A look at the roots of the U.K.’s social welfare system

Stephen Beard Dec 21, 2010

A look at the roots of the U.K.’s social welfare system

Stephen Beard Dec 21, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: Over in the U.K., the Brits are having their first Christmas since the government announced its austerity budget earlier this fall. Some of the deepest cuts are coming from social welfare programs. That’s no small thing in a country known for its safety net. It’s giving special resonance to a highly influential study of poverty and unemployment in Britain that was written a hundred years ago by a rich factory owner named Seebohm Rowntree.

From Rowntree’s hometown, York, in the north of England, Marketplace’s Stephen Beard has the story.

Stephen Beard: York is an unlikely setting for a study of urban poverty and squalor. The city is glorious. Elegant and beautiful, with one of the finest cathedrals in Europe.

But that, says City Archivist Richard Taylor, was one of the reasons Seebohm Rowntree carried out his research on deprivation here.

Richard Taylor: Rowntree was wanting to show that these conditions existed everywhere. They existed in pretty little cities like York and something ought to be done about them.

Seebohm was the son of a wealthy chocolate manufacturer in York. As Quakers, the Rowntrees were intent on improving the lives of the poor. Seebohm set out, in the late 1890s, to study the subject on his own doorstep.

Here’s Bridget Morris of the Rowntree Society.

Bridget Morris: We’re just approaching the original slum area. This is where Seebohm did a lot of his poverty work.

She’s taking me to the site of the slums where Seebohm gathered hard evidence of poverty.

Morris: It would have been a place of enormous noise and deprivation, poor sanitation, slaughterhouses, shrieking children. A miserable place.

Seebohm and his researchers interviewed 11,000 families here. They later persuaded some of those families to keep a diary. Men like unemployed labourer John Joseph Addey gave a daily account of a hand to mouth existence.

From John Joseph Addey’s diaries: Friday 15th July. Got up at 5 a.m., went around to several places hoping to find work. But was unsuccessful. Back home at 10 a.m. Had some cold tea and bread.

Many families, it seemed, were living close to the edge of starvation.

From John Joseph Addey’s diaries: Up at five walked round and round the town till twelve. Nothing doing anywhere. No breakfast, no tea and no supper. Went to bed around 7:30.

Earlier social reformers had drawn attention to such miseries, but what made Rowntree’s work different was that he tried, for the first time, to measure rigorously the scale of the deprivation.

Stephen Pittam: He tried to work out what people needed to really have a living wage.

Stephen Pittam of the Rowntree Charitable Trust says Seebohm worked out exactly how much was needed for food, clothing, shelter and fuel. And then he arrived at an alarming conclusion.

Pittam: Ten percent of the people in this city, where he was a businessman, were receiving an income which was not enough to keep them in a reasonable condition.

Seebohm paid his own employees more than that living wage. He lobbied other bosses to do the same. And with political friends in high places, he helped introduce the first effective safety net for the poor — pensions for the elderly and insurance against illness and unemployment. He played a critical role in the history of Britain’s welfare state.

Richard Taylor: So I’ll just unlock the door…

In the city archives, Richard Taylor presides over 800 years of York history.

Sound of pages turning

Thousands of documents from the 20th century attest to the huge improvement in the lives of the poor. Today, Seebohm might be appalled at some aspects of the welfare state he helped to create. For example, that some people are better off on benefits than in work.

But Taylor believes that even today, Seebohm would still cling to a fundamental conviction.

Taylor: A government should do things where it can make a difference, and that is the legitimate role of government. Government is not the enemy. Government is the solution — but the solution has to be based on rigorous scientific and economic principles.

Sound of brass band playing

But as deficit cutting begins in Britain, the government will argue that times have changed beyond recognition since Seebohm’s day. There’s much less poverty in York, for example. Last week, this brass band was soliciting donations in the center of the city. But it wasn’t raising money for the poor. It was raising money for itself.

In York, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.