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Idleness, want, disease, ignorance, and squalor: Labour reforms for Beveridge's five giants of poverty

Updated on March 22, 2017
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Jade is a graduate of Aberdeen University in Philosophy and Anthropology and remains interested in these areas while training as a teacher.

The National Health Service Today
The National Health Service Today

The Labour Reforms in Britain - 1945

The Labour government of 1945 made the first drastic steps towards the welfare state. William Beveridge had been commissioned to write a report on the causes of poverty and this became the basis for the Labour reforms. These reforms identified that there were five ‘giants’ of poverty, all of which would have to be defeated in order to eradicate poverty. The attempts to tackle these giants varied greatly in their levels of success and achievements of the aims to defeat poverty. “Labour didn’t abolish poverty but the number seriously lacking in food, clothing, shelter and warmth was reduced”. Of the five giants (Squalor, Want, Disease, Ignorance, and Idleness) Want is the one on which the others lie if it is defeated then there would be less problems in all of the other giants.

Want

The giant of Want was tackled in many ways to provide aid for the diversity of situations which caused poverty. For many it was children and raising a family which caused the loss of wealth and ability to live comfortably. For this the first steps were taken during the war when the coalition government introduced the Family Allowance Act which provided small amounts of money for mothers with two or more children without the need for a means test. This enabled mothers to provide more adequately and comfortably for their children as they were better able to afford necessities such as food and clothing. There were though many other causes of poverty which the Labour government had to consider and act on. The National Insurance Act (1946) built on the liberal Act and extended it to provide sickness and unemployment benefits, retirement, widows, pensions, and maternity grants. With this act workers were able to recover from illnesses, wives survive without their husbands earnings and mothers provide for their newborns without fear of either themselves or their family becoming impoverished. However, this act did exclude a lot of people; only those with a certain level of contribution were covered and it did not cover those who did not work. For those unable to work due to injury there was the Industrial Injuries Act which handed out payments for those temporarily hurt and unable to work for a short period and a higher rate of benefit for those permanently injured and unable to work. However, the payments made were not enough to live on long term. The National Assistance Act was also introduced and covered those out of work or old who had not contributed enough to the National Insurance Scheme so as to ensure that there was a ‘safety net’. National insurance, national assistance, and industrial injuries all contributed to providing care from the cradle to the grave. There were though problems as it didn’t cover everybody, it required a lot of people to administer, national insurance didn’t cover everybody and it was of course as expense to the government.

Squalor

Squalor was placed under the control of Bevan who took control by ensuring that the process for building goods and labour were not too expensive to encourage building. The 1946 new towns act planned the building to 12 new towns which would provide a place for people in overcrowded towns to move to. The 1949 housing act made sure that help was available to councils and private home-owners for home improvements or conversions at the level of 75% for the councils and 50% for private home owners provided by the government. Between 1948 and 1951 a lot of houses were built at the rate of around 200,000 a year which, although less than in the 30’s or 50’s, was real progress for a time when materials, workers, and money were short. However, there were still many problems left unsolved by Labours reforms. The homes built were just pre-fabs which were intended to be temporary so although affordable and quick to put up they were destined to cost more in the future and possibly cause future problems. The building of houses was not at a rate good enough to cover everyone without a home. The war had meant bombing and thus destruction of many houses and slum housing was still around from before the war. Many families, particularly those in large cities such as London, still had to squat illegally due to the lack of housing despite Labours efforts. Aerodromes, which had housed servicemen, even had to be used to house the general public there was such a lack of housing and the demobilisation of nearly 5 million servicemen only added to the problem.

Idleness

Unemployment and erratic times of work was a problem for many and a great cause for poverty. This was the giant of idleness for which the government actively promoted a policy of full employment to help support the welfare state. Nationalism of key industries was the most important action Labour took to attack Idleness. Due to nationalisation unemployment in the post war years, despite economic depression and shortages of goods and materials, was extremely low at only around 2.5%. Nonetheless there were many problems. The British economy and therefore jobs depended heavily on the loans from America and so there was great fear of instability if America wanted the loans paid back. Women were losing their jobs on a massive scale as the service men returning from the war took their places but some did not like this as they felt that employment should not be for men alone. Women were not account for in the 2.5% unemployed.

Ignorance

Ignorance was an important factor in the cycle of poverty as for those born into the working class education was impossible to access to the level of the rich or for as long. The Butler Education Act 1944 raised the school leaving age and created a more defined differential between stages of education. This caused a radical advance in education and along with this act education was to be provided as the appropriate level for each pupil. To enable smaller class sizes and therefore greater attention to each pupil an ambitious school building program was put in place. However, the education act was, in practice, unfair as still only a few working class children had the chance to attend an academic school which meant that for most their future careers and opportunities remained stifled. Also, the difference in provisions for education remained unsupervised or generalised throughout the country so inequality was still rife.

Disease

Disease was arguably the most notably successful of the 5 giants in its being defeated. The National Health Service (NHS) was introduced in 1946 after a great struggle with doctors. This provided free medical, dental, and eye care services to all which made a huge improvement on the lives of ordinary people who no longer had to worry about death for simply treatable aliments as there was no question of being able to afford the doctors help. In the first 5 years of the act though the hospitals were inadequate and unsuitable for modern health care and most were not replaced due to the cost as it was much more expensive than had been predicted or budgeted for. It had been thought that as time passed the care required would reduce and so the cost would decline but in fact the opposite happened as people continued to get ill. To attempt to reduce the cost prescription charges were introduced on eye care and dental treatment but not for most medical treatments.

Conclusion

The Labour government went further than any government before and set about creating a welfare state. However, the success of the reforms varied greatly. The Labour reforms for disease meant the health of the public greatly improved and infant mortality rates greatly decreased. Squalor was tackled with the building of affordable housing but not on a large enough scale to cope with the problem. A better organised educational system was arranged to defeat ignorance but it still favoured the upper classes. Only around 2.5% of people were unemployed because of nationalisation of industries. Want was faced with a reform act which allowed payments for those in situations which often lead to poverty such as ailments which prevent them working and having a family. However, not all problems were obviously overcome. The gap between upper and lower classes did lessen but it was not eradicated and despite the plans for house building it did not achieve its aim quite fully. The greatest problem which seeped into all the reforms were the cost. At the time Britain was experiencing economic problems and so the cost could not be dealt with comfortably. Overall, though it was a great first step towards a welfare state which lead to full care for the public from birth to death.

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    • jadesmg profile image
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      jadesmg 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      thanks, glad i could help.

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      Mystraven1324 5 years ago

      Amazing article. This really helped me with my History essay. Don't worry, I didn't copy your article, I just took inspiration from it. Thanks

    • jadesmg profile image
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      jadesmg 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Thanks, ye they helped a lot of people at the time. Can't really imagine Britain without some of these things! Especially the NHS, it just wouldn't be quite right.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Great article, jadesmg! Apparently my brother and I were on the receiving end of some of these benefits just before and after we were born. Dad was employed and Mom, first with me, then my brother, was able to spend a few weeks in a quiet estate in the countryside converted into a maternity ward. My aunt, uncle and cousins had no home but were then housed in a quonset hut until they could be placed in a council house. Voted up, interesting and shared.