Essay: Poverty in Britain and the liberal reforms

Britain in the early 1900s encountered a variety of problems from poverty. Reports from Booth and Rowntree emphasized the magnitude of the problem. The Liberal government felt the need to act in order to maintain the working class vote and passed a series of reforms. In an attempt to reduce poverty, Acts were put into place to provide children with free school meals and medical inspections. Also, the Liberal government recognised that workers required government support when unemployed or sick. The Liberals were the first to recognise that the elderly were victims of poverty and required financial help. However, the success of the reforms and the impact they had on Britain is questionable. Although they were the widest range of reforms ever passed, they solved very little problems Britain encountered. The working class faced low pay, long hours and an absence of regular paid work – if you did not work then you and your family did not eat. Most jobs were seasonal or were affected by long periods of unemployment. The Liberal Reforms would have to be extensive to solve all these problems.

One reform passed was the 1906 Education Act. This provided free school meals for primary aged children. Due to the introduction of compulsory education, children from poorer backgrounds could not concentrate on their education. This was due to the distraction of hunger. After this reform was passed the amount of free meals being given to children grew and 14 million meals were being supplied per week by 1914. Poor school children were now achieving better and their attendance was increasing due to having one beneficial meal per day. Therefore, it may appear that the Liberals had taken a step to improve child poverty and hunger but in reality very little difference was made to the children’s lives. The children only received one nutritious meal a day and were therefore left hungry. Also the meals were only given during school days so children went hungry at weekends. Although the Education Act of 1906 provided children with one nutritious meal a day very little was actually done towards reducing the poverty and hunger that poor children were affected by. For this reason the 1906 Education Act was unsuccessful at treating the problem of hunger in children.
The success of the reforms targeted at improving children’s health was limited. The Royal Commission 1904 said that ‘Provision should be made for regular inspection of school children.’ The Education Act of 1907 meant that children at school were given medical inspections. The Medical Officer for Glasgow stated that ‘90% of children had defective teeth … 9% suffered from rickets … 30% were verminous.’ The inspections meant advice could be given to the children’s parents on how to help them if their illness was identified early on. The medical inspections also showed how widespread some diseases were. The reforms did very little to actually cure illnesses and diseases. Only guidance was given and no treatment was provided. As poverty was the main cause of disease many parents did not have enough money to support their children. Many sick children therefore received no help. The 1907 Education Act had limited success as poorer children who had no treatment were unsuccessful in getting rid of their illnesses.
The reforms were also directed at the workforces and as large amount of the Liberal’s support came from the working class men of Britain. For that reason the liberals introduced the 1911 National Insurance Act (Part 1) which provided compulsory health insurance for workers in certain trades who earned less than ??160 per year. The introduction of the act meant that employees were given money if they became ill and were not capable of working. However as with most of the liberal reforms its impact was limited. Lloyd George (15th June 1908) stated that ‘The provision made for the sick and unemployed is grossly inadequate in this country.’ The health insurance provided only included the employee and not his family. Also the money given to sick workers was not enough to support a large family. This meant many people ended up just as poor as before if they fell out of work. Even though the 1911 National Insurance Act (Part 1) took responsibility for workers it did little to actually tackle the problem as many still found themselves in poverty if they fell out of work. The act had very limited success, however the Liberals were the first ever government to try and help sick and injured workers.
The next act aimed at workers was the 1911 National Insurance Act (Part 2) which helped to provide unemployment benefit to trades that were affected by periodic unemployment e.g. shipbuilding and construction. The act was very limited as it only applied to certain trades e.g. shipbuilding and construction but not to others which also faced periodic unemployment such as farming. It was also only provided for a limited period of 15 weeks of unemployment. Unemployment longer than the set time limit meant that the employee was left unaided. The success of the 1911 National Insurance Act (Part 2) was therefore also very limited.
Finally, the Liberals introduced reforms aimed at the elderly of Britain such as the 1908 Old Age Pensions Act which provided a weekly pension for those aged over 70. This act was the first time that any British government had sought to take care of the elderly population. This therefore made elderly and older people thankful and it increased the government’s popularity. However its success was very limited. Although it seemed as though the Liberals had taken steps towards caring for the elderly, in reality the pensions were only paid to those who reached 70 years or over despite average working class life expectancy being 51 in 1900. Therefore it was not designed to help many of the elderly living in poverty. The pension itself fell below Rowntree’s estimate of 35p per week as adequate to stay above the poverty line therefore did little to help the conditions of those receiving it. A. J. P. Taylor said ‘The state provided a meagre pension for the needy over 70.’ Many of the old were excluded from claiming pensions because they failed to meet the qualification rules. Eg. If had been in prison, poor moral character or those who had never worked. Therefore the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908 had very little impact on poverty among the elderly as very few received it and for those who did the amount was not substantial enough to. We can therefore say that the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908 had very little success in tackling poverty in elderly people.

In conclusion, the Liberal Reforms signalled a change and more social responsibility was taken in the attempt to fight poverty. However the reforms passed between 1906 and 1914 had very little impact on the problems of poverty in Britain. The reforms helped give children free meals and medical inspections at school, give workers health and unemployment insurance in case they fell out of work and give the elderly a weekly pension. On the other hand, however, the reforms did very little to actually help tackle poverty in British society as free school meals and medical inspections were not compulsory, unemployment and health insurance payments were not substantial enough and covered only certain trades and pensions were only given to the few people who lived to over 70. In reality, little was done by the Liberal government to help improve the problems that poverty caused. Overall, the reforms were limited in their success as they made an attempt to tackle the causes that poverty caused but had very little actua

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