Tuesday, 6 May 2008

The Meaning of Poverty

Between 1830 and 1914 there were two period when state intervention in British social policy significantly increased. The first of these was in the 1830s and 1840s, and the second in the Edwardian years at the beginning of the twentieth century. Fundamental in the first burst of reforming activity was the New Poor Law of 1834, which centred round the workhouse system. It gave conditional welfare for a minority, with public assistance at the price of social stigma and loss of voting rights. Some Edwardian reforms still retained conditions on take-up, as in the first old-age pensions in 1908, where tests of means and character eligibility were reminiscent of the Poor Law. Three years later, in 1911, there was a radical departure in the national scheme for insurance against ill health and unemployment that conferred benefits as a result of contributions. It was still a selective scheme in that it was limited to a section of the male population and entirely left out dependent women and children.

The nineteenth century had inherited the attitude that such a state of affairs was both right and proper. Many contemporary writers regarded poverty as a necessary element in society, since only by feeling its pinch could the labouring poor be inspired to work. Thus it was not poverty by pauperism[1] or destitution that was regarded as a social problem. Many early Victorians adopted the attitude that combined fatalism, 'the poor ye have always with you' and moralism: destitution was the result of individual weakness of character. Fraser's Magazine in 1849 commented that: 'So far from rags and filth being the indications of poverty, they are in the large majority of cases, signs of gin drinking, carelessness and recklessness.'

Such cases if congregated together in large numbers seemed to constitute a social menace[2]. It was thinking of this sort that provided the impetus to poor law reform in 1834. Relief continued to be offered but only in the workhouse where the paupers would be regulated and made less comfortable than those of their fellows who chose to stay outside and fend for themselves -- this scheme was known as 'less-eligibility'. Those who were genuinely in dire need would accept the workhouse rather than starve. Those who were not in such straits would prefer to remain independent and thus avoid contracting the morally wasting disease of pauperism. The Poor Law of 1834 provided an important administrative model for future generations -- central policy-making and supervision, local administration -- but the workings of this model were often profoundly disappointing to the advocates of 'less-eligibility' as a final solution to the problem of pauperism. But the issue was not one of pauperism, the issue on which contemporaries focused, but poverty itself.

Poverty is a term that is notoriously difficult to define. In simple terms the failure to provide the basic necessities of life --- food, clothes and shelter -- results in a state of poverty[3]. Put diagrammatically












British society in the nineteenth century was poor by modern standards. The net national income per head at 1900 prices has been estimated as £18 in 1855 and £42 in 1900. Even the higher paid artisan might find himself at a time of depression unable to get work even if willing and anxious to do so. Most members of the working class experienced poverty at some period of their lives and, compared to the middle classes, their experience of poverty was likely to be a far more frequent, if not permanent one.

It was not until near the end of the nineteenth century that poverty was first measured in any systematic fashion and most of the evidence of the extent and causes of poverty is from around 1900. The number of paupers had long been known: they amounted to about 9 per cent of the population in the 1830s and fell to less than 3 per cent by 1900. But far more suffered from poverty than ever applied for workhouse relief. In 1883 Andrew Mearns in his Bitter Cry of Outcast London claimed than as much as a quarter of the population of London received insufficient income to maintain physical health. Impressionistic claims like this led to scientific investigation, encouraged by Charles Booth to begin his survey of the London poor in 1886. He found that as much as 30 per cent of the population of London and 38 per cent of the working class lived below the poverty line.

Many people criticised Booth's conclusions and pointed to the unique position of London. However, B. Seebohm Rowntree did a similar survey of his native York and in 1899 published conclusions that mirrored those of Booth. He distinguished between 'primary poverty' and 'secondary poverty'. Primary poverty was a condition where income was insufficient even if every penny was spent wisely. Secondary poverty occurred when those whose incomes were theoretically sufficient to maintain physical efficiency suffered poverty as a consequence of 'insufficient spending'. 10 per cent of York's population and 15 per cent of its working classes were found to be in primary poverty. A further 18 per cent of the whole population and 28 per cent of the working classes were living in secondary poverty. Rowntree also emphasised the changing incidence of poverty at different stages of working class life -- the 'poverty cycle' with its alternating periods of want and comparative plenty.

Other surveys followed the work of Booth and Rowntree. The most notable was the investigation in 1912-13 of poverty in Stanley [County Durham], Northampton, Warrington and Reading by A.L.Bowley and A.R.Burnett-Hurst. They found that the levels of poverty reflected different economic conditions and that among the working class population primary poverty accounted for 6 per cent, 9 per cent, 15 per cent and 29 per cent in the respective towns. These conclusions undermined the assumption made by both Booth and Rowntree that similar levels of poverty might be found in most British towns. In fact, the diversity of labour market conditions was reflected by great variety in the levels and causes of poverty. It is important to examine the reliance that can be placed on the results of early poverty surveys.

Few of the results can be accepted with complete confidence:

  1. Booth relied heavily on data from school attendance officers and families with children of school age -- itself a cause of poverty -- were over-represented in what he supposed to be a cross section of the population.
  2. Rowntree's estimates of food requirements were later regarded as over-generous by nutritionists and he later conceded that his 1899 poverty lines were 'too rough to give reliable results'.
  3. Working class respondents, confronted by middle class investigators were notoriously liable to underestimate income. Most poor law and charity assistance was means tested and the poorer respondents, suspecting that investigators might have some influence in the disposal of relief, took steps not to jeopardise this. Income acquired illegally was particularly likely to remain hidden.

It is difficult to compare these levels with poverty at other times. Recent attempts by historians to assess approximate numbers that lives below Rowntree's poverty line in mid-nineteenth century Preston, York and Oldham all suggest poverty levels higher than those at the time of the 1899 survey. This is not surprising as between 1850 and 1900 money wages rose considerably and many more insured themselves against sickness and other contingencies.

[1] A 'pauper' can simply be defined as an individual who was in receipt of benefits from the state. A labourer who was out of work was termed an able-bodied pauper, whereas the sick and elderly were called impotent paupers. Relief was given in a variety of ways. Outdoor relief was when the poor received help either in money or in kind. Indoor relief was when the poor entered a workhouse or house of correction to receive help. The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 said that paupers should all receive indoor relief.

[2] It is very important to remember the 'revolutionary psychosis' that afflicted many during the first half of the nineteenth century. Poverty was seen in this revolutionary light.

[3] On this subject the best and briefest introduction is M.E. Rose The Relief of Poverty 1834-1914, Macmillan, 2nd. ed., 1986.

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