In the 1850s the British Government had a laissez-faire attitude towards poverty and believed in the policy of self-help. However, after the Liberal
Party won the General Election of 1906, it adopted a more interventionist approach and introduced a number of measures to help the poorest British citizens. Historians continue to debate how successful the Liberal reforms were in tackling the problems associated with poverty. This essay will focus on the problem of poverty in children, in the elderly, and due to sickness and unemployment. It will argue that the Liberal reforms did improve the lives of many poor people in Britain, but also had many limitations and did not solve the problem of poverty altogether.
One group the Liberal reforms sought to help was the young.
children were at risk from poverty as their parents were too poor to provide for them adequately.
In 1906 an Education Act was passed which
provided children with free school meals.
The Act was shown to be
successful as by 1914 158,000 children a year were receiving free meals.
This helped improve the health and fitness of children and helped to prevent malnutrition. However, the Act had some limitations. Over half the local authorities had not set up the scheme by 1912 and during school holidays children’s weight dropped as they were not receiving school meals. In 1907 another Education Act was passed. This Act made medical inspections in schools free and compulsory. This was successful in identifying common childhood health problems, and by 1912 school clinics were being set up to provide free but limited treatment. However, this Act also had some omissions. Most of the inspections were very basic and overlooked many problems. It can be said that the Act was better at identifying health problems rather than actually treating them, and many parents were unable to afford to pay for specialist medical care. Finally, in 1908 the
“Children’s Charter” was passed. This made children “protected persons” and gave them a separate legal status from adults. It also banned children from buying alcohol or cigarettes. However, the Act did not eliminate the problem of child abuse nor did it prevent children from getting hold of alcohol and tobacco. Overall the Acts passed to tackle the problem of poverty in children had some success as they established the principle that the Government had a responsibility to provide for children’s welfare, and they also took some important steps towards improving the health and wellbeing of children, yet many children continued to be at risk from poverty. The Liberals also sought to tackle the problem of poverty in old age. Many elderly people were at risk of poverty as they were too old and frail to work and earn an income. In 1908 the Pensions Act was passed. This provided a state pension to the poorest old people over 70 if they met certain qualifications. If individuals met these qualifications they received up to 5 shillings a year from the government.
This was welcomed by many old
people, and by 1914 970,000 people a year were claiming a pension.
However studies by Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree had shown that the poverty line was 7 shillings a week, so it is clear that pensions were only meant to supplement previous savings. The problem was that many poor elderly people did not have previous savings so were still living in poverty.
The Act also cost the government a lot of money, which meant a rise in taxes which was unpopular with the majority of the population. Overall the
Pensions Act did improve the lives of some of the poorest elderly people, however it can be argued that the pension was not enough to live on by itself and therefore did not eliminate the problem of poverty in the elderly.
The Liberals also sought to help workers