Poverty is the outcome of unequal societies. Poverty is only recognized once society addresses it and finds it problematic. The category of ‘the poor’ is hence a consequence of a social policy specifically aimed at the poor. Until the end of the 19th century, government felt itself responsible for the problems of poverty only to a limited degree. Looking after the poor was primarily a matter for private charity, the church or the family. It was not until the rise of the workers’ movement, industrialisation and urbanization that fighting poverty fell within the competence of the public authorities. 

Categorizing the poor at the end of the 19th century 

From the 15th century onward, the poor were increasingly ostracized. The authorities denied particular groups of poor the right to receive aid, and criminalized them. The poor who were deemed ‘unworthy‘ were accused of having a reprehensible attitude and to be complicit in their own situation.

Most Swiss cantons passed or revised their poor relief laws at the end of the 19th century. Particular attention was paid to ‘unfortunate and abandoned children’, or in other words, orphans, but also to impoverished families blamed for neglecting their children both materially and morally.. In the interest of public order, such children were to be raised in accordance with prevailing societal norms and taught work discipline (foster home and institutions). As part of ‘administrative detention’, impoverished adults were also committed to closed institutions and frequently forced into laboring there. In so doing, the authorities continued a policy of compulsory work for the poor, one which had existed since the Middle Ages. This often took the form of forced labor, once referred to as Schellenwerk (from a 16th - 18th century practice in Bern, Basel, Zurich, and Luzern of shackling those condemned to perform such labor and attaching bells, Schellen, to iron bands they wore around their necks), or in hospitals. In the 17th century, institutions were established specifically for forced labor or correctional purposes, or existing hospitals were converted for such uses. Such practices continue well into the 20th century. 

Poor people who were unable to work due to illnessdisability or old age were also deemed worthy of support (‘involuntary‘ or ‘respectable‘ poor). The general view was that older people deserved more support as they had had a lifetime of work already behind them. At the end of the 19th century, many widows particularly depended on such support. Due to their age and their previous dependence on their husbands, they often were unable to provide for themselves: government then took the place of the breadwinner. Support for the poor, however, also allowed for social control to be exerted over these women, now no longer subordinate to the authority of a husband – particularly with respect to sexual mores. 

The ‘able-bodied poor’ constituted another category. These were men and women who were, in principle, able to work and who were only to receive assistance in exceptional cases. The public authorities and social reformers were committed to re-integrating them into the workforce, and set up farming colonies for men and sewing ateliers for men and sewing for women. 

Whether someone received benefits and the status a recipient had depended primarily on their employment status, their ability to work, and their marital status. 

Assistance provided for ‘citizens’ to survive 

Most cantons limited entitlement to welfare benefits to those with cantonal citizenship, that is, to those who through heritage or marriage (for women) were citizens of the community or who had purchased such citizenship rights. Critical importance was therefore ascribed to an understanding of solidarity based on blood ties, and which regarded the community as an extended family. The needy who did not hold citizenship in the community they lived in could be sent back to their ‘home’ community, the one their ancestors came from. Indeed, the 1874 constitution included the option of revoking the right to reside for those who had become a burden on public welfare and whose home municipality refused to provide support. A rare exception was the Canton of Neuchâtel which, at the end of the 19th century, introduced support for people who were resident in the canton but without citizenship in one of its communities. Regardless of whether the principle was to support those who were ‘only’ residents or those with a claim based on their ‘home’ community, it was necessary to establish the legitimacy of an individual’s claim for support. 

The circle of those eligible for benefits, and the amounts granted, were sharply restricted. Between the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, poor relief barely covered the costs for food and heating. In 1879 in Lausanne, for example, benefits amounted to little more than 20 francs per month – about a fifth of a worker’s wage at the time. The homeless were given soup and shelter for a night, then sent back to their home communities.

Social insurance redefines the poverty line

The groups of the needy supported by public welfare programs have undergone substantial change over time. Since 1918, part of the Swiss population has been insured by the Swiss Institute for Accident Insurance (Suva) against loss of earnings due to accidents. Special measures to support the unemployed also alleviated the burden of traditional social aid, particularly during the crisis of the 1930s. The category of the unemployed – those persons involuntarily and temporarily without work – was official defined in this context. As the level of unemployment benefits depended on the last income received, and the compensation period was limited, many of the unemployed continued to be supported even after they were no longer eligible for insurance benefits or if they had received insufficient compensation. This practice continues to this day.

The introduction of old age and survivors’ pensions in 1947, together with supplementary benefits (from 1965 onwards), resulted in a situation in which some of the elderly and widows were able to get by without traditional social assistance. Over time, children and youths were also supported through targeted schemes and structures. Disability insurance was introduced in 1960, meaning those with physical or mental disabilities were no longer dependent on public assistance. These new social benefits, medical progress, and re-integration efforts reduced the number of those eligible for social assistance. Those awaiting their pensions, or those who received no benefits from disability insurance, continued to need support. Who was responsible for the cost of medical care has also changed in the course of the 20th century. Yet, unlike other countries, Switzerland still does not provide insurance for the loss of income in the event of illness. Due to the federalist structure of public assistance, and the changing group of the needy, there are few reliable figures on benefits provided until about 1950. 

From survival relief to minimum subsistence level

Cash support remained at a modest level until the Second World War. The city of Lausanne provided no more than 40 francs per month in 1940, at the time equivalent to about two kilos of bread and two liters of milk per day. Recipients were therefore often dependent on private charity and other non-cash benefits, including food, clothes and firewood. The concept of a minimum subsistence level was not formulated until several decades after the Second World War. At the end of the 1950s, Lausanne paid welfare recipients 217 francs per months, about half of an average monthly income for an unskilled worker. 

The Swiss Conference for Social Welfare (SKOS) – an organization established in 1905 that had representatives from communities, cantons and private charities – has issued guidelines for public assistance since the 1960s. Their reference values have regularly been increased. Accordingly, social assistance is no longer aimed at guaranteeing a minimum subsistence level, but instead should also enable recipients to participate in social and cultural life. Benefits depend on the size of the household budget. In 2013, they amounted to a little less than 1,000 francs per month for a single person and 2,000 francs for a couple with two children. These were supplemented by a modest rent subsidy and the premiums for basic health insurance. Despite these payments, welfare recipients remain in an economically precarious situation. While the principle of minimal assistance is to be respected, benefits are to remain below the wages paid in the labor market. As there is no statutory minimum wage in Switzerland, the country does have employed people whose income nevertheless falls below the level defined as minimum subsistence by the social welfare system. In 2004, the first national social welfare survey did recognize that there were ‘working poor’ in the country. It established that more than a quarter of the welfare recipients had some form of employment; of them, 40 percent worked full-time. 

Expanding who is assisted?

The definition of what constitutes a ‘solidary society’ changed over the course of the 20th century due to demographic and economic changes. The notion of assistance based on one’s community of residence (rather than on one’s ancestral or ‘home’ community) prevailed thanks to intercantonal agreements. The first such ‘concordat’ was signed by 18 cantons already before the First World War, and it was subsequently revised numerous times. By 1967, it applied to all cantons: public assistance for all Swiss citizens today is de facto residence-based. However, it would take until a 1975 constitutional amendment concerning the public responsibility for assistance to the needy, enacted into law on June 24, 1977, to establish a right for all Swiss to freely reside where they wanted to – even if they were receiving welfare assistance. 

The expansion of social insurance in the post-war period and three decades of economic growth resulted in dwindling political interest in public assistance. Welfare recipients were increasingly considered as marginal individuals who needed to be re-integrated into society. Social assistance became the ‘last safety net’ of social security, helping promote an image of a welfare state so close-meshed that no one could fall through its net. In the same era, and through the establishing of specialized schools as well as the successful introduction of new methods focused on the individual (e.g., case work), social work became professionalized (1960-1975). 

The economic crisis of the mid-1970s and the preceding years of social upheaval led to a new discourse about the causes of poverty. The focus was no longer confined to the phenomenon of maladjustment to society, but also examined job dismissals and unemployment. Countless studies on poverty were published as a result of the crisis of the 1990s. Cantons passed a number of social welfare acts encouraging labor market re-integration and activation. The reforms were enacted in a climate dominated by sharp critique of social welfare schemes. An older rhetoric about welfare abuse again gained traction; this was a means to try to limit access to social welfare benefits, to justify greater controls, and to increase pressure on re-integrating individuals into the labor market. 

In 1995, the Federal Court recognized a right to support in the event of poverty – one applicable to all who resided in Switzerland regardless of nationality and residence status, and based solely on human dignity. This new principle was added to the totally revised federal constitution of 1999. Still, the criteria of domicile, nationality and residence status continue to play a role in determining the assistance. Those without a fixed residence, as well as asylum seekers or rejected asylum seekers, receive lower benefits. Support also varies between the cantons, as they have retained their autonomy with respect to social welfare policies. 

Since the 2000s, a number of cantons have revised their laws, in most cases resulting in cuts and stricter requirements for the recipients of social assistance. SKOS, as a result, has also  adapted its recommendations.

The idea of an unconditional basic income 

Social insurance benefits in Switzerland are financed largely out of employee contributions, with the level of contribution dependent on the level of the wages. The level of benefits to which the insured are entitled is often determined by their wage income. This contribution-based system can no longer meet the needs of large parts of the population if a large part of the population is unable to work regularly, for example during a period of high unemployment. A much-discussed alternative would be an unconditional basic income. In 2012, a group of creative artists launched the popular initiative "for an unconditional basic income". It called for all adult citizens to receive an income without having to provide any work or services in return. The initiators argued that social welfare benefits could be severely curtailed or even completely abolished, and the administrative burden on the social security system thereby be reduced. Those in poverty would have less fear for how they would get by and would no longer be controlled through social assistance institutions or by an unemployment insurance office. Having a secured livelihood would also promote creativity and voluntary work. Most controversial about this proposed unconditional basic income was how it would be financed and what burden it would place on the taxation system, among the reasons why this popular initiative 2016 was clearly rejected by the voters. The idea of a basic income is being discussed beyond Switzerland.  It remains largely unknown how a guaranteed basic income might affect popular behavior. To find this out, Finland, with 2,000 participants, was the first European country to test an unconditional basic income in 2017 and 2018. However, the results of the study were not very significant. While participants felt better mentally, for at least some of them, access to the labor market remained difficult.

> Social rate in % of gross national product

Literatur / Bibliographie / Bibliografia / References: Matter Sonja (2011), Der Armut auf den Leib rücken. Die Professionalisierung der Sozialen Arbeit in der Schweiz (1900-1960), Bern; Schnegg Brigitte (2007), Armutsbekämpfung durch Sozialreform: Gesellschaftlicher Wandel und sozialpolitische Modernisierung Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts am Beispiel der Stadt Bern. In: Berner Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Heimatkunde, 69, 233–258; Tabin Jean-Pierre, Merrien François-Xavier (2012), Regards croisés sur la pauvreté, Lausanne ; Tabin Jean-Pierre, Frauenfelder Arnaud, et al. (2010 [2008]), Temps d’assistance. L’assistance publique en Suisse romande de la fin du XIXe siècle à nos jours Lausanne.