Surveying British history since 1900 for my new book Divided Kingdom. A History of Britain, 1900 to the Present, my most shocking discovery was that the extent and causes of poverty now are astoundingly close to those around 1900.
Around 1900 …
Charles Booth’s massive survey of social conditions in London (published 1903) concluded that about 30 per cent of Londoners lived ‘in poverty or in want’. London was known to have a complex economy which attracted needy people and its conditions were perhaps exceptional. Then Seebohm Rowntree surveyed poverty in York (published 1902), which he reckoned was a typical English town, so might better indicate conditions across the country. He was shocked to discover that 27.84 per cent of York’s population were in ‘obvious want and squalor’. Other surveys in town and countryside before 1914 produced similar findings. Booth and Rowntree found the greatest cause of poverty was not, as often believed, feckless shirking by the irresponsible lower classes, but low pay for full-time work, or inability to get regular work despite best efforts.
Rise of the Welfare State
This caused such shock and furore that it led to the first measures of what became the Welfare State, introduced by a progressive Liberal government supported by the nascent Labour Party: free school meals in 1906; old age pensions in 1908; National Health Insurance and Unemployment Insurance in 1911. Expanding state welfare and other government measures to create secure, better-paid employment brought reductions in poverty and inequality especially post-1945. The Second World War and after, then the 1960s and 1970s, saw the greatest decline in poverty, driven mainly by Labour governments. Income and wealth inequality were lower in the late 1960s and 1970s than in any other period since 1900. Contrary to popular denigration of the 1970s, this was when the range of state welfare benefits and services reached its peak and there was no evident shortage of affordable housing to rent or buy. Poverty began a sustained rise under the Thatcher governments of the 1980s, with some respite under New Labour, before rising again since 2010.
… and now
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found 20 per cent of the UK population in poverty in 2015-16, 60 per cent in households including an inadequately paid full-time worker. The Child Poverty Action Group estimated that 30 per cent of children in the UK (4.1 million) were in poverty in 2016-17, 67 per cent in households with at least one full-time worker. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) supports this, stressing regional variations: in 2016-17, 24 per cent of children in Scotland were in poverty and 37 per cent in London, the difference driven above all by housing costs. As around 1900, there is much poverty in London, overlooked when Londoners are accused of being out of touch with the realities of British life. The Resolution Foundation makes similar estimates, stressing that high housing costs are causing poverty ‘perhaps more so than at any time in the past’. Since the massive sale of council houses under Thatcher, the supply of ‘affordable’ housing has dwindled, and too many people live in damp, overcrowded, poorly maintained property reminiscent of the 1900s. New Labour did little to improve housing supply.
People living in destitution
Comparing measurements of poverty over very different times is difficult. Contemporary researchers use a different measure in a much wealthier country today compared with 1900. The concept of ‘relative poverty’, defined as having income below 60 per cent of national median income, has been widely adopted internationally in preference to measures of severe destitution because the life chances of people living above the level of destitution but so far below the average standards of modern high-income societies– ie those with incomes below 60 per cent of the national median income – are severely restricted.
“Recent UK surveys exclude the large and growing numbers of homeless people”
But recent UK surveys exclude the large and growing numbers of homeless people living rough on the streets or in hostels – tens of thousands certainly, though the exact figures are uncertain. This and the growing use of food banks – unheard of in Britain until recently – call in question how many people are living in absolute destitution compared with the 1900s. In 2017-18 the Trussell Trust alone gave out 1.3 million emergency food packages, while in May 2018 Fareshare fed 772,000 people with leftover supermarket food. The numbers helped by the many smaller community or church-based food banks are unknown.
Causes of poverty today
The government boasts about rising employment but ignores the fact that jobs are often poorly paid. A serious cause of poverty, now as in 1900, is the growing numbers on low pay in insecure employment as employers evade the minimum wage and other obligations by imposing fake self-employment and insecure contracts.
The IFS also emphasises the impact of the 10 per cent fall in the value of benefits and tax credits to working families since 2010. The substitution of Universal Credit for many benefits, and the slowness and complexity of its roll-out causing long delays in payment, is increasing poverty and likely to do so further in future. The government argues that Universal Credit increases incentives to work, just as administrators of the 19th century Poor Law justified low, punitive benefits.
Reducing poverty, then and now
Awareness that the Poor Law perpetuated poverty by driving people into low-paid work, damaging society and the economy, was among the early pressures for state welfare. Thereafter state action brought sustained improvement. Since the 1980s, ‘rolling back’ the state and welfare has returned us to a situation very like the 1900s.
Shocking poverty, with children starving in school holidays, is constantly in the news. If past government action reduced poverty it could do so again, in a richer country, much more knowledgeable about the causes and effects of poverty, especially the long-term effects on children.
Pat Thane is Research Professor in Contemporary British History at King’s College, London