old map of Whitechapel

Why does 21st century Britain need a campaign on poverty?

By Matilda Macduff 5 September 2012

Disease, want, ignorance, squalor and idleness: society’s five major evils, according to William Beveridge in 1942. The Welfare State was conceived to eliminate all of these, providing universal  healthcare and education, decent affordable housing, and crucially offering a safety net to ensure no-one fell below the breadline. Poverty would become a thing of the past; the choice between heating and eating a distant memory.

The Welfare State would take the place of the culture of philanthropy which had grown up in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The familiarity of names such as Rowntree, Booth, or Carnegie are testament to the high profile of these Victorian do-gooders, and their efforts were repeated on a smaller scale across the country as wealthy individuals took it upon themselves to provide schools, soup kitchens, hospitals and libraries. But the Welfare State was supposed to eliminate the need for charities to feed, house and clothe people, ensuring everyone had access to the basics for a good life.

So why, seventy years later, has Save the Children launched a campaign to tackle poverty in the UK? What’s happened to allow 1.6 million children to grow up in poverty—surely this is exactly what the Welfare State should prevent?

Poverty in the UK is something that many people don’t believe exists. When NPC was first set up, we decided to focus our resources on UK causes. We researched older people living in isolation and poverty, homelessness, financial exclusion, refugees and asylum seekers, prisoners and ex-offenders, domestic violence, divided communities. Many of the people we worked with were surprised not just at the extent of the problems on their doorstep, but the huge network of charities beavering away under the radar to keep many of these problems from becoming crises.

Last night’s Newsnight shone a light on the hidden role charities are playing to keep many communities going. In a report on the increasing number of people in the UK relying on charities for basic food, the programme told how The Trussell Trust is opening two new foodbanks every week to meet the demand for basic food supplies. Charities are catering to the fundamental needs of huge swathes of the working population who earn too little to feed themselves. The Trussell Trust alone has fed almost 130,000 people in the last year.

So what does this mean for the voluntary sector? Nobody advocates a return to a reliance on Victorian-style philanthropy, but it’s clear that charities are playing a more vital role than ever. For many people, it is charities that are providing the safety net, catching families before they hit crisis point. As the cost of living continues to rise, and wages do not, and as the state withdraws funding from many community services, charities are plugging the gap.

Rowntree and Booth campaigned tirelessly to highlight the extent of poverty in the nineteenth century, which eventually compelled the government to act, and set the wheels in motion for the development of the Welfare State. Over a century later, Save the Children face a similar task: reminding the British public and the government that the problem of poverty hasn’t gone away.