Chapter 9: Work and welfare in the global South: public works programmes as an instrument of social policy
Public works programmes (PWPs) have been implemented in the global North for five centuries at least, as a core component of social policy in response to the needs of the working age poor. The Elizabethan poor laws of 1601 enshrined the principle that the poor should work in return for support from the parish but as early as 1535–36 statutes had been passed in England to propose that the state should provide some form of work for the able-bodied poor in return for the receipt of ‘relief’, recognising, albeit implicitly, the inability of the market to provide sufficient employment (Leonard, 1900). Over the intervening centuries employment-based programmes to support the working age poor retained their popularity, and throughout the last half millennium PWPs have been adopted, in one form or another, as countercyclical responses during periods of significant labour market disruption and economic restructuring, particularly at times when the state has recognised elevated unemployment as either inherently undesirable, or potentially deleterious to public stability. PWPs reached their apogee during the massive US New Deal programmes of the 1930s, which consumed 4 per cent of GDP at their height, and absorbed up to 3–9 per cent of the labour force annually between 1933 and 1940 (McCord, 2012). Public Works’ policy profile rose again in the North during the Reagan era, with the emergence of ‘workfare’ (known in the UK as ‘welfare to work’) presented as an alternative to ongoing cash transfer provision, and perceived as a component of both labour market activation and social protection provision.
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