Social Policy: From the Victorians to the Present Day
Susannah Morris

Session 1 Social Policy: Action and Study

Intro Session 2 Session 3 Session 4 Session5

What is social policy?

video Susannah Morris defines social policy.
(2:31 min)
Social policy can be considered in two ways: as an area of action and as the academic study of that action. As an area of action, it can be defined as the collective responses to social problems. As an area of study, social policy is not a discipline as such: it draws on a great variety of other disciplines such as economics, sociology, history and political science to study the responses that societies make to their social welfare problems.

Social policy is part of all of our lives and it touches us in a variety of ways from education and family to citizenship. It is important for developing social stability in a society and it also plays an important role in the national economy. Over the twentieth century there has been a huge rise in expenditure on social welfare issues in a variety of countries. For example, in Britain in the early 1900s, about 2 percent of GDP was being spent on social welfare. By the 1990s this figure had risen to about 22 percent.

In America, the term social policy isn't generally used. Public policy is the word that is most commonly used in association with the academic study of the subject. In terms of social welfare provision there are also differences across a variety of countries. Again America has a language of its own. For instance, the word "welfare" in America refers specifically to the provision of benefits to the poor, whereas "welfare" in Europe refers to the general well-being of the populace.

Relationships with governments

video Susannah Morris discusses the providers of social welfare.
(2:07 min)
Social policy is often thought of in terms of distinct areas of service provision such as health and housing, but we can also examine it in terms of the different types of providers in what we call the "mixed economy of welfare." This is made up of four sectors.

The first sector is the government. The action of government changes over time in terms of social policy provision. Sometimes the government sees its role as being primarily important to the identification of social problems and social needs, thus enabling other providers to come in and actually make the provision to meet those needs. In other situations the government actually provides the services in question. Government may choose to regulate conditions in society, it may subsidise the provisions of others or it may choose to provide, such as with the National Health Service.

Ready Reference

Welfare State

The term welfare state refers to the role that states have played in providing welfare services and benefits for their citizens primarily in income maintenance and health care but also in housing, education and social work. From the end of the nineteenth century, the states of most industrialized countries involved themselves, with varying degree, form and effect, in such provision. In 1884 Germany introduced the first system of compulsory national insurance against sickness. In Britain a series of similar welfare reforms was enacted by the Liberal government between 1906 and 1914.

Full Entry

Reproduced with permission from The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Copyright (c) 2000 Columbia University Press. All Rights Reserved.

Secondly, there is the voluntary sector. The voluntary sector doesn't have the power to regulate and it doesn't have the funds to subsidise on as large a scale as yet, but it does provide a lot of services within a mixed economy of welfare, and government policies towards that sector have changed over time. The voluntary sector was dominant in the nineteenth century. It is the twentieth century that brought the monumental rise of the state sector especially in the post-1945 settlement with the development of the welfare state. But into the 1980s and the 1990s the voluntary sector is once again turned to as a preferred provider, partially funded by the government.

In addition to the voluntary sector and the state or government sectors is the market. Services can be provided by market organisations, often under contract to local authorities or central government. Finally, the informal sector, which is constituted of family and communities, provides a lot of assistance in helping people in times of need, ill health and age.

Governments very often turn to social policy analysts to inform what they are doing and social policy analysts often study the role and action of governments. There is a relationship between the study and the flows of information but there is also a relationship in terms of flows of personnel. For example, William Beveridge (who was the director of the LSE in the 1920s and 1930s) became a civil servant and one of the primary architects of the British welfare state.

The British problem

video Susannah Morris considers ways of defining social problems.
(3:21 min)
The development of social policy in Britain is an interesting story. If we return to our earlier definition of social policy as the collective response to social problems, we then have to ask ourselves "what are these social problems and where do they come from?" Are they some innate entity, which someone suddenly trips over and discovers? Or are they concepts, which are constructed?

In my view, social policy problems are constructed from a mixture of economic, social and political circumstances. When considering the development of social policy in Britain, scholars generally start with the nineteenth century. Although there are examples of social welfare provision prior to that, something really starts to happen then. In the wake of industrialisation and urbanisation bringing many together in cities for the first time, people become dependent on the fluctuating industrial economy and increasingly recognise that there are needs developing that individuals and voluntary organisations cannot meet.


Between 1919 and 1937, William Beveridge was the director of the London School of Economics and Political Science. His fame as an authority on social problems was gained through his inquiries and writings while in government service. He also gained experience and notoriety as director of labour exchanges, set up largely through his efforts, and in the food ministry, where he devised rationing during World War I.

However, his most lasting achievement and bequest to Britain was his report Social Insurance and Allied Services, published in 1942 for the British government. In this he proposed a social security system "from the cradle to the grave" for all British citizens. It was to form the basis of the welfare state in the United Kingdom.

In the nineteenth century the kinds of social problems that were thrown up concern issues such as public health, housing and poverty. But these issues were merged into one many-headed problem, in the way people conceptualised and advocated responses to them. What we have seen in the social policy of recent decades is an increasing specialisation as these policies have been broken down and people have tended to specialise, looking at poverty as a distinct issue, quite separately from the conditions in which people live.

During the twentieth century, we can think of social policy as being generally dominated by this increasing specialisation. Government departments were set up to deal with particular areas, such as the department of health, the department of social security and the department of education. However, during the 1990s people became increasingly aware that many problems are in fact compounded by one another and they are profoundly interrelated. People who live in poor housing conditions may be stuck in such housing conditions because they have low incomes; they may be in poverty because they don't have the right skills to gain jobs and so they are dependent upon benefits.

Increasingly, governments, particularly in Britain, have been considering how we look at these things together. During the 1990s, the term "social exclusion" was developed. This term refers to the collective problems that particular groups in society--often in distinct geographical locations--face. When the New Labour government assumed power, they specifically decided to tackle these problems in what they called a "joined-up" way. They formed the Social Exclusion Unit within the government, which tries to look across the areas of functional specialisation to examine how these problems may be interrelated and how they may be addressed. This brings us almost full circle to the Victorian conceptualisation of "the social problem," but there are important differences.

Responses to social problems

video Susannah Morris discusses the responses to social problems.
(3:09 min)
Recognising social problems is one thing, but deciding how to deal with them is quite another problem. Who is going to respond? In the mixed economy of welfare, responses can come from the government, the market, the voluntary sector, or in fact from the informal sector. There have been differences over time in terms of which sectors have actually been brought to the fore.

If we want to caricature the nineteenth century, we would say that their responses are essentially individualistic and come from the informal or the voluntary sector. This is largely because of the nature of the understanding of the problems. For example, for much of the nineteenth century, if people were poor they thought it was their own fault. It was considered an individual problem and one had to work with the individual in order to deal with it. For example, the Charity Organisation Society developed individual case studies with volunteers going around and visiting poor people in their homes, talking to them about their lifestyles and getting them to change their behaviour and become more engaged in the economy and society.

Social Welfare Glossary

Charity Organisation Society Founded in 1869 to repress begging and co-ordinate charitable activity in London.

Poor Law Historical legislation covering government relief of the poor and destitute, financed by local property taxes.

Board of Guardians Bodies responsible for administering and managing poor law locally. Particularly active in the nineteenth century.

Social Exclusion Unit Unit set up in 1997 by Tony Blair to address social problems in a "joined up " manner.

That response is not appropriate if you think of poverty as a structural problem caused by macroeconomic forces affecting the whole economy. One major factor that has been identified in causing structural poverty was the skills mismatch. As this rapidly industrialising nation and economy changes, the skills required from the population changes and some people inevitably get left behind. Within that context, the localised and small-scale individual and voluntary sector response is inadequate, particularly if you also note that one of the problems is related to money. The voluntary sector is dependent on the whims of contributors and this certainly was the case in the nineteenth century.

Government has access to far more revenue through taxation. If you are considering a response that requires a great deal of expenditure, then the state appears to be the solution. For much of the twentieth century, the state has responded directly to social problems by building houses, hospitals, schools and providing services within them. Yet the state doesn't necessarily have to run those services once they have been established. They could in fact be run by voluntary organisations or indeed by private companies.

Something we have seen during the latter decades of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, is a turning back towards the voluntary sector and indeed the market sector as possible providers of welfare services that are often funded by the government. So, the government has stepped back from its role as provider and instead is concentrating on its position as a regulator of issues and a subsidiser of provisions by others.

The East End case study

video Susannah Morris introduces the East End case study.
(4:16 min)
In this seminar we are going to focus on a particular geographical area, the East End of London. This is a very interesting area from a social policy point of view in two ways. It is interesting in terms of its role in the development of social policy as an area of study and in terms of what it shows of different phases of action within the social policy arena.

In terms of social policy as an area of study, the East End is where Charles Booth started out with his study of life and labour in London and his examination of poverty. That study was important for the development of social policy as an empirical discipline where it goes out and actually looks at the nature of the social problem and tries to understand and perhaps advocate different solutions.

Beatrice Webb, one of the founders of the LSE, participated in research into the social circumstances of the East End and contributed to the Charles Booth studies. She was also involved with housing provision in the East End and was employed as a rent collector in some East End Dwellings Company buildings that will be discussed in more detail in session three.

Within the East End, multiple social problems developed. The area of Spitalfields, a small area of streets bordering the City of London, is particularly interesting as a case study because it has been an area where new migrants to London have tended to move because of the availability of employment and certain types of cheap housing.

Large numbers of people move into the area and this creates a number of problems. It creates environmental problems. These people virtually live on top of one another, density massively increases in the nineteenth century and disease spreads amongst them. This, in turn, is important for the development of public health. But it also creates social problems: people are very concerned about the lifestyles of those who are living in what is called "slum housing" in these areas. Are they conforming to the norms of society, being law-abiding citizens who are prepared to go out and work and provide for their families or are they essentially becoming criminalized classes and turning to lives of crime or begging rather than engaging within the labour market?


enlargeLight and Air for a Cellar Dwelling

The living conditions of the poor in the East End of London captured the Victorian imagination. Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, journalists and illustrators would venture into this part of London, and report back on the state of living.This particular illustration from a popular London magazine depicts one of the many cellar dwellings where poor slum-dwellers might find themselves living.


enlargeA Beggar in Spitalfields

Beggars were to be found in abundance in the East End during the late nineteenth century. The Charity Organisation Society and the Poor Law took a harsh view of begging. They felt that the multitude of charitable sources encouraged beggars to go from charity to charity and parish to parish, and so they advocated the investigation and full assessment of individual supplicants before any assistance was provided.

enlarge Dwellings of the Poor in Bethnal Green

A number of articles were published about the dwelling conditions of the poor in the East End, of which Bethnal Green was a part. This article was published in the Illustrated London News in 1863: "It is true that several of the main thoroughfares, though dirty and ruinous enough, do not indicate externally the teeming and filthy rooms, which can only be appreciated by a closer inspection."
All of these concerns have been expressed about the East End and Spitalfields in particular, by centuries of voluntary organisations, visitors and governments researching and attempting to improve the lives of inhabitants. In the mid-nineteenth century we see examples of voluntary organisations moving in to work with the local people. Towards the end of the nineteenth century we see the settlement movement in Toynbee Hall with members of the so-called educated middle classes moving in and trying to influence the lifestyles of the poor in the area. We also see housing organisations attempting to directly provide improved physical surroundings for the residents of the East End, along with improved social and moral environments for the working classes. Such organisations move in and begin to set regulations for people who live within their dwellings.

The nineteenth century saw a variety of responses to the problems of the poor and the urban environment in the East End, but this does not mean that they were solved. Social policy and social problems are not static. They are constructed by a variety of circumstances, and as the case study of the East End clearly reveals, still exist today.

Session 2