Logic of Charity

Review: George Boyer on Marco van Leeuwen

Marco H. D. van Leeuwen, The Logic of Charity: Amsterdam, 1800-1850. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. xv + 242 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-312-22853-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by George R. Boyer, Department of Labor Economics, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University.
Published by EH.NET, December 2000.

This book presents a detailed analysis of the role played by poor relief in Amsterdam in the first half of the nineteenth century. Marco van Leeuwen examines poor relief from the perspectives of both the local elite, who administered the system, and the poor. He contends that Amsterdam's system of relief served an important function for both groups. It was a major part of a cost-minimizing control strategy for the elite, and also part of a low-risk survival strategy for the poor, who viewed relief as a right and made frequent use of it.

In Chapter 1 van Leeuwen develops a model of the role played by poor relief in pre-industrial Europe. He argues that the local elite had several reasons -- both economic and non-economic -- for providing poor relief. Economically, the payment of poor relief to underemployed low-skilled workers in seasonal or casual labor markets was a low cost method for maintaining a reserve of labor. Socially and politically, poor relief was a means of stabilizing the existing social order and preventing unrest. The medical services associated with poor relief -- such as mandatory smallpox vaccinations -- reduced the threat of infectious diseases and epidemics, which often began in poor districts but spread to middle and upper class neighborhoods. Finally, some of the elite viewed assisting the poor as their religious duty, a "prerequisite of spiritual salvation." The poor viewed poor relief as one of several complementary sources of income. They combined wage income, poor relief, credit from local shopkeepers, the pawning of goods, assistance from friends and relatives, and sometimes semi-legal activities, such as begging, in their constant struggle to achieve a subsistence income. The elite offered poor relief, and the poor accepted it, because both groups felt that it was in their interests to do so.

Chapter 2 provides a broad outline of how the system of poor relief worked in early nineteenth century Amsterdam. Poor relief largely was administered by religious denominations. The major relief institutions were the Reformed Charity, the Municipal Charity, the Catholic Charity, the Lutheran Charity, and the Dutch-Israelite (Ashkenazi) Charity, corresponding to the major religious denominations in the city. Small religious groups such as the Mennonites also ran their own charities. The Municipal Charity was a public institution, which offered assistance to poor Protestants who were not aided by one of the religious charities. All of the charities except the Municipal Charity, which was funded by taxes, were financed by voluntary donations.

Chapters 3 and 4 examine poor relief as a control strategy of the elite and as a survival strategy of the poor, while Chapter 5 examines alternative control and survival strategies. Each of the religious charities provided relief only to people who had been church members for some specified number of years. Those Protestants who did not qualify for relief could apply to the Municipal Charity for assistance. The number of poor people assisted by Amsterdam charities was enormous. From 1829 to 1854, approximately 25 percent of the city's population each year received "regular assistance, either throughout the year or in the winter only." Given van Leeuwen's estimate that a third of Amsterdam's population lived at or below the poverty line, it would appear that nearly four out of five poor persons received regular poor relief. The vast majority of those assisted received outdoor relief; only about 10 percent were relieved in orphanages, old-people's homes, or workhouses. A quarter of those on outdoor relief were assisted by the Municipal Charity, the rest were assisted by the religious institutions. Those granted poor relief fell into certain groups: the elderly, the sick and infirm, able-bodied workers with large families, and widows with children.

To determine how poor relief was financed, van Leeuwen examined the account books of the five largest charities for the period 1829-54. He found that 37 percent of the income of these charities came from collections (offertories, alms boxes, door-to-door collections), donations, and bequests, 23 percent came from the municipal subsidy, and 31 percent came from income from properties owned by the charities, and the sale of property. Given that the city obtained the majority of its revenue from taxes on food, van Leeuwen concludes that the municipal subsidy largely represented payments by the poor for their own relief. Even if we assume that all collections, donations, and bequests came from the elite and the middle classes, they still paid less than 40 percent of the cost of relief.

Data on the occupations of adult able-bodied males granted relief shows that a large share were unskilled casual laborers employed in port-related work. In 1830-54 51 percent of the men newly registered for relief with the Municipal Charity were employed at the port; in 1859 the port provided work for 16 percent of the male labor force. The data support van Leeuwen's labor reserve theory. However, the amount of assistance given to each family was meager. It was not possible to live on poor relief alone; relief benefits had to be combined with other sources of income. While benefit levels were small, van Leeuwen argues that they were large enough to keep most of the poor from adopting undesirable (from the point of view of the elite) survival strategies -- from migrating elsewhere in search of work, turning to crime or begging, deserting their children, or precipitating unrest. That is, the system of poor relief enabled the elite to maintain a necessary labor reserve at a relatively low cost. Alternative control strategies, such as wage increases, putting the poor in workhouses or "pauper factories," employing seasonal migrants, or regulating the price of bread, were more expensive or less reliable. Similarly, van Leeuwen contends that poor relief was "the key survival strategy of the Amsterdam poor," although it had to be combined with other strategies such as obtaining credit from shopkeepers and landlords and assistance from neighbors. The poor made frequent use of poor relief because, compared to alternative survival strategies, it was relatively remunerative and entailed no risks.

Overall, van Leeuwen's arguments concerning the role of poor relief are convincing. However, there are important issues that relate to the role of poor relief as a control and survival strategy that are not discussed. In particular, there is little if any discussion of how charities responded to economic downturns. Most of the data on relief expenditures, numbers and types of paupers relieved, and occupations of applicants for relief are reported only for long periods of time. For example, Table 3.10 reports that on average in 1829-54 the five largest Amsterdam charities spent 580,000 guilders per year on relief, but does not report how much was spent each year from 1829 to 1854. Fluctuations in economic activity must have caused the demand for poor relief to vary considerably from one year to the next. If the elite used poor relief as a control strategy to maintain a labor reserve, then expenditures to able-bodied workers should have increased during downturns. How did charities cope with the additional demand for relief? A quarter of their funds came from income generated by properties they owned. This income was presumably fixed, or might even have declined during downturns. Did collections increase, or were charities forced to sell some of their property to raise money to assist the poor? Did the role of the Municipal Charity increase significantly during downturns? Finally, it would be useful to know more about where the property owned by the religious charities came from. The income generated by these properties significantly reduced the cost to the elite of relieving the poor, and must have been a key reason why poor relief was less expensive than other control strategies.

In sum, while there remain issues to be addressed, The Logic of Charity is an important book that significantly increases our knowledge of poor relief in early nineteenth century Amsterdam, and provides a model of the role played by poor relief that will be of use to scholars studying relief elsewhere in pre-industrial Europe. Marco van Leeuwen has done a good job of laying out the alternatives faced by both the upper and middle classes who paid for and administered poor relief, and the poor who made use of it.

George R. Boyer is the author of An Economic History of the English Poor Law, 1750-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 1990), and of "The Historical Background of the Communist Manifesto," Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 12 (Fall 1998).

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Posted: 6 December 2000