Assessment of UK Policy Approaches to Poverty Reduction

Compare, contrast and critically assess two differing approaches to the relief of poverty.

Poverty is a social problem and how best to deal with it has been the object of study and research since the nineteenth century. Townsend (1979) has defined poverty thus:

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“Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack the resources to obtain the types of diets, participate in the activities and have the living conditions which are customary, or at least widely encouraged and approved, in the societies to which they belong.” Townsend (1979:31).

This paper will look at two approaches to the relief of poverty. The Beveridge approach of full employment and social ensurance, and the welfare to work approach of the New Right and New Labour. There will be a comparison of the differences between these two approaches in terms of their underlying ideologies. The strengths and weaknesses of both approaches will then be examined in the light of a feminist critique.

Beveridge and the Welfare State

In 1906 what is known as social protection, a range of state benefits aimed at relieving poverty in the general population, began with various Acts, the most important being the introduction of pensions. The Welfare State as we know of it today became fully established between 1946 and 1948 following the 1942 publication of the Beveridge report. This said that there were five giants which were the underlying causes of poverty, these were disease, ignorance, squalor, idleness and want. The report suggested a system which was aimed at relieving poverty through the introduction of a number of measures including National Assurance. This was a system of benefits that were based on everyone paying some money out of what they earned to the Government. This was National Insurance, those who did not pay this were entitled to the safety net of National Assistance. This was to be made available to all people at times of greatest need. It was never envisaged that people would be reliant on it for a good part of their adult life. National Assistance eventually became known as social security (Moore et al, 2002). At the same time the Government also introduced the National Health Service. In addition to this it extended the state education system in 1944 to include secondary education, raising the school leaving age to fifteen. The policies that resulted from the Beveridge Report tried to ensure that people would be looked after from the cradle to the grave. Post-War welfare reform was basically a war on poverty and was based on a vision of full employment and a social contract between the Government and the members of society each of whom had equal responsibility for their welfare.The system grew out of the thinking of the economist John Milton Keynes. It became known as universal welfare provision where the state was involved in people’s lives at all levels (Giddens, 2001). The post-war government also introduced a system of benefits for couples with children in the Family Allowances Act of 1945, this later (1975) became known as Child Benefit which replaced family allowance and tax benefits for families with children. It was payable to all families for each child.

The National Health Service grew out of the publishing of a National Health Services Bill by Anuerin Bevan in 1946. Healthcare and hospitalisation were envisioned as being free at the point of access but by the 1950s the Government were forced to introduce some charges for dentistry, spectacles and prescriptions to ease the growing tax burden (Marsh et al, 2000).. The Post War welfare state was based on theories of full employment. It had not envisioned massive unemployment and the resultant reduction in tax revenue. Butler (1993).notes that there have been differing views on government’s role in welfare provision and it is only in recent years that there has been a consensus on this. It is not however, a consensus that benefits the vast majority of the population.

The New Right and New Labour

In 1979 the Conservative Government headed by Margaret Thatcher came to power. Government debastes centered around a free market economy versus the welfare state. The new government introduced measures that would roll back the welfare state and control spending. They did this by introducing marketing concepts and business strategies into policy making. They also began an intense process of privatization because it was thought that public ownership of companies, and the public sector in general undermined market forces. Introducing marketing principles into social care allow Governments to (hypothetically at least) improve services. It also enables a government to retain a greater degree of control. Giddens (2001) says that:

…the momentum of Thatcherism in economic matters was maintained by the privatising of public companies…..(this) held to reintroduce healthy economic competition in place of unwieldy and ineffective public bureaucracies, reduce public expenditure and end political interference in managerial decisions (Giddens, 2001:434).

The introduction of market forces into social care was considered the best way of allocating resources because free markets were considered to be self organising (Olssen 2000).It was anticipated that this would increase productivity and improve care while at the same time being cost efficient. Government discourses, both Conservative and New Labour have revolved around the notion that the introduction of market mechanisms would result in a more equitable system. Alcock (1994) has argued that the Conservative policies which rolled back the welfare state and introduced changes into social care and the benefits system resulted in greater unemployment, a rise in the number of homeless people, and a general growth in social inequality.

In 1997 the Conservative Government was voted out and New Labour came into power, with its New Deal promising a hand up not a hand out. It was believed that the introduction of market forces would improve the economy. In reality it has had the effect of excluding some people from mainstream society and led to the setting up by the present Government of the Social Exclusion Unit in 1997. This Unit is an example of the contradictions engaged in by policy makers in a free market economy. On the one hand the general philosophical approach of both this Government and its predecessor has been on the responsibility of the individual. This is nowhere better expressed than in Labour’s New Deal Documentation.

The present Government with its talk of a third way have continued to build on the policies introduced by the Conservatives and it is here that theorists maintain there is a new consensus. Means testing has not only continued but increased and this is nowhere more evident than in the Government’s policy on employment. Job seekers allowance is dependent on a person actively seeking work and Job Centres now have the powers to stop a person’s benefits if they are not seen to be pro-active in finding a job. Under New Labour many of the welfare reforms introduced by the Conservatives have been continued yet the Prime Minister maintains that his party differs from the old way of universal provision and from the New Right policies of the Conservatives. New Labour, he maintains, offers a third way. This draws on ideas from a number of areas and stresses the importance of business success in providing wealth for society and reducing unemployment. This view also promises freedom from discrimination based on gender, race, age and disability. Critics maintain that this view is little more than conservativism with some bolt ons.

Universal Provision or the New Right?

Welfare provision arises from society’s concerns for social justice and the redistribution of wealth (Sears, 2001)The post-war welfare state claimed to be based upon the idea of universal provision. That is to say that everyone in a certain category would receive a given benefit rather than having to prove their entitlement by means testing. In reality even in the early days of the welfare state few provisions were truly universal because most of them were means tested (Moore et al, 2002). Post-War welfare provision was largely a result of the activities of the social democrats. In this approach the Government in power should ensure that every citizen has the right to be free of poverty and healthcare should be provided on the basis of need rather than the ability to pay. Poverty stems from the idea that modern society produces people who are victims, the unemployed, the disabled, and those who suffer from long term illness. The duty of the state is to look after such people (Giddens, 2001). Many commentators however are of the opinion that the welfare state failed to deliver its promises. Alcock (1994) has argued that while the post-war welfare state may not have been successful it had attempted to bring about equality in society. He maintains that the Conservative Government that was in power from 1979-1997 arguably actively pursued policies that created greater inequalities.

Conservative and New Right thinking (and in this one should include New Labour) do not subscribe to the victims approach but believe that each individual is largely responsible for their own welfare. This approach is not really new, it dates back to the Elizabethan Poor Laws and most particularly to the reforms of that law in the 1830s. it argues that state services are not efficient and that welfare should be provided through the market, the family and charity, this encouraged self-reliance. New Right policies, it is argued, hit the poorest in society.

Under the Conservatives the wages of those at the lower end of the labour market fell to an extent where some people were earning less than they would have receive on benefits. As a result of this the Government introduced benefits such as the Family Credit system to subsidise wages (Deakin, 1994). These kinds of policies harked back to the Poor Law where the poor were required to work for the poor relief that they received, such policies also make a distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, whereas the welfare state in many ways appeared more equitable. However, some theorists maintain that this type of provision was only possible because it was based on the subordination of one set of people to another.

Feminist Approaches

Feminists argue that we live in a society that for centuries has worked for the benefit of men and that the cost has been borne by women. Thus social policy is based on an existing set of social inequalties (Abbott and Wallace, 1997). Oakley (1982) has long maintained that the welfare state and its legislation operates for the benefit of the wider economy and for the worker. As a result of the nineteenth century distinction between the public and private spheres, and women’s banishment from the workplace, those who benefit from this legislation are men. The whole system is based on traditional notions of the family where the man is the breadwinner and his wife and children are dependants. This concept if the family and the fact that both males and females are socialized into different gender roles means that women have been disadvantaged in the education system, in the workplace, and in the wider society. Feminists have lobbied for equal pay for equal work and against sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. While feminists will allow that the welfare state has played some role in advancing women’s independence e.g. the provision of benefits to women who leave violent partners, and legislation on pay, it also tends to reinforce traditional gender roles. (Moore et al, 2002).


This assignment has looked at different types of welfare provision and then compared their ideological underpinnings. It has also given a feminist critique of welfare in general. It would seem that there is no easy answer for policy makers, and perhaps nothing short of a total redistribution of wealth in society would alleviate the increasing spread of poverty in the world.


Abbott, P and Wallace, C (1997) An Introduction to Sociology, Feminist Perspectives Routledge, London.

Alcock, P. 1994 “Back to the Future: Victorian Values for the 21st Century” in Murray, C. 1994 Underclass: The Crisis Deepens London, IEA

Beveridge, William (1944). Full Employment in a Free Society. London: Allen and Unwin

Butler, A. 1993 “The end of post war consensus” Political Quarterly Vol 64 No. 4 pp 435-446

Deakin, N. 1994 The Politics of Welfare Hemel Hempstead, Harvester Wheatsheaf

Giddens, A. 2001 4th ed. Sociology Cambridge, Polity Press

Marsh, Keating and Eyre et al 2000 2nd ed. Sociology: Making Sense of Society Essex, Pearson Education

Moore, S. Scourfield, P. Sinclair, S. Burch, S. and Wendon, B. 3rd ed. 2002 Social Welfare Alive Cheltenham, Nelson Thornes.

Oakley, A (1982) Subject Woman, Fontana, London

Olssen, M. 2000 “Ethical liberalism, education and the New Right” Journal of Educational Policy Vol 15No. 5 2000 pps 481-508

Sears, M 2001 “Welfare with or without the state: British Pluralists, American Progressives, and the Conditions of Social Justice” The European Legacy Vol 6 No. 2 pp. 201-213 2001

Townsend, P. 1979. Poverty in the United Kingdom. Harmondsworth, Penguin.

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