After the first world war, “fear of social disorder, guilt about those who had fought for their country, and a reluctance to return to the Poor Law prompted the extension of unemployment insurance, initially limited to tradespeople, to ‘uncovenanted workers’”. However insurance still did not cater for long term unemployment and large numbers of people without employment during the Great Depression found themselves without any income. In 1934 the Unemployment Assistance Act provided a means-tested benefit that came into effect after contributory benefits had run out.
Unemployment insurance was introduced in the US in the 1930s for similar reasons, particularly fear of social disorder. In the early years of the Depression, a strong belief in individualism in the US made governments reluctant to intervene to alleviate the distress of the unemployed. Businessmen also argued against the government providing relief. For example, the President of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) stated that “such a system of doles, from the economic value-point, is an unwarranted weakening drain on industry, a deterrent of individual initiative, and a menace to our competing strength in the marts of the world.”
However the bankruptcy of private charities and the inadequacy of local relief agencies, together with the threat to social order posed by congregations of strong yet unemployed men, caused the government to act. One of Roosevelt’s advisers claimed that society was on the brink of rebellion when Roosevelt took office in 1933: “we were confronted with a choice between an orderly revolution—a peaceful and rapid departure from the past concepts—and a violent and disorderly overthrow of the whole capitalist structure.”
Following the second world war, the United Nations, in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, included the guarantee of protection and security in the event of unemployment (articles 23 and 25). This was in large part a response to the belief that the rise of Hitler in Germany and of extreme political movements in general had been facilitated by the presence of widespread unemployment and disaffection. Various countries, including Australia and Britain, introduced a welfare safety net to cover everyone, including unemployment benefits as a conditional right for the able-bodied.