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Poverty, policy, and industrialization : lessons from the distant past


  • Polak, Ben
  • Williamson, Jeffrey G.


Pessimists say industrialization increased poverty; optimists say it did not. The authors argue that how much industrialization eradicates poverty depends on the form industrialization takes. It is not economic growth by itself, but the processes and policies associated with different growth regimes which make the poor poorer. The authors address two questions : 1) what happened to the proportionate share of the population living in poverty, and to the living standards of the poor, during nineteenth century industrial revolutions?; and 2) why did poverty statistics behave the way they did? Modern economic growth may erode traditional entitlements that serve as safety nets in preindustrial societies. It may be convenient to think otherwise, but typically the poor in preindustrial European and North American societies were not supported by the family and private institutions. Much of the responsibility for the poor lay with the state and other formal, statelike institutions that intervened in food markets. Where laissez-faire policies were adopted during the Industrial Revolution, as in America and England, many of the poor (especially the extremely poor) became more vulnerable to adverse conditions.

Suggested Citation

  • Polak, Ben & Williamson, Jeffrey G., 1991. "Poverty, policy, and industrialization : lessons from the distant past," Policy Research Working Paper Series 645, The World Bank.
  • Handle: RePEc:wbk:wbrwps:645

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Gary S. Becker, 1962. "Investment in Human Capital: A Theoretical Analysis," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 70, pages 1-9.
    2. MacKinnon, Mary, 1986. "Poor law policy, unemployment, and pauperism," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 23(3), pages 299-336, July.
    3. Lindert, Peter H. & Williamson, Jeffrey G., 1985. "Growth, equality, and history," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 22(4), pages 341-377, October.
    4. MacKinnon, Mary, 1987. "English Poor Law Policy and the Crusade Against Outrelief," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 47(03), pages 603-625, September.
    5. Robinson, Sherman, 1976. "A Note on the U Hypothesis Relating Income Inequality and Economic Development," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 66(3), pages 437-440, June.
    6. Williamson, Jeffrey G., 1976. "American Prices and Urban Inequality Since 1820," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 36(02), pages 303-333, June.
    7. Sundstrom, William A. & David, Paul A., 1988. "Old-age security motives, labor markets, and farm family fertility in antebellum American," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 25(2), pages 164-197, April.
    8. Hannon, Joan Underhill, 1985. "Poor relief policy in antebellum New York state: The rise and decline of the poorhouse," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 22(3), pages 233-256, July.
    9. Ahluwalia, Montek S., 1976. "Inequality, poverty and development," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 3(4), pages 307-342, December.
    10. Robert W. Fogel, 1986. "Nutrition and the Decline in Mortality since 1700: Some Preliminary Findings," NBER Chapters,in: Long-Term Factors in American Economic Growth, pages 439-556 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    11. Morley, Samuel A, 1981. "The Effect of Changes in the Population on Several Measures of Income Distribution," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 71(3), pages 285-294, June.
    12. Hannon, Joan Underhill, 1984. "Poverty in the Antebellum Northeast: The View from New York State's Poor Relief Rolls," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 44(04), pages 1007-1032, December.
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    Cited by:

    1. Easterly, William, 1999. "Life during growth : international evidence on quality of life and per capita income," Policy Research Working Paper Series 2110, The World Bank.


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