Changing Attitudes Towards Poverty, 1880 – 1914

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At the start of our period in 1880 and up until World War I changing attitudes towards poverty certainly seemed to be the most important development. Though successive pre-war governments had to face other major problems – the increasingly vociferous demands of the WSPU and NUWSS for the vote and problems in Ireland – they seemed to give priority to social welfare reform, with the Liberals passing acts which are sometimes seen as the start of the Welfare State. The Education Acts and the National Insurance Acts reflected a great change from the condemnatory attitudes towards poverty in 1880.

This change had come about because the work of Booth and Rowntree in identifying the extent of the deserving poor and the ‘Poverty Line’, but mainly because of political and economic pressures – the need to maintain ‘National Efficiency’ at a time of great competition for the USA and Germany and the need to increasingly respect the needs of the working people enfranchised in 1867 and 1884. This more positive attitude towards poverty was related to the growth of New Liberal attitudes and the growth of industrial unrest over poor living and working conditions, which was made worse as Britain’s trade declined.

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In fact in economic terms and in their long term consequences, these industrial problems were even more significant than changing attitudes towards poverty. Increasing conflict with employers and the freedom that came with the Liberal Party’s loosening of controls over strikes in the Trades Disputes Act led to serious strikes 1910-1913 for example the Tonypandy Riots and the dockers’ strike in Liverpool. Even more worrying in the long term was the formation of the Triple Alliance between the miners, dockers and railway workers in 1914. However at the start of WWI the freedom of women and industrial relations were more important than poverty.

Strikes threatened war production 1915 and women were needed to replace men fighting. Lloyd George was able to secure the support of miners and other discontented workers by promising increased wages. The Munitions of War Act and Treasury Agreement gave women greater work opportunities and improved pay of poorest workers – in agriculture and railways. Women over 30 and ALL men over 21 eventually enfranchised 1918. Yet by end of the war, attitudes towards social welfare were once again important as the government needed to maintain loyalty during times of shortage of food and discontent over conscription, which led to further strikes in 1917.

This led to Addison Housing Act, Fisher Education Act attempt to promised ‘homes fit for heroes’. Attitudes to poverty and social welfare continued to be important after the war. The actions of the Lib-Cons coalition, the Conservatives and Labour illustrate this. The expansion of National Insurance Act, including a ‘dole’ element to help those in greatest need; the expansion of pension to 65 year olds and of women and orphans benefits; the abolition of workhouses 1929 and introduction of PACs; the Wheatley Housing Act all highlight the major change in attitudes towards poverty between 1880 and 1929.

In fact concerns over the growth of unemployment and the economic Depression the 1920s made it even more imperative that the Government try to provide solutions to the problem of poverty. In the light of fears over the intentions of the unions in the General Strike and in the context of the growth of extremist parties in Europe and the need for caution on the part of the Labour Government in 1929, by the end of the period the need to encourage economic regeneration became tied in with the problem of poverty.

Politicians of all parties had come to realise that poverty could lead to rebellion if work or support was not provided. This was particularly true in Wales where unemployment rates were as high as 70% in some mining communities such as Dowlais and Brynmawr, where the work of charities and the support of the Miners’ Institute became crucial.

Changing attitudes towards poverty were probably the most important development: except for a short time at the start of WWI it was given priority over other problems, such as the enfranchisement of women. Moreover economic developments – the growth of unions and the problem of unemployment and pensions was directly connected to poverty. In fact it was probably the development of a more collectivist attitude that saved democracy in Britain during such a time of industrial difficulty.