The history of unemployment relief in Britain from 1834 to 1911 was not a “unilinear progression in collective benevolence,” culminating in unemployment insurance. The combination of poor relief and private charity to assist cyclically unemployed workers from 1834 to 1870 was more generous, and more certain, than the relief provided for the unemployed under the various policies adopted from 1870 to 1911. A major shift in policy occurred in the 1870s, largely in response to the crisis of the Poor Law in the 1860s. Because the new policy—a combination of self-help and charity—proved unable to cope with the high unemployment of cyclical downturns, Parliament in 1911 bowed to political pressure for a national system of relief by adopting the world's first compulsory system of unemployment insurance.

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