Cornell University

International Programs

117 Ives Hall, 607-254-7255

News

June 4 2009

Professor George Boyer reports on his international research

The evolution of social welfare policies in Great Britain, 1815-1914

My current research examines the evolution of British social welfare policies in the century leading up to the First World War, and the changing methods used by British workers to cope with economic insecurity.  

Despite rapid increases in real wages during this period, the majority of workers still lived close to the margin, so that prolonged time without work led to financial distress.

I study how workers dealt with this insecurity by saving, insuring themselves against income loss through membership in friendly societies and trade unions, and applying for public and private assistance when necessary, and why the relative importance of these coping strategies changed significantly over the course of the 19th century.  

I also examine why Parliament adopted the Liberal Welfare Reforms in 1906-11, after seven decades of increasing stinginess towards the poor, and the effects of these reforms on poverty rates among British workers.

In addition, I am studying trends in workers' living standards in Europe and North America from 1870 to 1913. Most economists who compare living standards across countries focus their attention on income measures, such as GNP per capita or real wages, but these are not good proxies for workers' quality of life, which is better measured by life expectancy, educational attainment, and the existence of social safety nets.

These broader measures of workers' well being yield insights into trends in mass migration during this period. Potential migrants cared about their quality of life as well as income. I present evidence that the decline in emigration rates from Germany and Scandinavia in the decades leading up to World War I was due in large part to these countries' investments in public health, education, and social safety nets.

For students interested in learning more on this topic Professor Boyer teaches the following courses:

  • ILRLE 4440, The Evolution of Social Policy in Britain and America
  • ILRLE 4480, Topics in Twentieth Century Economic History
  • ILRIC 2350, Work, Labor and Capital in the Global Economy (team taught with three other faculty members)