welfare state

welfare state
   By 1950, it was unremarkable to describe Britain as a ‘welfare state’. Mostly this term referred to the new legislation to promote social welfare, but sometimes it stood for a more general view of social and political culture. References could be either positive or negative. Other countries were also so described. The more specific sense is the one discussed here.
   Social provision in the 1930s faced problems with high unemployment, leading the wartime government to ask William Beveridge to report on social insurance. In his Report of 1942, Beveridge recommended that employers and employees should contribute to a unified, comprehensive and compulsory insurance scheme, which would pay subsistence level benefits in sickness, old age and unemployment, irrespective of income. For those excluded from ‘National Insurance’, ‘National Assistance’ provided a means-tested ‘safety net’ benefit. Family allowances (not means-tested), full employment policies and a health service for all were ‘assumptions’ made by Beveridge.
   In 1948, under Attlee’s Labour government, most of Beveridge’s recommendations became reality. Alongside National Insurance and National Assistance was a National Health Service (free at point of use), family allowances and a children’s service (for children deprived of a normal home life; providing too career opportunities for qualified women). High standards of service were intended. The health service was aimed at the whole population, even though private practice continued. Abolishing apparently many sources of insecurity and social division, these provisions creating ‘the British welfare state’ were popular. The precise significance of the welfare state remains controversial. Its radical and egalitarian aims and the unpopularity of previous provisions, even including the Poor Law, may have been overemphasized. The new state provision was rarely integrated with voluntary or private provision. If the form of the ‘welfare state’ owed much to populist idealism, it owed little less to consensus politics and the lobbying of pressure groups for the professions.
   By the early 1960s, the optimism expressed in Rowntree and Laver’s Poverty and The Welfare State (1951) that poverty was virtually eliminated was evaporating. Following new research, in 1965 the pressure group Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) was formed to lobby for families in poverty. The ‘rediscovery’ of ‘child poverty’ embodied a still-controversial new definition of ‘poverty’, in relativist terms, where poverty was defined not as a minimum and essentially fixed living standard but according to the changing nature of needs and standards in a more affluent Britain. Abuse in long-stay institutions for old people and people mentally ill or with a learning disability also became widely publicized, assisted by the popular sociology of Erving Goffman’s Asylums and Stigma. Ken Loach’s television film Cathy Come Home highlighted homelessness. The response of Harold Wilson’s Labour government was low key. Deinstitutionalization and the development of community care proceeded slowly, and a promised grand reform of social security ended in a renaming of National Assistance to Supplementary Benefit in 1966. However, comprehensive schools increased rapidly between 1965 and 1970, and it was the Labour Social Services Act of 1970 that introduced almost a new social service (social work), although implementation was left to Edward Heath’s Conservative government of that year. In Britain, social work services for families and communities in which children, chronically sick, disabled and elderly people needed care were developed by local authorities separate from the NHS. In Northern Ireland the two were the responsibility of one administrative body (the welfare state is thus shown as taking different forms in different parts of the United Kingdom, a point often overlooked).
   Heath’s government also introduced Family Income Supplement in 1971 (known as Family Credit since 1986, and under review) to tackle child poverty. This was a means-tested benefit, related to family size, for families with low income from employment. While the Institute of Economic Affairs supported such ‘targeting’ of resources, the CPAG opposed means-testing as stigmatizing ‘the poor’, producing ‘inefficient’ ‘low take-up’ requiring corrective ‘welfare rights’ work, and constructing a ‘poverty trap’ whereby extra money earned resulted in more lost through diminished eligibility for benefits.
   Electorally vulnerable and dogged by inflation, oil price increases and eventually the Winter of Discontent, Labour governments from 1974 to 1979 managed to modify state funding and provision for pensioners to take account of the trend of relatively fewer people of working age and more of pensionable age. In 1975, Child Benefit superseded Family Allowances, being neither means-tested nor taxed. The abolition of tax allowances accompanied extending benefit to cover the first child.
   By contrast, Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979 brought big changes in the ‘welfare state’, which were continued by John Major from 1990 to 1997. The Conservatives, supported by new thinking about social welfare and committed to improving choice and quality of service, privatization where practicable and value-formoney and market disciplines, encouraged tenants to buy council houses, and reduced corporatism by introducing splits between purchasers and providers in health and social care (whereby voluntary agencies and the private sector competed with the state to be providers). A new factor in the expansion of social care was acknowledging the preferences of informal carers (usually family members). However, charges for care might result in the need for the patient to sell their home.
   To reinforce incentives to work or train, Supplementary Benefit was replaced by Income Support in 1986, with a loan-based Social Fund for ‘special needs’. The Conservatives also modified the schools system, empowering schools to opt out of the control of local education authorities, and introducing the National Curriculum. Preventative health measures were encouraged and an emphasis was placed on personal responsibility for health. ‘Scroungers’ on benefits remained a bogey, as did single parents, and a ‘dependency culture’ and an ‘underclass’ created by the ‘welfare state’ drew attention. Child abuse was established as a problem. Feminist theory and research questioned women’s employment patterns in the ‘welfare state’ and inequalities of provision. Similar questions were raised respecting ethnic minorities. Thatcherism’s changes look safe with the new Blair government.
   However, the ‘welfare state’ will be changing again as European Union policies filter through and if devolution takes place.
   See also: class system
   Further reading
    Hill, M. (1993) The Welfare State in Britain, Aldershot: Edward Elgar.
    Hills, J. (ed.) (1990) The State of Welfare, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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