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Changes In Policies Directed Toward Poverty Social Policy Essay

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This assignment will examine the transformation of social welfare policy that was established and implemented during the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries to address the problem of poverty and to assist ‘the poor’ at a time when rapid industrialisation hit Britain. These policies had been developed throughout this period using a combination of both state and charitable sector intervention that expanded and contracted at different levels within both sectors at different times.

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The assignment will be structured to incorporate the following distinct yet associated elements: Initially, I will explain what relief system/policy was in place to address rural and urban poverty leading up to the early part of the 19th century. Then, I will go on to set the environmental context in terms of how the rapid industrialisation that occurred in Britain could have contributed towards exacerbating the poverty being experienced by local communities and individuals during the early 19th century.

I will then go on to concentrate on those policies and interventions that were introduced and/or endorsed by the state to specifically address poverty and help ‘the poor’; whilst considering in parallel, the differing perceptions of success and failure that surfaced during the implementation of these policies spanning a timeline of the 1800 – 1939 period. An integral part of this will include the differential categorisations and views on poverty that existed and subsequently evolved during this time period.

Main body

From the introduction of the Elizabethan Poor Law Act of 1601, those who were considered as ‘deserving poor’ received relief from within their parish, which was subsidised by a compulsory poor rate levied on each parish’s land and property owners. This was intended to give local control and responsibility for reducing the poverty being experienced by the poor, young, infirm or elderly within communities. These ‘deserving poor’ were provided with what was termed ‘Outdoor Relief’ in the form of either monetary payment or in-kind relief such as food, rent or clothes which enabled them to stay at home. Those who were classed as ‘poor impotent people’ (2002, pg 11) and unable to help themselves, alongside the able bodied poor who were set to work, were provided with ‘indoor relief’ within workhouses. This system continued well in to the late 18th century until the introduction of the Gilberts Act which advocated that workhouses should become poorhouses, run by poor law parish unions, to help only the sick, the orphaned or the elderly. Joseph Townsend subsequently expressed his disapproval of this approach: and said that “the workhouses operate like the figures which we set to scare the birds, till they have learnt first to despise them then to perch upon the objects of their terror.” (Townsend 1788 cited in Spicker 1984, pg 10) The able-bodied poor could still claim outdoor relief but would be expected to find employment outside of the union workhouse, therefore poverty and poor relief problems became compounded further during a time of agricultural depression when wages were low and unemployment and population numbers were on the increase.

By the early part of the 19th century the poor relief system was under significant strain as poor rates escalated, food prices were higher and the worlds first industrial society was spawned as industrialisation hit Britain. This was to be “a period of rapid industrial advance and unprecedented urban growth; of major shifts in patterns of occupation (chiefly from agricultural to industrial and service) and of economic insecurity for many.” (Kidd,1999; pg 4)

Technological advancement moved into rural communities, and the agricultural labourer was replaced with more cost efficient machinery, such as horse powered threshing machines. This meant that agricultural workers and their families had little choice but to move to the more industrious towns and urban cities where wages were higher and there were more opportunities for work within factories, particularly in the textiles, transport and mining sectors.

In reality, this optimistic view taken by those looking to escape the difficulties of the countryside and improve their standard of living would be faced with other prohibiting factors and subsequent poverty within the mass working class neighbourhoods would be harshly realised in various ways. Within the cities people were living in cheaply built, overcrowded terraced housing, which had inadequate sanitation and few amenities. Within the factories, conditions were no better as workers were subject to working unprotected around dangerous machinery, whilst working long hours for unduly low wages and receiving harsh punishments for non compliance. Similarly, employers could freely use child labour which they felt aided poor families by giving their children work from the age of five years upwards, much to the detriment of a child’s education which was fated due to no enforced legislation being in place. In addition, there were increasingly instances of poor malnutrition that existed in families which was associated to the costly prices of food, therefore poor factory workers could usually only afford to buy rotten items. Taking into account all of these factors, “the families of manual workers were always vulnerable to unemployment, sickness, old age or the death of the breadwinner, which reduced them to pauperism” (Royle, 1997; pg 162)

New Poor Law

As population growth reached an unprecedented level, poor relief costs were also rising as more people were falling into a spiral of poverty and pauperism rather than benefiting from the increased wages and improved standard of living that optimists of the industrial revolution predicted.

Politicians recognised that the current poor law system of 1601 needed to undergo considerable reform as there were clearly widespread frustrations on the back of what Malthus argued as providing “encouragement to illegitimacy” (Spicker et al 2007; pg 148) through the provision of family child allowance and that outdoor relief will “diminish both the power and the will to save among the common people” (Malthus cited in Kidd 1999; pg 21) inadvertently forcing more people towards poverty. Malthus subsequently concluded in saying that ‘dependent poverty ought to be held disgraceful’ and the poor laws abolished. (Englander 1998; pg 9)

Social reformer and laissez-faire economist Jeremy Bentham argued for a more disciplinary and corrective approach and “believed in the primacy of the free competitive market in the solution of social problems”. (Englander, 1998, pg 10)

In 1832 in response to the pressures highlighted above a Royal Commission on the Poor Law was appointed, consisting of 9 members and several assistant commissioners ranging from economists to social reformers e.g. Edwin Chadwick. Their remit was to identify the flaws in the current poor relief system and make recommendations for a new, more cost efficient model for implementation. In the midst of this review, the first policy move against child labour occurred in the form of the Factory Act of 1833, whereby children younger than nine were not allowed to work, children were not permitted to work at night and the work day of youth under the age of 18 was limited to twelve hours. (INSERT SOURCE)

After much assessment of fact and statistics in conjunction with the previous influential ideas portrayed by Malthus and Bentham the New Poor Law Report was published in 1834, that concluded the law itself was the cause of poverty. This led to the subsequent endorsement of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 that focused on the ethos of “instilling a work discipline” whilst “controlling the costs of poor relief” (Pierson, 2009). In order to do this, the act placed its emphasis on putting the deterrent workhouse at its core with the guiding concept of ‘less eligibility’ which would distinguish between the able-bodied pauper and the independent poor and “automatically weed out the merely work- shy from the truly indigent” (Brundage, 2002; pg 35). Consequently, the pauper would experience poorer conditions within the workhouse than the lowest living standards of an independent labourer. The workhouse would resemble the layout and mechanics of a correctional institution, comprising segregation (amongst different classes), uniformity, tedious work, a controlling discipline and the bare minimum in food and accommodation. This it was hoped would ultimately deter the able bodied from applying for indoor relief in favour of finding employment to survive, whilst simultaneously improving the ethical nature of the indolent people it housed and to encourage their eventual liberation.

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The Act also proposed to abolish all outdoor relief, however this actually persisted to provide assistance up until the 1840’s as there were insufficient workhouses built to house the inevitable increase in paupers who would not get help outside. Another key feature that remained was the guardians control of the stringent settlement laws which would help avoid a large influx of paupers from the rural villages, thus keeping costs for the urban tax payer at a manageable level.

At the start of the Victorian era in 1837 the view on poverty remained as one of self responsibility and character, whereby the individual was considered responsible for his/her own actions and subsequent survival in life irrespective of the environment they were living in. This opinion gathered momentum as people continually failed to or were reluctant to find a job, thus leading to the increased dependency on the state and little or no inclination to save money as a means of supporting themselves through difficult circumstances and into their old age. This became exacerbated further by those who simply ventured down the path of petty crime, sexual immorality, “idleness and insobriety’, which were defects which could be overcome by discipline and new attitudes” (Townsend, 1993; pg 97); and thus further supported the principles and establishment of the deterrent workhouse system.

As the 1840’s progressed; the guardians began to reduce the levels of outdoor relief being distributed to the able bodied poor. People were becoming shamed and increasingly aware that to be considered for relief they would be expected to perform some work tasks with a view to accessing employment, otherwise they would be faced with the harsh reality of having to enter the workhouse with their families. Subsequently, people began to recognise the emerging stigma attached to relief and would focus their efforts on finding work and other means of assistance before succumbing to the “indignities of the Poor Law and the ultimate indignity of a pauper funeral” (Alcock et al, 2008; pg 13). This was similarly echoed by Jeremy Bentham who argued that “people did what was pleasant and would not do what was unpleasant – so that if people were not to claim relief, it had to be unpleasant” (Spicker, 2007; pg 148)

At this time the severe measures and conditions within the workhouse system were receiving a barrage of criticism and opposition from the religious sector and workers unions which led to the review and further amendments of the Amendment Act, removing the harshest measures of the workhouses. The Andover workhouse scandal, where conditions in the Andover Union Workhouse were found to be inhumane and dangerous, prompted a government review and the abolishment of the Poor Law Commission, which was replaced with a Poor Law Board.

In 1842 Edwin Chadwick wrote and published a report made the statement that sanitation

After the influenza and typhoid epidemics in 1837 and 1838, Edwin Chadwick was asked by the government to carry out a new enquiry into sanitation. His report, The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population was published in 1842. In the report Chadwick argued that disease was directly related to living conditions and that there was a desperate need for public health reform.

Over 7,000 copies of the report was published and it helped create awareness of the need for government to take action in order to protect the lives of people living in Britain’s towns and cities. Sir Robert Peel and his Conservative administration were unwilling to support Chadwick’s recommendations. A pressure group, the Health of Towns Association, was formed in an effort to persuade Peel’s government to take action.

However, it was only after the 1847 General Election, when Lord John Russell became leader of a new Liberal government, that new legislation was introduced. In 1848 Parliament passed a Public Health Act that provided for the formation of a Central Board of Health. This new body had powers to create local boards to oversee street cleansing, refuse collection, water supply and sewerage systems

  1. Edwin Chadwick – Sanitation Report (1842)
  2. Charitable/self help movement – COS (1869)
  3. Slum clearance – freeing up land for housing developers (1870)
  4. Charles Booth (class division/ income) / Seebohm Rowntree – Sanitation/Environment studies
  5. Physical deterioration/health – Boer War – National fitness
  6. Committee on physical deterioration
  7. Settlement Houses – to mix upper class in with poor communities


  • Alcock, C., Daly, G. and Griggs, E. (2008) Introducing Social Policy, 2nd ed., London: Longman
  • Brundage, A. (2002) The English Poor Laws 1700-1930, Basingstoke: Palgrave
  • Englander, D. (1998) Poverty and Poor Law Reform in 19th Century Britain, 1834-1914 From Chadwick to Booth, Harlow: Longman
  • Kidd, A. (1999) State, Society and the Poor in Nineteenth-Century England,Basingstoke: Macmillan
  • Royle, E. (1997) Modern Britain: A Social History 1750-1985, 2nd ed., London: Arnold
  • Spicker, P. (1984) Stigma and Social Welfare, Kent: Croom Helm
  • Spicker, P., Alvarez Leguizamon, S. and Gordon, D. (2007) Poverty: an international glossary, 2nd ed., London: Zed
  • Townsend, P. (1993) The International Analysis of Poverty, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf


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