In 1942 Sir William Beveridge published a report under the unexciting title Social Insurance and Allied Services. It has become famous as the founding document of the post-war welfare state, and has supposedly led to major improvements in the lives of most British citizens. In fact, it achieved very much less than this, as the report itself just referred to ‘a redistribution of income within the wage-earning classes’, and stated that its proposals for social insurance should merely ‘aim at guaranteeing the minimum income needed for subsistence’. The following year the Socialist Party published a pamphlet Beveridge Re-Organises Poverty, which concluded that the proposals would ‘level the workers’ position as a whole’ and so would indeed be ‘a redistribution of poverty’.
Beveridge identified ‘five giant evils’, which were capitalised as Want (i.e. poverty), Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. How has the battle against these fared in the nearly eighty years since the report was produced? On its 75th anniversary, Stephen Armstrong wrote in em>The Guardian (10 October 2017) that, after the period of relative prosperity that lasted till the late 1970s, the giants were now ‘creeping back into the mainstream of our daily life’. Not very much has changed in the short period since then. Let’s look at each giant in turn, combining general points and statistics with specific examples.
At the end of last year it was reported that more than a million of the UK’s poorest people are regularly struggling to pay for food. Independent food banks reported a doubling of the number of emergency food parcels handed out in 2020 compared to the year before. The Trussell Trust stated that ‘half of all households visiting food banks struggled to afford essential goods such as food and clothes because they were repaying Universal Credit debts’ (Guardian 1 December). This is a welfare system which is supposed to keep people above the level of going without, ensuring that they do not have to choose between eating and heating. But it clearly fails to provide even ‘the minimum income needed for subsistence’, in Beveridge’s words.
Covid has increased the numbers in poverty, but it is not the underlying cause. According to one analysis, an extra 700,000 people had been thrust into poverty by the pandemic. In all, over 15 million people (nearly a quarter of the population) were living in poverty, and for the great majority of those the disruption caused by Covid was not responsible.
Turning to disease, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has stated that, among the poorest and second poorest fifth of the population, more than one in four children between ten and fifteen experienced moderate or severe mental health difficulties. The poorest fifth have at birth a healthy life expectancy around fifteen years less than the least deprived fifth. More generally, life expectancy is increasing in Western Europe, but in the UK the rise slowed dramatically between 2011 and 2015; austerity and reduced spending on health services are at least partly to blame for this, according to a 2017 article in the British Medical Journal. The same article noted that there were major disparities between health care in the north and south of England, with economic disadvantages being responsible for the north being left behind.
A 2019 report from the World Health Organization noted that five-year cancer survival rates are worse in the United Kingdom compared to other high-income countries in the EU. Over a million people experienced ‘catastrophic spending on health services’, primarily on over-the-counter medicines.
Last year the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health published a report State of Child Health 2020. This noted that there had been improvements in some areas, such as better health checks for those with diabetes, and improved oral health, but in other areas there were problems. The rate of infant mortality increased slightly in England in 2017, while over a third of children aged 10 or 11 in England were obese or overweight. And again it was the poorest areas that had the most problems. Further, it was recently reported that black women in the UK are four times more likely than white women to die in pregnancy or childbirth, with those in deprived areas more likely to die.
Ignorance was described by Beveridge as something that ‘no democracy can afford among its citizens’; after all, capitalism needs a reasonably educated workforce. In the 1930s the vast majority of children left school at age fourteen with no formal qualifications, and the proportion of the population attending university was well below that in other countries, such as Germany and the US.
Things have changed since then, of course, but many problems remain. The National Literacy Trust states that one adult in six is functionally illiterate, with ‘very poor literacy skills’, and so has difficulty reading on unfamiliar topics. In England in 2019, one in thirteen of those aged 16–64 had no qualifications. Many students from poorer backgrounds struggle with parts of the education system, especially the transition to university.
By squalor was meant primarily housing conditions. Shelter reported in 2019 that 280,000 people were recorded as being homeless in England, i.e. one in every two hundred people (and one in 52 in London). And 220,000 had been threatened with homelessness that year. It is generally accepted that these figures are an underestimate, as so much homelessness is undocumented. People are forced to sofa-surf or live in dire hostels or B&Bs. Living on the street has an appalling effect on a person’s mental and physical health, reducing their life expectancy by many years.
It is not just being without a home that causes problems. A recent article in The Guardian (12 January) dealt with a block of flats in Islington where residents went without water for four and a half days after the mains pipe exploded and the PFI consortium that managed it simply failed to carry out the necessary repairs. More widely, an estimated 8.4 million people in England are living in a home that is unaffordable, insecure or unsuitable, according to the National Housing Federation.
But squalor (or unsafe living conditions) need not just be a matter of housing, and the growth of large cities is another factor. It was recently ruled by a coroner that the death of a nine-year-old girl in London in 2013 was partly caused by air pollution, specifically nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter pollution in excess of WHO guidelines, mainly the result of traffic emissions.
Idleness, Beveridge said, ‘destroys wealth and corrupts men’. The depression that began in 1929 had led to mass unemployment, with one-fifth of the workforce being unemployed in 1930. Reducing this was widely seen as essential for the health of the economy.
Unemployment figures go up and down over time. In the three months to October 2020, the UK unemployment rate was 4.9 percent, 1.2 percentage points higher than a year earlier. The rise is partly due to coronavirus, of course, and there were a quarter of a million fewer vacancies than a year before. The annual decrease in employment was the largest annual reduction since 2010. In all, 8.6 million people were economically inactive, and a record number had been made redundant. Moreover, many jobs nowadays are zero-hours. So idleness has certainly not been overcome.
The point here is not to over-emphasise the dire conditions so many face now, or to understate the appalling situation in the 1930s. Rather, it is to show how little has been achieved in nearly eight decades despite the best efforts of reformers, and to point out how many problems remain. The giants of the 30s and 40s still haunt present-day society, and it will take a revolutionary change to do away with them completely.