William Beveridge and the welfare state: 75 years on

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Report from one of the sessions at the RSS 2017 Conference. More reports of conference sessions are listed here.

2017 marks the 75th anniversary of the Beveridge Report. Published in 1942, it is possibly the most influential document in setting out the welfare state in the UK as we know it. But how do people’s attitudes to welfare compare now? How can we accurately measure poverty? How have welfare reforms in the USA influenced UK policy? All these questions were discussed at this RSS 2017 Conference session which marked the anniversary of one the UK’s most famous reports.

Dr Frank Popham, a senior research fellow at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Health & Wellbeing, spoke about the five 'Giant Evils' of society which Beveridge identified in his report: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. Popham highlighted that when the report came out there was broad consensus regarding the welfare state whilst today in contrast, the discourse is much more polarised. He also said we need to consider how the meanings of things have changed since Beveridge’s time, for instance, when Beveridge refers to full employment he is only measuring men.

Popham highlighted that we need to be careful with the language we use. The living wage for example, Popham says, has become a fashionable term but the numbers behind it – what people earn on the living wage is not as great an increase as the term may suggest.

Dr Marcia Gibson, also of the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Health & Wellbeing spoke in the session about the influence welfare reforms in the United States have had on welfare reform in the UK. The US in the 1990s introduced stringent conditions for single parents. Employment levels soared and caseloads plummeted which impressed UK policy makers who followed suit, putting in place stricter work requirements for parents of younger children. However, as Gibson noted in her talk, there was conflict between the quantative and qualitative findings - which found many have been struggling with the reforms, with some saying that it had led to a deterioration in their health. Evaluation of policy level interventions requires a range of evidence but what Gibson and her colleauges have found so far, suggests such welfare reforms have not been successful despite what some figures suggest.  

Eleanor Attar-Taylor, a senior researcher at NatCen spoke about the British Attitudes Survey. Now in its 34th year, the survey measures people’s social, political and moral values. The survey found that recently, people’s attitudes to welfare has changed. While fewer are now in a support of decreasing benefits for the unemployed, there has been a steady decline since the mid-2000s in support for further spending on pensions. As Attar-Taylor says, future surveys will help determine whether these trends will continue - or whether people’s attitudes to welfare will take a completely different turn. 

This session was called 75th anniversary of the Beveridge Report.

The 75th anniversary of the Beveridge Report’s publication will be celebrated with a special event at the RSS’s Errol Street headquarters. Arranged in conjunction with the Nuffield Foundation, it will centre around a lecture by Alan Milburn - Chair, Social Mobility Commission - on Wednesday 29th November. RSS members can register to attend via https://events.rss.org.uk/rss/157/home

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