Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

How was poverty measured and defined, and how has this influenced our judgement of the change in poverty in Britain during the first sixty years of the twentieth century? During this period, a large number of poverty surveys were carried out, the methods of which altered after World War II. Commencing with Rowntree's social survey of York in 1899 and ending with Abel-Smith and Townsend's Poor and the Poorest in 1965, Ian Gazeley shows how the means of evaluation and the causes of poverty changed.

Poverty in Britain, 1900-1965:
- offers a comprehensive empirical assessment of all published poverty and nutritional enquiries in this era
- reports the results of recent re-examinations of many of the more famous social surveys that took place
- considers the results of these surveys within the context of changing real incomes, the occupational structure and social provision
- evaluates the extent to which the reduction in poverty was due to the actions of the State or to increases in real income (including more continuous income from fuller employment)

Detailed yet easy to follow, Ian Gazeley's book is an indispensable guide to the changing face of poverty in Britain during the first six decades of the last century.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
‘Do not trouble your head with social problems; what is wrong with the poor is poverty,’ or so wrote George Bernard Shaw.1 It has also been observed that ‘there is no “true” measure of poverty’, so it is important to be clear what is being addressed in this book.2 It is concerned with the material conditions of poor people in Britain in the first 60 years of the twentieth century. It focuses on the period of British history when investigations of poverty were carried out on the basis of determining people’s ability to meet a set of defined basic needs. Often, these surveys and their most famous proponents, Booth, Rowntree and Bowley, are seen as trying to measure something called ‘absolute poverty’. But this is not the case.3 The standards of basic needs used to define the poverty-line income are not absolute in any scientific sense. only the food necessary to avoid starvation, and ultimately death, can be determined in this way.4 Not only is the food component of these poverty lines above starvation levels, but they also incorporate allowances for non-food consumption for which there are no extrinsic minimum standards.5
Ian Gazeley

1. Victorian Legacy

Abstract
At the beginning of the twentieth century Britain was easily still the richest country in Europe, as measured by per capita income, and wage earners’ income had been rising steadily for at least a generation.25 Although historians have debated the impact of industrialisation on the well-being of the population at length during the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century, there has been relatively little disagreement about working-class living standards in the period between 1870 and 1914. It is tempting to believe that the explanation for the general consensus of opinion is simply that the quantitative indicators of workers’ living standards, and specifically the real wage series, suggest that there was unquestionable improvement in the standard of life for most people.
Ian Gazeley

2. The Nature and Causes of Poverty, 1900–18

Abstract
Having established the parameters of empirical poverty investigation and the behaviour of real incomes, it is now appropriate to consider the causes of poverty as revealed by contemporary social investigation. Most surveys thought that poverty was due to a variety of reasons, including low or irregular wages, large family size, illness or incapacity, old age and unemployment. A large number of dietary surveys were also undertaken during this period. These analysed the nutritional content of household diet and compared the outcome with the values in contemporary dietary standards. Although conceptually distinct, in many respects, this approach shares much in common with the poverty-line primary poverty measure (see Introduction, pp. 1–2). Both require estimates of dietary consumption and comparison with an extrinsic standard and both rely upon the use of equivalence scales.
Ian Gazeley

3. Poverty and Progress, 1920–38

Abstract
In the follow-up study of poverty in northern towns in 1924, Bowley points out that in the decade separating the original investigation from the sequel there were ‘dominating events’. These include the ‘fall in birth rate, loss of life by the war, the rise in prices and the more rapid rise of weekly money wages for unskilled labour, and unemployment’.298 Together, these were responsible for reducing the incidence of primary poverty to about one-third of its pre-war level. According to Bowley, the increase in real wages was twice as important as the reduction in average family size in reducing the proportion of families below the poverty standard.299
Ian Gazeley

4. Unemployment and Poverty in Britain between the Wars

Abstract
Following the closure of Palmer’s shipyard, 200 men from Jarrow marched to London in order to petition Parliament so that the government would ‘… realise the urgent need that work should be provided for the town without delay’.437 Photographs of the 1936 Jarrow march are one of the most enduring icons of the interwar years. Keith Joseph probably had this kind of image in mind when he favourably contrasted the ‘gaunt, tight-lipped men in caps and mufflers of the 1930s’, with the unemployed of the early 1970s.438 The interwar period has become synonymous with mass unemployment, although paradoxically, it was also a time of relative economic prosperity for some Britons. in these years, despite unprecedented high unemployment, the economy grew at a modest rate, living standards improved for those with work and new consumer goods became available that enhanced leisure activity and lessened some of the drudgery of domestic chores. in interwar Britain, many homes and factories were electrified; the ownership of wireless sets became commonplace and the growth in ownership of motor cars transformed social life for those wealthy enough to own them. For the middle classes, and for some sections of the working classes, the modernity of the interwar period was as important as persistent joblessness was for those excluded from the benefits of economic progress. This dichotomy of experience is perhaps best summed up by the phrase ‘poverty and progress’, which, as we have seen, was the title chosen by Rowntree for his second social survey of York in 1936. This chapter will investigate the extent to which unemployment was a cause of poverty and the efficacy of the state response to increased numbers of people who were workless.
Ian Gazeley

5. 1940s Britain

Abstract
The Second World War led to a labour famine of immense proportions, despite the mass mobilisation of womanpower.543 With the onset of war, however, unemployment actually continued to increase from 1.23 million in September 1939 to 1.5 million in February 1940, before beginning to fall in March 1940.544 In that month, there were still about 34,500 insured workers unemployed in engineering.545 The Ministry of Labour resisted Treasury pressure to introduce wage fixing and maintained a restricted system of collective bargaining. From May 1940, strikes and lockouts were made illegal, with disputes resolved by compulsory and binding arbitration of the Industrial Court.546 Despite excess demand for labour, average wages and earnings increased fairly modestly. This was partly due to the successful implementation of a ‘social contract’ between the government and trade union leaders. This was brokered by Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour in Churchill’s coalition government and former leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. The wartime social contract coupled trade unionist sense of responsibility in moderating wage claims to government control of price and profits and is generally seen as a milestone in the creation of a social democratic state.547
Ian Gazeley

6. Post-war Poverty, 1950–65

Abstract
Richard Titmuss argued that the assumption of responsibility for citizens’ health during the Second World War marked a complete transformation of the role of the state:
It would, in any relative sense, be true to say that by the end of the Second World War the Government had, through the agency of newly established or existing services, assumed and developed a measure of direct concern for the health and well-being of the population which, by contrast with the role of Government in the nineteen-thirties, was little short of remarkable. No longer did concern rest on the belief that, in respect to many social needs, it was proper to intervene only to assist the poor and those who were unable to pay for services of one kind and another. Instead, it was increasingly regarded as a proper function or even obligation of government to ward off distress and strain among not only the poor but also almost all classes of society.665
Ian Gazeley

7. Concluding Remarks

Abstract
Was poverty less in 1960 than 1900? There are compelling reasons to believe so. Average weekly earnings increased nearly tenfold between 1900 and 1960, double the increase in consumer prices, and the state had taken considerable responsibility for citizens’ welfare by the latter date.771 Of course, this conclusion implies that the term ‘poverty’ equates with the inability of individuals or families to attain certain basic needs. Once the definition of poverty moves away from this narrow definition, it is not as obvious that poverty was less in 1960 than it had been in 1900, though I would wish to support this contention as well.
Ian Gazeley
Additional information