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Poverty in Britain, 1900-1965

Author(s):Gazeley, Ian
Reviewer(s):Boyer, George R.

Published by EH.NET (November 2004)

Ian Gazeley, Poverty in Britain, 1900-1965. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. xiii + 239 pp. $75 (cloth), ISBN: 0-333-71618-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by George R. Boyer, Department of Labor Economics, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University.

Recent decades have seen a sharp increase in publications examining the “origins,” “evolution,” or “foundation” of the British welfare state. These studies tend to focus on the adoption of government policies to alleviate poverty, and to devote little attention to the extent or causes of poverty. Ian Gazeley’s new book complements these studies, by examining the standard of living of the poor in the first half of the twentieth century.

The book is divided into three roughly equal parts, covering the Edwardian era and the First World War, the interwar years, and the Second World War and early post-war years. For each period, Gazeley begins by presenting data on movements in real wages, and then examines the poverty and nutrition surveys that were undertaken during the period. Some of these surveys (for example, the three poverty surveys of York by Rowntree and the New Survey of London Life and Labour) will be familiar to most readers, but others, such as the pre-World War I poverty surveys of rural England and the interwar studies of poverty in Merseyside (1929-30), Sheffield (1931), Southampton (1931), and Bristol (1937), will not. Each of the major poverty surveys is examined in detail — Gazeley discusses how the survey was undertaken, how many people were found to be living in poverty, differences in poverty rates across demographic groups (the elderly, children, etc.), and the causes of poverty. He also shows how fragile some of the estimates of poverty are. For example, household expenditure data suggest that Rowntree overestimated the food needs of children in his 1899 study of poverty in York, and therefore overestimated the share of the population living in primary poverty (pp. 28-9).

One of the most useful aspects of the volume is its detailed analysis of how the definition of poverty varied across surveys, and how it evolved over time. The early poverty surveys by Rowntree and Bowley defined the “primary” poverty line as the “minimum standard necessary for physical health.” Several of the interwar surveys used similar “physical efficiency” measures of poverty. However, Rowntree, in his second (1936) survey of York, adopted a far more generous “human needs” poverty line, which ensured “health and working capacity” and allowed expenditure for “social participation.” Adjusted for changes in prices from 1899 to 1936, Rowntree’s human needs poverty line for a family of two adults and three schoolchildren was 42% above his physical efficiency poverty line. Changing how poverty was measured had a large, and predictable, effect on the poverty rate. Rowntree found that 31.1% of York’s working-class population in 1936 had incomes below the human needs poverty line, but only 6.8% had incomes below the physical efficiency poverty line (pp. 93-4). A third definition of poverty was adopted by Brian Abel-Smith and Peter Townsend in their 1965 study, The Poor and the Poorest. They concluded that “poverty was entirely a relative concept,” and defined households to be in, or at the margins of, poverty if their income was less than “140 per cent of the then current National Assistance scale plus rent” (pp. 179-80). In 1960, 17.9% of households lived below this relative poverty standard. An unknown, but significantly smaller, share of the population had incomes below the “physical efficiency” or “human needs” poverty lines. As Gazeley makes clear in the text, because of these changes over time in the definition of poverty, it is not possible to use the numerous poverty surveys undertaken from 1899 to 1960 to measure long-term trends in the poverty rate.

This book is a useful addition to the literature on poverty during the first half of the twentieth century. Students and researchers will welcome its summaries of a large number of poverty and dietary/nutrition studies. However, those looking to find evidence on trends in poverty rates over time, or on the role of government policies in reducing poverty, will be disappointed. The first half of the twentieth century saw a transformation in government social welfare policy, beginning with the Liberal Welfare Reforms of 1906-11; from 1900 to 1930 social transfer payments increased from 1.0% of national product to 2.6%. Gazeley devotes little attention to this revolution in social policy. Thus, for example, there is little discussion of the effects of the 1908 Old Age Pensions Act or of the 1925 Widows’, Orphans’ and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act on poverty rates among the elderly. There is a brief discussion of the role of the Poor Law from 1900 to 1913 in Chapter 1, but only one paragraph on poor relief during the interwar period. This despite the fact that the number of poor relief recipients, which had fallen to 784,000 in 1913, averaged 1.3 million from 1922 to 1929, and peaked at 2.06 million in 1927. How can the sharp increase in the number of relief recipients be reconciled with Bowley’s finding that poverty declined significantly from 1912-14 to 1923-24 in the five towns he studied? This and many other questions regarding the role of government social policy go unanswered.

In sum, Gazeley’s book is more a history of poverty surveys during the first half of the twentieth century than a history of poverty. It is excellent at what it does, and it fills an important niche in the literature, but students examining poverty and working class living standards during these years will need to supplement it with other studies.

George Boyer is the author of An Economic History of the English Poor Law, 1750-1850 (Cambridge University Press, 1990), and, with Timothy J. Hatton, of “New Estimates of British Unemployment, 1870-1913,” Journal of Economic History, Vol. 62 (September 2002).

Subject(s):Living Standards, Anthropometric History, Economic Anthropology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII