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Workhouses, Welfare, Workfare and Attitudes to the Poor in Britain

Workhouses, Welfare, Workfare and Attitudes to the Poor in Britain

This paper is entitled “Workhouses, Welfare, Workfare and Attitudes to the Poor in Britain.” This essay writer paper aims to help you understand the relationship between political views, social assistance programs, and the ways in which they perpetuate systems of poverty and marginalization.

I introduced three reasons as to why it is unclear on whether or not the change to welfare services from workhouses in Britain brought attitudinal shift towards poverty. I believe that strong arguments were provided with corresponding credible sources. Nonetheless, there were arguments that lacked credibility and were mainly subjective. For instance, I was confused first on whether I should tackle the media in a deep manner in the paper for it may be irrelevant. However, I decided to tackle it more deeply than expected since the media plays a critical role in today’s generation. I think that this would help establish a more strong connection between the past and the present. I believe that this also helps me share my ideas and thought on the topic as a writer and researcher.

Furthermore, I focused on the stigmatization of poverty and on the dependency of people towards social welfare. Opinions and thoughts from various individuals were tackled to create and broader discourse.

I strongly urge you to read this paper thoroughly in order to find out more about the infamous concept of poverty, not only in Britain but elsewhere.

Sincerely yours,

Andi Xiao

Andi Xiao

TA’s name: Alan Stauffer

MMW 15


Workhouses, Welfare, Workfare and Attitudes to the Poor in Britain

England has continuously faced problems concerning poverty since the 19th century until the present. In recent years, United Kingdom has still not been free of poverty as poverty rates are still relatively high across the country when compared to those of other developed countries. Many solutions have been proposed over time to address this problem. Poor law institutions were part of the solutions deemed appropriate by England and other countries in the past. These institutions provided medical services to pauper mothers and their infants (Marks, 518). Another solution was social service or welfare service, defined as “any of numerous publicly or privately provided services intended to aid disadvantaged, distressed, or vulnerable persons or groups” (Pinker, 1). The system of poor relief was initially standardized in Britain wherein unions of parishes were responsible for the management of workhouses, which had a harsh and degrading condition. Conditions in the workhouses then became better. Nonetheless, in the 20th century, social welfare and security services replaced workhouses. Social assistance moved from workhouses to welfare services and this affected poverty. The establishment of the welfare state was considered as a trade-off between “capital” and “labor” as it addressed the difficulties faced by the masses (Deeming, 863). In spite of the said cause, increasing stigmatization has been present for the last thirty years and more work-based programs have been introduced since then. However, it still remains unclear on whether the shift to welfare services or state also brought attitudinal shift towards poverty due to a changing nation, a divided population, and influenced data sources.

Various economic, social and environmental factors continue to change, thus affecting poverty. Beatrice Webb wrote the 1909 Minority Report, which is “devoted to evidence about the shortcomings of the existing system and the administrative issues of the proposed reforms”. In her critique, she believed that the main reasons for the occurrence of poverty and lack of jobs were “structural as well as individual”. These may therefore be associated to the kind of economical and societal organization, differences in the demand for labor, diseases, lack of education and other factors that are not controlled by people (Wallis, 11-12). The Minority Report claimed that aged women were annoyed by “noisy, dirty imbeciles” while the sick were not given “outdoor relief”. Furthermore, the Report stated that the General Mixed Workhouse improperly treated individuals who were actually the ones aimed to receive help. The masters, matrons and officials of the workhouses who combined duties that were supposed to be separate were also condemned. It further suggested the acquisition of the skills of specialized experts to assist the different types of impoverished individuals accordingly. In general, the Report sharply criticized the changing public attitudes and beliefs that had connected around the 1834 New Poor Law (28-29). Thompson et al. emphasized that local economic conditions affect the number of poor people. Certain places with high rates of poverty also have large numbers of children being helped under the Poor Laws in 1906. Other places have witnessed economic changes as well. There are places in north of England that were relatively rich in the early 1900’s but are now relatively poor. This may be a result of the depression during the early parts of the 20th century (43). Many factors affect poverty and when these factors change, ideas and notions relating to poverty also change.

The population is still divided on the cause and most efficient solution for poverty. Some people find moral fault in the poor themselves, while others viewed poverty as the result of a class struggle and the fault of the rich, with society obliged to take care of the poor for the health of the nation. According to Hudson et al. (2016), “the general attitude to whether the poor responsible for their conditions corresponds to general socio economic conditions in society”. In Victorian times, there was “a more stringent legal view of poverty as a moral failing,” which helped in spurring humanitarianism and establishment of social reforms. These helped in founding the cores of welfare services, even those of today (Pinker, 1). The welfare reforms of the early 20th century were established due to the growing belief that the state is needed to solve poverty and other socio-economic problems and that a “Victorian laissez-faire attitude” is lacking to solve the aforesaid problems (Bew, 35). The Minority Report argued that it is the responsibility of the state to maintain specific standards and ensure that “no citizen should be allowed to fall”. It even envisioned a national minimum wage for laborers and sufficient maintenance supplies for non-laborers. The Minority Report also did not support the division of services for the poor and the non-poor as it believed that the said division was “ineffective and designed to stigmatize” (Wallis, 13-14). Many people argue today that decentralization of power is vital to boost the provinces in order for the families in the populated cities be able to move to the provinces and become more productive by planting, selling crafts and making livelihoods. With this, overcrowding in the cities is avoided. The government is deemed as the responsible body for poverty alleviation, requiring it to improve its agricultural, irrigation, and livestock projects in order to help farmers, fishermen and craftsmen earn more for their families. If the government would just maximize everything on its hands, it could do much more than what it has been doing. Most, if not all, of the people depend on the government.

Data sources like media coverage, reports, reform measures, and political positions may be biased or influenced by external elements. For instance, the Beveridge Report by Sir William Beveridge was written after the shift in public perception. The Report was based on empirical proofs. It influenced the post-war Labor government. William Beveridge stated that the primary conclusion that can be made from the surveys is that abolishment of the desired object entails “a double re-distribution of income, through social insurance and by family needs” (Beveridge, 41-42). The Report exhibited that public opinion can force or affect political change. Another example is how the reform efforts in Britain in the early parts of the 20th century may be related to the fear of the possible products poverty, a concept that was imparted to the public (Marks, 518). In today’s context, public and individual opinions are very much broadcasted by the media. Focusing on the media, experts have suggested that the exposure to information can result to extensive and quick change. In a major research study, it was exhibited how the messages and discussions of negative media transformed since 2008. It mostly highlighted “the deservedness of claimants” (Jensen and Tyler, 480-482). It was shown that increased media exposure produces “significant and rapid changes in behavior”. Globalization and the media can be beneficial in order to increase access to economic opportunities and gain stronger incentives for action. International communities provide great pressure for countries to amend laws in favor of poverty alleviation. Media exposure creates more connected virtual community that allows people to communicate freely and connect more quickly to one another. The increase in the access of information with the primary help of the Internet allows individuals to learn and understand fast and adopt egalitarian concepts. The media is capable of giving powerful and persuasive messages on norms and culture. It must be noted that individuals involved in politics hold power and has established various connections. As a result, politics can influence people directly or indirectly via the media. Hence, the public need to analyze the messages of the programs that they watch and further determine if they agree or not with the aforesaid message.

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The establishment of workhouses primarily advocated for self-responsibility, wherein the poor are responsible for being poor and that they must work hard to alleviate the hardships that they encounter. This, however, led to oppression, discrimination and worse living conditions for people struggled against one another to survive under the hands of unions of groups of parishes. The abolishment of the workhouses led to the establishment of another poverty-alleviating solution, which is social service. With this, the idea of social responsibility became more appreciated by people. Personal social services have always composed of a “mixed economy of welfare”. Most of the total expenditures are poured into the social security systems that “provide assistance to specific categories of claimants on the basis of universal and selective criteria”. Surveys done by Charles Booth, Seebohm Rowntree and other researchers helped in the transformation of “conventional views of the role of the state” in addressing poverty and in providing social services. Starting 1900, social works expanded with the increase in number of settlement houses. The making of this system proves the gradual shift in both academic and public opinion on the relative importance of the social and personal reasons of need or of assistance. Today, social services are vital in local communities as they also help in keeping family relationships stronger. They play a key role in solving and controlling juvenile delinquencies, drug and alcohol abusers and other groups. The major areas of concern of social service or social welfare are family welfare, child welfare, youth welfare, welfare of the elderly, group welfare, welfare of the sick and disabled, and welfare of the mentally ill (Pinker, 1). Social service has greatly evolved over the past century. Undeniably, the political attitudes towards the poor in 20th century London have modified as social assistance moved from workhouses to welfare. Charles Booth stated that labor mechanism, population density and competition among people from different socio-economies are the reasons for poverty. There still appears to be some truth to the belief that bad choices and vices influence poverty. People attribute poverty more to societal factors than to individual factors. Also, the connection between economic factors and attitudes to welfare has also become less noticeable through the years. Nonetheless, the extent is still not clearly known due to the aforesaid reasons above.

Stigmatization on poverty has been present for decades all over the world. Stigma may be considered as unhealthy and may discourage people to claim benefits that they must receive, especially in terms of poverty. Various stigmas exist. Institutional stigmas can be seen in the way social services are designed or social security laws are drafted. Social stigma can be observed in the way the public tackle and act towards poverty and welfare. Personal stigma can be perceived as a result of personal internalization of the other forms of stigma. In general, stigmatization produces negative effects to the people involved or to the object being tackled as it often promotes negativity, hopelessness and injustice. Connecting stigmatization to social welfare, people who claim benefits and entitlements have been stigmatized for years. Tom Slater argued that the main reason for the dependency on social services and unemployment is the “very hostile entry level labour market” as it appears to promote low wage and thus, unemployment (963). Since 1970, the welfare state of Britain is believed to be in a crisis because citizens started to be very dependent on social welfare services, thus negatively affecting the economy. Proofs for the stigmatization of poverty have been made but little focus has been given on how, why and by whom the stigma is made and maintained. “Benefit brood” families who often express discontent on welfare policies may actually be the best representations of the national dependency on social services. Welfare was considered as a reason for poverty and social problems, rather than as a solution to the said problems (Jensen and Tyler, 470).

Equality has not been a primary advocacy of the Labour Party. Most members of the Labour Party believed that “a change in the nature of society which reduced the discrepancies in power and wealth” was more important (Wallis, 21). Margaret Thatcher, as part of the Conservatives, emphasized that they are opposed to inflation because it may affect the savings of people and that they want to “spread the nation’s wealth among as many people as possible”. The Conservatives opposed the Labour policies since many jobs could be lost due to the minimum wage policy wherein employers could not afford to employ people. In addition, they argued that potential investors for Britain might decide to invest in another country. The Labour Party, according to the Conservatives, believes “that all problems can be solved by State intervention”. The Conservations, on the other hand, thought that “governments should not run business”. Starting 1900, however, the decline of the traditional labour policies and the reposition of the British Labour Party on the topic of welfare are some of the factors for the transition from “welfarist” to “workfarist” and other new attitudes of the British people on poverty. In this new “workfarist” attitude, policies are stricter for those non-working beneficiaries. This addresses the issue on national dependence on social services by assisting and encouraging people to work (Deeming, 862). Disregarding the battle between the political parties, Tom Slater argued that social problems are all “repeatedly invoked” by legislators and other contributors to the social welfare reforms, which result to the lack of exploration of other alternative solutions to address poverty (948). He believed that misinformation and abuse of state power are present in Britain and that these affect the state policies that include welfare. Christopher Deeming showed that to better understanding the attitude of the public towards work and welfare, the ideologies, political parties, popular beliefs and political influences must be carefully studied (862). Nonetheless, it is clear that various opinions and thoughts on poverty and social welfare have been expressed by private individuals and political personalities but poverty continues to be a debated topic today.

In reality, there is no established correct way to solve poverty. Thatcher made reasonable points on her views on the policies of the Labour Party. The people cannot be blamed for being dependent on social welfare. In fact, few people think that poverty, in general, is a natural part of life rather than blaming the poor for being poor or the government for being lacking in carrying the responsibility. This shows that more effort must be done to demonstrate the effect of public and unified action for visible change, especially in the alleviation of poverty. Nonetheless, this also shows that those currently doing efforts to address the problem of poverty must do more as problems continue to persist.

Poverty has been a controversial topic, not only in the past century but since time immemorial. From the arguments and ideas stated, it must be absolutely emphasized that attitude of the people towards poverty has been changing, not only in Britain but across the globe. Nonetheless, this changing attitude is not a hindrance to the common idea that there is a need to solve the problem of poverty. Again, there is no established correct way of solving poverty. Its solution may just be one or a combination of many. We may have varying opinions on poverty but we must understand one another, settle our differences and work together as one in order to achieve the solution that we all desire.

Works Cited

Beveridge, Sir William.  The Beveridge Report: ‘The Way to Freedom from Want’. Catalogue reference: PREM 4/89/2, pp. 41-42.  Accessed from

Bew, John. “Welfare Wrapped in a Patriotic Flag.” New Statesman, vol. 143, no. 5238, 2014, pp. 34-39. ProQuest.

Booth, Charles. “Condition and Occupations of the People of East London and Hackney, 1887.” Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, vol. 51, no. 2, 1888, pp. 276–339. JSTOR,

Deeming, Christopher. “Foundations of the workfare state–Reflections on the political transformation of the welfare state in Britain.” Social Policy & Administration, vol. 49, no.7, 2015, pp. 862-886.

Hudson, John, et al. “Nostalgia Narratives? Pejorative Attitudes to Welfare in Historical Perspective: Survey Evidence from Beveridge to the British Social Attitudes Survey.” The Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, vol. 24, no. 3, 2016, pp. 227-243. ProQuest.

Jensen, Tracey, and Imogen Tyler. “‘Benefits Broods’: The Cultural and Political Crafting of Anti-Welfare Commonsense.” Critical Social Policy, vol. 35, no.4, 2015, pp. 470-491. 

Marks, Lara. “Medical Care for Pauper Mothers and Their Infants: Poor Law Provision and Local Demand in East London, 1870-1929.” The Economic History Review, vol. 46, no. 3, 1993, pp. 518–542. JSTOR,

Pinker, Robert. “Social Service.” Encyclopedia Britannica,

Slater, Tom. “The myth of “Broken Britain”: Welfare Reform and the Production of Ignorance.” Antipode, vol. 46, vol.4, 2014, pp. 948-969.

Thatcher, Margaret. “Speech to the Conservative Party Conference (Oct. 10, 1986).” The Margaret Thatcher Foundation.  Accessed from

Thompson, Gavin, et alOlympic Britain: Social and economic change since the 1908 and 1948 London Games.

Wallis, Ed. From the Workhouse to Welfare: What Beatrice Webb’s 1909 Minority Report Can Teach Us Today. Fabian Soc., 2009.

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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