Welfare before the Welfare State:
Worker Mobilization and Poor Relief Provisions in Norwegian Municipalities 1900-1922

Haakon Gjerløw and Magnus Rasmussen

Working Paper


We provide the first study of worker mobilization on local variation in poor relief generosity in Norwegian municipalities between 1900 and 1922. A period marked with industrialization but before the advent of the major welfare state programs. Poor relief remained the primary way for workers and old to receive aid during periods of joblessness or old-age. The poor relief system was highly decentralized, meaning that national legislation rarely reflected conditions on the ground. Contrary to existing class-based theories of working class mobilization, we argue worker mobilization was fundamental to explaining poor relief generosity in this period. Using original geo-coded micro data on XX Norwegian municipalities, we find strong effects of worker mobilization in the form of strikes on poor relief generosity. Our results are strengthened by a set of placebo-models. We discuss our findings in relation to the literature on welfare state development and class-theories of worker mobilization.

A new geocoded dataset on industrial conflict in Norway

Since 1900, the Norwegian trade union confederation "Arbeidernes Faglige Landsorganisasjon" (AFL) recorded all strikes, lockouts and blockades that they were a part of, and published this as tables in their yearly reports. They included information on the location, the enterprise involved, the duration of the conflict, how many workers were involved and how much it cost. With the help of Optical Character Recognition, we have converted these tables into a dataset.

A novel dataset on poor relief generosity in Norwegian municipalities

Every fifth year between 1900 - 1920, the national statistics institute of Norway, "Statistics Norway", published details on poor relief in every Norwegian municipality. Under the 1900 Poor Law, any individual could claim the right to benefits. This meant that for the first time, unemployed would be eligible to poor relief. But the law still left it to local administrators and poor relief councils to decide who would end up receiving benefits. This resulted in a large variation in poor relief generosity among Norwegian municipalities. We argue that the generosity was affected by the degree of industrial conflict.

The datasets and all replication materials will be made available upon publication.