Among the Greeks and Romans public assistance was given chiefly to those holding full citizenship. It was early connected with religion, as among the Hebrews and, from them, among the Christians and later the Muslims. The Christian Church was the main agency of social welfare in the Middle Ages, supplemented by the guilds. Later, national and local governmental agencies, as well as many private agencies, took over much of the charitable activity of the church.
First of the extensive state efforts was the Elizabethan poor law of 1601, which attempted to classify dependents and provide special treatment for each group on the local (parish) level. During the Industrial Revolution, many entrepreneurs believed that social welfare programs undertaken by the state violated the concepts of laissez faire and therefore opposed such measures. Exceptions were such men as Robert Owen, who believed that social welfare measures were essential but their implementation should be undertaken cooperatively rather than as a function of the state.