In Britain we are very fortunate that we have a Welfare State. In this country the Welfare State provides free medical care on the NHS, unemployment benefit, child benefit, disability allowance, free education, old age pensions amongst other benefits.
Britain from 1880-1900
However, at the turn of the 20th century there were no such benefits for the people of Great Britain. For the early part of the Victorian era the predominant idea of poverty was that it was the individual’s responsibility to keep out of poverty. If he failed to do this it was assumed that the poverty was the fault of a character defect in the individual rather than as a result of economic forces beyond his control. This was due to the fact that both the Conservative and Liberal governments of the day believed in the policy of Laissez-Faire. Laissez-Faire is the policy of non state intervention. This means that the state did not interfere in the daily lives of its citizens (or help in any way). Their task was to protect the country and to provide a level playing field for their citizens to make the most of their opportunities. Thus people who already had money held an advantage over the poor.
What help was available to those who were poor?
As a result of this way of thinking poor people were treated as little better than criminals. For those who were extremely poor either because of being put out of work, sickness or becoming too old to work, the only option was the workhouse. Work Houses split up families and although they provided the minimum living standards possible they made life as uncomfortable as possible for the poor. This was the last straw for poor people and was the most humiliating thing that could happen to them. Many families were prepared to starve to death rather than be humiliated by going to the workhouse.
Examples such as the American Civil War which stopped the import of raw cotton to the factories from the Southern States caused much hardship in the Midlands and suggested that it was not always the individual’s fault that they were poor.
The various governments did become involved in social policy as a result of the rapid social and economic changes in the nineteenth century. Factory and Mines Acts improved working conditions, Education Acts made primary education compulsory and Public Health Acts were reactions to the devastating cholera outbreaks which were linked to poor sewerage and lack of fresh water in the cities. Therefore it can be argued that governments were increasingly prepared to become involved in social policy.
Although Government was less than willing to get involved, Britain considered itself to be a Christian country and there was a tradition of philanthropy where individuals tried to help. Many charities and voluntary...