DP2147 Seebohm Rowntree and the Post-War Poverty Puzzle

Author(s): Roy E Bailey, Timothy J. Hatton
Publication Date: May 1999
Keyword(s): Post-War Britain, Poverty, Seebohm Rowntree, Social Security, Social Surveys
JEL(s): I31, I32, I38, N34
Programme Areas: Labour Economics, Public Economics
Link to this Page: cepr.org/active/publications/discussion_papers/dp.php?dpno=2147

In his third social survey of York carried out in 1950, Seebohm Rowntree reported a steep decline since 1936 of the percentage of households in poverty. He attributed the bulk of this decline to government welfare reforms enacted during and after the War. Some observers have been uneasy about these striking results, especially with the rediscovery of poverty in the 1960s. In this paper we re-examine the surviving records from the 1950 survey, making the poverty line more consistent with that of 1936 and looking more closely at the measurement of income. We also re-assess the impact of welfare reforms on working class poverty. We find that poverty in York was significantly higher, and the contribution of welfare reform substantially less, than was originally reported. These findings suggest a less optimistic view of the impact of welfare reforms during the Beveridge era.