Poverty from Workhouse to the Welfare State.
In 1909 Beatrice Webb produced a controversial report which proposed abolishing the stigma and penury of the Poor Law and its workhouses. James Gregory argues that this plea for a less judgemental approach to poverty created the foundations of the modern Welfare State.
In the late 1880s, the great social investigator Charles Booth (1840-1916) set about mapping the streets of London, with the assistance of his researcher, radical reformer Beatrice Webb (1858-1943). Booth's aim was to understand the extent and causes of the great concentrations of poverty that had arisen in Victorian London. What he found shocked him: a 'submerged tenth', a 'population sodden with drink, steeped in vice, eaten up by every social and physical malady'.
Today, a hundred years later, official and learned discussions about the poor no longer refer to a 'social residuum'; one of the many memorable phrases attributed to Booth. But the anxiety and imagery that his findings evoked remain potent. It is difficult to pick up a tabloid newspaper and not find almost exactly the same description, not of a submerged tenth perhaps, but of an 'underclass' of 'feckless scroungers' (Sunday Express, March 19th, 2008), with drugs added to the Victorian mix of drink and vice.