improved the odds of industrialization.

* Please comment on these posts from my growth & development economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.