Too sick to work: welfare benefits in early 20th century Sweden

Gustafscenen Session 4: Life cycles incomes and relief during stages of economic hardship organized by Anton Svensson and Louise Cormack


Helene Castenbrandt


This paper looks at how individuals have overcome economic hardship by focusing on those too sick to work in early 20th century Sweden. The current design of Swedish sickness benefit has long been debated, with several reforms being made partly in relation to statistics showing at times high sickness rates for Sweden in relation to other comparable countries. Sickness rates are, however, highly governed by how a country have chosen to handle welfare benefits in relation to those being long-term ill, something that has historical roots. Sickness benefit in Sweden has its origins both in the sickness fund movement and the national pension system. Sickness funds were voluntary and often membership run organisations that began to expand in the decades leading up to the turn of the century 1900, while the 1913 pension system was grounded on universalism and had a focus on disability rather than on old age. The two forms of insurance can be seen as complementary, where sickness funds were to provide financial compensation for shorter illnesses, while the disability pension was implemented for those who became permanently ill. However, the extent of the two insurances was on several levels far from satisfactory and reforms were constantly discussed. In addition, many people that fell ill still had to rely on the old poor relief system. This paper addresses the question of boundaries between the different forms of economic support to workers who could no longer support themselves due to illness, and asks questions such as for whom and for what these insurances where used. The analysis uses individual level data on people that received disability pension, sickness benefit and/or poor relief in the 1920s and 1930s together with qualitative data on the organisation of these insurances. Data is collected from the city of Landskrona.


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