To What Extent Did the Liberal Social Reforms Mark a Significant Break with 19th Century Attitudes to Poverty?

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To what extent did the Liberal social reforms mark a significant break with 19th century attitudes to poverty?

In 19th century Britain, the upper class and even the Government held a unanimous view of the poor. Their view was that poverty was the result of moral failings and that these people were responsible for their own social circumstance. The social elite stereotyped the poor as drunken and lazy, and therefore undeserving of help or attention. This was reflected in the ‘laissez faire’ approach taken by the Government where they believed that poverty and hardship were not things that they had a responsibility to deal with. However, in the late 19th century and the early 20th century these attitudes began to change to a more accepting and sympathetic view to poverty. This was largely due to the writers Mayhew and Dickens, and the poverty reports made by Booth and Rowntree. The former both brought the issue of poverty to the forefront for the public; Mayhew through the ‘Morning Chronicle’ and ‘London Labour and the London Poor’; Dickens through his novels. Charles Dickens was seen as a voice to represent the poor and in novels such as ‘Our Mutual Friend’ he showed their despair, writing of the poor house: “Kill me sooner than take me there. Throw this child under the cart horses feet and a loaded wagon, sooner than take him there.” This convinced the public of the plight of the poor while the hard facts and figures presented by Booth and Rowntree convinced the Government. So, due to the writings of Mayhew and Dickens, the reports of Booth and Rowntree, worries for national efficiency, the creation of the Labour Party and the work of certain individuals such as Churchill and Lloyd George, the Liberal Government introduced a series of social reforms between 1906 and 1914 which reflected the changing views of the public and those in power. The new reforms dealt with poverty in child hood and old age, and poverty due to illness and low wages.

In 1906 free school meals were provided for children from the poorest and neediest families. 19th century views had been adamantly against giving these underfed youths free meals because they believed that in providing for them they would be undermining the role of the children’s parents. It was thought that seeing as their children were being fed by someone else the parents would lose the drive to work to make money in order to provide for their children. It was also widely believed that by giving the poorest children aid and assistance, it would cause the children to be lazy and expect everything to be handed to them on a plate from the Government. The provision of meals by the Liberal Government suggested that they would take a 20th century attitude to poverty and this sparked off other reforms that aimed to help children. This Act was very important as the parents whose children received free meals were not disenfranchised for their acceptance of help from the State. The Borstal Probation System, which began in 1908, also marked a significant break with 19th century attitudes to poverty. Up until 1908 children who resorted to crime – who usually came from the poorest families – were put in prisons with criminals of all ages. The introduction of Borstals showed that these children were not viewed as hardened criminals but were treated fairly and sympathetically according to their age and circumstance. These reforms firmly marked a break with 19th century attitudes to the poor and stamped the Liberal Governments new intentions and ideas confidently on to society. It is true to say that the 1906 School Meals Act was not originally initiated by the Liberal Government, however they saw the urgency with which it was needed and they passed it early on in their regime.

The Liberal social reforms also dealt with poverty and the elderly. Men and women who had become too old to work were often forced into work houses and were relieved by the poor law, or they had to be supported by...
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