HOW EFFECTIVE WERE THE LIBERAL WELFARE REFORMS?
Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, poverty in Britain was becoming increasingly severe. This was demonstrated by Booth and Rowntree’s research into poverty, conducted in London and York respectively. Booth’s report into conditions in London identified that 30% of people could not afford basic provisions. Rowntree’s report was centred in York. His results demonstrated that in keeping with Booth’s reports almost 30% of people in York live below the poverty line. His reports also illustrated that some people found it impossible to find a job, regardless of their abilities. Additionally, wages for some jobs were simply inadequate to provide for a family. At this point, the government adopted a position of Lasseiz-Faire, meaning non-intervention. Poverty was seen as a poor people’s problem. In his book “self help” Samuel Smiles stated poor people were made of “inferior material”. The government and the middle classes believed that nothing could be done to alleviate poverty, nor should it be done.
A departure from this view was brought about by a number of factors, including increasing public disapproval of the ideology of Lasseiz Faire. Consequently, between 1906 and 1914, the Liberals embarked on one of the largest programmes of social reforms ever undertaken. They aimed to assist four of the most underprivileged groups in society: the elderly, the sick, the unemployed and poor children. In order to assess the effectiveness of the Liberal reforms it is necessary to critically examine what was done to help each group and whether or not the measures were effective.
The Liberals identified the elderly as a group in need of assistance. In 1908, the government started paying up to 5 shillings (25p) a week to those over 70 who had an annual income of up to £21 per annum. A married couple received 37.5p a week. Less was paid to those with a higher income. Those receiving over £31.50 annually received no pension. Similarly, those British citizens who have avoided work, had criminal records or were habitually drunk were exempt from payment.
While it is fair to suggest that these reforms made the lives of some poor elderly people better, it could be argued that they were not effective enough. Firstly, Rowntree’s study of poverty had calculated a poverty line, the minimum earnings required to buy the barest of necessities, at 35p per week. On this basis, it could be argued that a 25p a week pension was not a sufficient answer to old age poverty. Additionally, many people did not live to reach 70 and those that did needed help long before reaching this age. However, there were benefits of the pension schemes. For example as Cootes puts it: “Old people had no cause to feel sham at being given public money. Pensions, unlike poor relief, was paid as a right.” In this sense pensions were effective.
Another group targeted by the Liberals for help were poor children. In 1906, the government permitted local authorities to provide free school meals for poor children. Now that education was compulsory, teachers and authorities noticed that many children were going to school undernourished and in ill health.
This programme was effective in some schools as the poorest children were getting at least one square meal a day. However, free school meals were not compulsory and public money was to be used “only as a last resort”. Moreover, during school holidays the weight of many students dropped dramatically. Additionally, school meals were not made compulsory until 1914, meaning many children did not benefit from the scheme prior to this date.
The Liberals also aimed to aid the sick through their reforms. As soon as the Pensions Act had been passed in 1908, Lloyd George turned his attention to tackling ill health. The National Insurance Act part one provided compulsory health insurance for workers earning less than £160 per annum. The slogan for this scheme was “9d for 4d” as the employee paid 4d, the employer 3d and the state 2d per week to provide sickness benefit, free medical treatment and maternity payment.
Healthcare was provided as the names of everyone contributing to the scheme was placed on a list known as a “doctor’s panel” Doctors were paid by the government for all those that they treated.
However, this scheme suffered from numerous limitations. For example, the Conservatives argued that the government had no right to force people to contribute. More practically, only the contributor was entitled to medical treatment and his family were not covered as it had been argued that a healthier male worker would be better able to provide for his family.
Lloyd George’s Liberal government also aimed to help the unemployed. The National Insurance Act Part Two, passed in 1911 was a compulsory scheme of unemployment insurance for trades badly hit by periodic unemployment, such as shipbuilding and construction. Employees, employers and the state paid in 2½d per week into an unemployment fund. In return, workers were paid 7 shillings a week for up to 15 weeks in any year they are unemployed.
This scheme had its problems too though. For example, it was only set up to cover seven trades. Additionally, when long term increased after World War One the system started to crack as there was not enough people in employment and contributing to cover those out of work. However, historians have suggested that prior to this the system had achieved success in helping to improve the lives of those experiencing problems due to seasonal unemployment.
The Liberals renouncing Lasseiz Faire and adopting reform transformed many areas of life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The introduction of free school meals for poor children achieved limited success in so far as it had a small effect on educational attainment and health standards. Similarly, the pension scheme brought about some improvement for a small number of old people, however by making the receiving age 70, the government did not make significant improvements in tackling poverty among the elderly. The sick gained some living standards improvements via the National Insurance Act Part One. However, again this programme was limited, as it did not cover the contributor’s family. The National Insurance Act also helped improve the lives of the seasonally unemployed. All these measures led to life being better for many than it had been previously, but simply did not do enough to fully alleviate poverty in Britain.