From the Victorians to the Present Day
It is widely suggested that something happened during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which fundamentally changed the way in which people both analysed and responded to social problems. Industrialisation and its correlate urbanisation were associated with a realignment of relations between the individual, the household, the community, the market and the state. Those who migrated from the country to the towns in search of employment left behind their previous social and economic linkages with kith and kin in the rural economy. The working classes found themselves in a congested and churning urban environment struggling to accommodate each new wave of economic migrants, and keep pace with rising expectations of the lifestyles and living standards which it was hoped technological change and economic growth would bring.
During the nineteenth century the Victorians puzzled over how to deal
with problems of pauperism and poverty, public health, housing, and education;
all issues which became increasingly identified as aspects of what was
referred to collectively as the 'social question'. The dominant laissez-faire
ideology suggested that unfettered market activity would ensure the welfare
of all by providing the conditions for each individual to maximise their
own individual well-being. The persistence, and even deterioration, of
the living conditions of the urban working classes in a climate of rising
wealth therefore baffled contemporaries. Either there was something wrong
with the working classes which prevented them seizing the opportunities
presented to them, or, there was something wrong with their analysis and
understanding of the operations and outcomes of a market economy. Whichever
viewpoint they adhered to, the Victorians increasingly came to recognise
that some sort of collective response was required.
The Victorian collective response
A vote for welfare
The state moved beyond the identification and regulation of social problems towards the subsidy and even direct provision of responses to them. This process of collectivisation is commonly seen to have culminated in Britain in the Beveridge Report of 1942, which following the Labour electoral victory led to the establishment of the post-1945 welfare state. If we pause to reflect, however, on the primary challenges to which this welfare state was designed to respond, we can see a remarkable continuity with many of the social problems which the Victorians had started to identify. Beveridge argued that the welfare state should slay the giant social evils of want, disease, squalor, ignorance and idleness. What was different, however, was the emphasis on the role and responsibility of the state in responding to these problems. The state legislated to provide: a comprehensive system of national insurance; a National Health Service free to all at the point of delivery; the mass provision of public housing; free education to the age of 15, subsequently raised to 16; and also took a more active role in labour market management.
Despite high hopes that the welfare state would provide for all from the 'cradle to the grave', its advent did not spell the end of either social problems or the practice and development of alternative solutions. By the 1960s and 1970s it was quite clear that, although living standards had risen, social problems remained. This was due to both the unequal distribution of the benefits of welfare provision and economic growth and to the recognition that these benefits had themselves generated other problems. In fact the activities of both the informal and voluntary sectors can be seen to have played a key role in identifying the shortcomings of both the practice and the outcomes of the welfare state.
The household continued to be a primary source of welfare provision offering education, socialisation, healthcare, and economic support for those not in work. A newly emergent feminist critique argued that the welfare state thus perpetuated and enshrined gender inequality as women were either trapped in the home or steered into low paid service provision within the state system. In fact, the post-war welfare settlement was premised on the assumption that women would remain at home, whilst the household was economically provided for by their husbands. As the social and economic context changed and women increasingly went out to work, they were no longer automatically available to provide care. In addition, as paid employees they were capable of contributing to social insurance schemes in their own right, in contrast to their position as unpaid domestic workers. As well as women, ethnic minorities were also starting to be identified as being comparatively disadvantaged by the welfare state.
In the 1970s criticism and concern about the welfare state broadened to challenge the capacity of public welfare systems to enhance even general social welfare across society, rather than just the position of particular groups. The oil price rise and resultant inflation led to a slowdown in economic growth and a rise in unemployment, whilst the proportion of revenue taken in taxation became an increasingly important issue for the market, and the state faced difficulties in funding its social welfare expenditure. Not only were shocks being felt in the social and economic environment, ideological challenges were shaking the previously dominant orthodoxy that welfare expenditure was functional and beneficial for a thriving industrial economy.
The frontiers of the state
During the 1980s and 1990s the political dominance of the Conservative Party is associated with the rhetoric of attempts to 'roll back the frontiers of the state' to free up the economy and encourage entrepreneurship, economic dynamism and therefore growth. Although total social expenditure did not really fall as a proportion of national income--and even rose during the 1980s recession--changes were made to institutional provision, modes of intervention and entitlements to benefits and services. The role of the national and local state in welfare provision was not automatically assumed to involve welfare provision, but rather the focus started to shift back towards how the state could regulate and possibly subsidise provision by others. Whilst nationalised industries were privatised, a whole range of state welfare services, particularly those delivered at the local level such as housing, community care for the elderly and others, as well as support services such as street cleaning or school meals provision were subject to contractual tender. This shift from the role of local authorities from providers to enablers has been associated with large-scale growth in the voluntary sector as organisations increasingly provide services under contract to the public sector. Where state provision remains, increased monitoring and performance targets have sought to raise standards and hence effectiveness. With the advent of the New Labour Government many of these trends have continued and partnerships with both the voluntary and the private sectors are being sought in an increasing range of welfare services.
The Victorians and the Blairites
As well as demonstrating continuities with the past in terms of the methods of policy intervention, we may also note the familiarity of the social issues of education, child poverty, pensioner poverty and healthcare which again dominate the policy agenda. The repeated recurrence of these issues, however, does not signify that social policy has failed. Whilst living standards have risen, so too have the electorates expectations of public service, in the case of health partly due to technological advances making an ever increasing range of healthcare services possible. The perceived social needs of society have also risen due to demographic change in that the fall in the birth rate and the rise in mortality--itself arguably a social policy triumph--have increased the numbers of people who are economically inactive and dependent on welfare benefits and services. In addition, social policy has also become more localised in its focus. During the 1990s concern grew about the multiple deprivation of the so- called 'socially excluded' who it was argued were concentrated in low quality public housing in areas with low educational attainment, low health status and high unemployment. The New Labour Government has responded to this issue by arguing that government should become more 'joined-up' and has established the 'social exclusion unit' which crosscuts the more traditional functionally specialised government departments.
The search for a policy framework within which to reconcile market economies
and social welfare objectives thus continues. Whilst the main ideological
and administrative social policy arguments of the past three decades have
raged about whether and how it was possible to combine an active programme
of state welfare expenditure with economic growth, a new branch of social
policy started to challenge whether this apparent elixir was even desirable.
From a Green perspective the environmental costs associated with the pursuit
of economic growth and the debasement of local and community economies
and welfare arrangements, were all associated with the existing arrangements.
In addition, in a global context some analysts argued that the growth
of the more economically developed Northern nations was partially premised
upon the exploitation of workers in the less developed South. Whilst these
developing economies struggled to gain access on more preferential terms
of trade within the global market place, nations with more developed welfare
systems sought to restrict their access, regarding it as unfair competition
as their production costs were kept low with the absence of social overheads.
Thus debates about poverty and unequal distribution of resources and life
chances take place on an increasingly international level. As economic
relationships become more globalised in their nature, questions are being
asked about the capacity of nation states to respond to social problems
in a national scale. Thus we might ask how and whether in the future social
problems and responses to them will be shaped on an increasingly global