Reasons for the Liberal Social Welfare Reforms
For most of the 19th century, most people believed in ‘laissez-fraire’ and accepted that poverty and
hardship were not things the government could or should do anything about. However, the Liberal
Government (led by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith and Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George)
introduced a range of social welfare reforms to help alleviate the poverty and hardship suﬀered by children,
the elderly, the unemployed and workers.
Surveys of Booth and Rowentree (1): Surveys Demonstrated the True Extent of
Seebohm Rowentree’s study of York published in 1900 entitled ‘Poverty, A Study of Town Life’. Rowentree
concluded that “we are faced with the startling probability that from 25 per cent to 30 per cent of the town
populations of the United Kingdom are living in poverty.” In York Rowentree found 229 houses sharing 155
water taps. He also discovered 247 infants per 1000 dying in poor areas before the age of one, compared
to 94 infants per 1000 in families wealthy enough to hire servants.
Charles Booth’s ‘Life and Labour of the People of London’ published from the 1886-1903 ran to 17
volumes. Booth investigated over 1 million families and found that 305 of Londoners lived in poverty.
Studies demonstrated that the true extent of poverty in Britain and opened the eyes of many of the
middle classes to the horrific conditions that large numbers of the population endured. Many now
realised that something had to be done by government to alleviate the impact of such extensive
Surveys of Booth and Rowentree (1): Surveys Demonstrated the True Causes of
Seebohm Rowentree made careful use of recent scientific work to establish what a family needed to earn to
buy adequate and fuel and to pay the rent. He concluded that 52% of the very poor were paid wages too
low to sustain an adequate life. Around 21% of families lived in misery because the chief wage earner had
died, or was too ill or to old to work. His ‘poverty cycle of a labourer’ demonstrated how vulnerable
unskilled workers were in childhood, fatherhood and old age.
Charles Booth demonstrated that low pay, lack of regular work, supporting large families, illness and old
age were the major causes of poverty. Booth argued that only 15% of the poor were in such a position
because of drink or laziness.
Studies proved that the vast majority of the poor were poor through no fault of their own. Previous
attitudes that existed- that the poor were poor through their own actions such as through laziness or
drunkenness- were changed by studies which showed the importance of illness, old age and low pay
in causing poverty. However, whilst humanitarian concern was a significant motive it was not strong
enough to overcome financial considerations. For example, the old age pension was limited to those
over 70 although the Liberals were perfectly aware that millions under this age were in desperate
need of help.