FOR the past four years or so, I have been working on a book about the evolutionary and cultural basis for humans’ generosity toward strangers. As I’ve worked to understand the major transitions in human generosity over the past few millennia, I’ve regularly lamented the fact that the quantitative data on formalized efforts to meet the needs of the poor and destitute are very poor in the historical record until around 1880. Nevertheless, I have continued to look on an almost weekly basis for new results that could help make sense of the history of human generosity before the welfare state.
This past week, I finally hit paydirt. In this new paper, Bas van Bavel and Auke Rijpma used data from a variety of historical documents to estimate the proportions of GDP devoted to formalized efforts to meet the needs of the poor in three European countries (Italy, the Netherlands, and England) going back as far as 1430. As far as I am aware, these are the oldest data on formalized poor relief that have ever been assembled. Between 1430 and 1850, it looks like these three nations had the will (and the ways) to devote about 1.5% of GDP to poor relief.
The numbers from Van Bavel and Rijpma are more or less directly comparable to the percentages of GDP that the modern OECD nations devote to so-called “social transfers.” The OECD numbers incorporate everything from health insurance to unemployment assistance to school lunches, and everything in between. Across all of the OECD nations, about 22% of GDP goes to social spending, but these numbers exclude private social spending (for example by corporations in the forms of health insurance and retirement pensions for workers, which are particularly important sources of social spending in the UK, the US, and Canada). Thus the OECD figures actually underestimate how much of GDP is going to social spending in the world’s richest nations today.
Compared to the 20-30% of GDP that most OECD nations currently devote to health, education, social security, and the like, the 1 or 2% expenditures in Italy, the Netherlands, and England from the Renaissance through the 19th century look paltry indeed. But it’s important to remember that most people were living at subsistence levels until the end of the 19th century anyway. You can’t expect people, or their nations, to take an abiding interest in the welfare of strangers in need until they have enough surpluses of their own to meet their own needs and the needs of their loved ones.