Conservatives are winning hands down on welfare. The bishops in the House of Lords led a successful rebellion against the totemic £26,000 benefits cap—their aim was to prevent child benefit from being limited along with other welfare payments. But the government may force the cap through the Lords anyway. Labour and the Lib Dems are quiescent. Jobless, and poor people more generally, rarely vote, making them politically, as well as economically, marginal. The recession has not made people in work feel more generous to those out of work.
The sense that people should “pull their socks up” has a long history. The Tudor Poor Law put the able-bodied poor to work. Those able but unwilling to work could be sent to a House of Correction or prison. The Christian concept of “stewardship,” a responsibility to work productively as best we can, meant that idleness and begging were seen as worthy of punishment.
The Victorians were harsher still. The able-bodied were put to work in circumstances so unpleasant only those without alternatives would seek support. The workhouse divided husbands from wives, parents from children. Supper at the Huddersfield Workhouse always consisted of flour or oatmeal, boiled in “old milk.”
The 20th century changed all that, starting with the Liberal government’s 1906-14 welfare reforms. In 1914, 14m free school meals were served. A quarter of secondary schools places were free. Probation replaced prison for some young offenders. An additional £10 per child tax allowance was created. Pensions were introduced for the elderly—although at a low level to encourage saving. Job centres were created, and the National Insurance Act offered 26 weeks’ sickness and 15 weeks’ unemployment insurance to those who paid in.
The 1945 Labour government built on these reforms to create a welfare state that offered a safety net “from cradle to grave,” creating a sense of “social security” to complement the traditional security maintained by diplomacy and military means. The government was to vanquish the five “giant evils” of “Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.” Idleness was still seen as a legitimate enemy, but it was government that would conquer it through Keynesian economics. Individual unemployment was now viewed as bad luck, not fecklessness.
The model was based on the nuclear family, with a working husband who provided for his wife and children. Firms often had marriage bars, requiring women to give up work after their wedding. Most women who…