Changes and continuities in the British Welfare State
The welfare state is often at the forefront of political debate in contemporary British politics. In popular memory, Clement Attlee’s Labour government and its ‘New Jerusalem’ symbolises the dawning of the welfare state. However, the methods used to address poverty, and especially the language associated with it, are continuous with the Poor Laws of the Early Modern period.
Indeed, the 16th century Poor Laws form the basis of our modern notions of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. Thus, the language of poor relief also became the language of social exclusion. Whilst this distinction had already been formulated by the beginning of the 16th century, the dichotomy between the two groups grew as the 16th century progressed. Whereas the ‘deserving’ poor were more likely to be viewed as legitimate objects of charity in society – such as the elderly and infirm – the stereotype of the ’undeserving poor’ was one which reflected, and actively constituted, a distinctive sub-culture of its own. This distinction placed the ‘undeserving’ outside the bounds of ‘civilised’ society. This binary system was eventually dismantled with the introduction of the ‘labouring poor’, a term used to describe those willing, but unable to find, work. By the 18th century, the term was commonly deployed.
Those who work, but still require ‘poor relief’ from the modern welfare state through a tax credit system, occupy a similarly ambiguous and politically contentious place in discussions of poverty. Recent attempts by the Conservative Party to cut the tax credits granted to those who find themselves in ‘in-work’ poverty illustrate an inability to distinguish the ‘labouring’ poor as either ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’. The notion that the poor are ‘undeserving’ still persists – particularly in the media, and the popular fascination with ‘benefit scroungers’. TV programmes such as ‘Benefits Street’ make light entertainment out of beneficiaries. The characters appear to live comfortable lifestyles and, as such, do not ‘deserve’ support from the welfare state. Owen Jones, left-wing political commentator, has described how the show fuels ‘the pervasive sense that people on benefits are feckless scroungers’; such programmes amount to ‘poverty porn’. The language used to discuss the ‘poor relief’ systems of Early Modern and post-war Britain is a powerful tool, exacerbating social divisions which actively pit different ‘brands’ of poverty against one another.
Besides the discursive construction of different ‘groups’ of impoverishment, we also see continuity in the ineffective ‘poor relief’ systems of Early Modern and contemporary Britain. Whilst Paul Slack has argued that the poor relief system of Early Modern Britain was effective in at least keeping a large majority of the population out of ‘shallow poverty’, it could be argued that the impact of the Poor Laws was superficial. These laws only addressed the symptoms of poverty, not the causes. Social hierarchy was therefore perpetuated: the impoverished were kept from death by their social superiors, but not actively assisted in rooting out the causes of poverty.
Similarly, in modern Britain, the effectiveness of the welfare state has been called into question. The unprecedented rise in the number of people using food banks in recent years is symptomatic of the shortcomings of the modern welfare system. Figures from the Trussell Trust show a 2% increase in the number of people using Food Banks in Britain from 2015. Furthermore, since 2012, the number of three-day emergency food supplies given to people in crisis has increased from 128,697 to 1,109,309. Just as in Early Modern Britain, the operation of a centrally-directed system of relief didn’t necessarily render private, non-state sponsored charity useless. For example, in the Village of Bledlow in Buckinghamshire, there existed a rich variety of charities in the 18th century, such as Bland’s charity, which rose £10 a year to bake bread for 112 people. In failing to address underlying social inequalities, these welfare systems proved ineffective at keeping people out of poverty or assisting them in changing their socio-economic position in the long-term, necessitating the continued existence of private charity. The ineffectiveness of welfare states, both past and present, can therefore leave the impoverished to rely on traditional notions of communal obligation and ‘neighborliness’ to keep them alive.
Although there are striking similarities between Early Modern and modern poor relief in Britain, it is important to recognise the contextual differences and thus avoid ahistorical or anachronistic conclusions. For instance, it is important to note the parochial nature of Early Modern poor relief. There was greater flexibility with regards to identifying who belonged to the ‘deserving’ poor when relief was administered at close quarters by a local ‘overseer’. In modern Britain, the welfare system is more centralised, and thus much less attuned to local nuances. Furthermore, Britain has changed throughout history, with the introduction of broader social distinctions, such as ‘class’. The term is generally considered anachronistic, when applied to the Early Modern period, as people were more concerned with individual reputation and social status than group identifiers.
As we consider the significant changes to political and social contexts during the transition from an early modern to modern welfare state in Britain,we should also think about how our language expresses poverty and ‘poor relief’. As historians and politically enfranchised citizens, we are always actively shaping our societies through language: either perpetuating social divisions and inequality through divisive language, such as ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’, or dismantling them through neologisms and critical inquiry.