Public arrangements for social protection were conceived amid the
decline of feudalism and the rise of industrial society.
Prior to the 19th century many nations had assumed some public
responsibility for the welfare of their citizens. The British
Poor Law of 1601, for example, had codified efforts to establish
local government responsibility for the relief of pauperism.
But the birth of the modern welfare state is usually marked by the
advent of social insurance in Germany under Bismarck during
the 1880s. Most of Western Europe introduced social welfare
programs prior to World War I, and the United States enacted national
social insurance schemes during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
These programs grew and matured, and by the dawn of the
21st century government spending on social welfare in the advanced
industrialized nations averaged well over 20 percent of
their gross domestic product. The literature on modern welfare
states embodies a range of theoretical perspectives on the
functions served by these systems of social protection, their
conceptual boundaries, and the factors that have shaped their