Poverty and Social Policy before the Age of Social Security

In the 19th century, industrialisation, urban growth and increase in population brought about new forms of poverty and social plight. These were considered particularly severe by contemporary observers. The ‘social question’ increasingly dominated socio-political discourse at the time. 

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Switzerland was reshaped considerably by industrialisation in the time between the founding of the federal state in 1848 and the turn of the century. The population grew from 2.4 to 3.3 million. An increasing number of men and women moved from rural areas to cities and became wage earners in industry and commerce. Zurich, Basel and Geneva became urban economic centres. City walls were torn down and replaced by new peripheral districts. The liberal economic system and technical innovations facilitated the construction of railways and factories. Machine-making progressively replaced the textile industry as the driving economic force. Export business flourished and a modern services sector with banks and insurance firms emerged. 

This development was by no means trouble-free. Growth spurts were hampered by crises. Wealth and general opportunities in life remained highly unevenly distributed. Broad swathes of the population continued to be at risk of poverty. With mobility increasing and new forms of employment such as factory work emerging, families and local communities were less and less able to absorb the effects of poverty and social plight. At the same time, the early liberal state continued to limit public assistance to the poor and left many aspects of welfare to private charities, cooperative and union relief funds and the church. 

The general public initially disputed the problem of poverty, referring to it as ‘pauperism’. The term ‘social question’ was coined around 1850. It was better suited to the situation of the growing working class and accounted for the emergence of a reformist (i.e. non-revolutionary) wing of the working class. Initially, an important role in this debate was played by charitable organisations, which propagated the ethos of self-help and regarded poverty as being a consequence of deficient morals. The economic crisis in the 1870s and the erosion of the liberal societal model enabled the idea of state-led “social reform” to gain traction among the bourgeois elite too. The notion that the state has an obligation to ‘represent the common interests’ for the benefit of socially disadvantaged groups and intervene in economic life with the support of experts widely caught on. How and to what extent, however, remained subject to debate

Literatur / Bibliographie / Bibliografia / References: Degen Bernard (2006), Entstehung und Entwicklung des schweizerischen Sozialstaates, Studien und Quellen, 31, 17–48; Studer Brigitte (1998a), Soziale Sicherheit für alle? Das Projekt Sozialstaat 1848–1998, in B. Studer (ed.), Etappen des Bundesstaates. Staats- und Nationsbildung in der Schweiz, 159–186, Zürich; HLS / DHS / DSS: Soziale Frage.