Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree

From Academic Kids

Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree [1871 - 1954] was a British social reformer and industrialist.

Seebohm Rowntree -trends in poverty

Rowntree's original method of defining or measuring poverty comes closest to the use of an absolute and material or subsistence definition in Britain.

Rowntree conducted a study of poor families in York in 1899 and drew a poverty line in terms of a minimum weekly sum of money ‘necessary to enable families … to secure the necessaries of a healthy life’ (quoted in Coates and Silburn, 1970). The money needed for this subsistence level of existence covered fuel, and light, rent, food, clothing, household and personal items, and was adjusted according to family size. According to this measure, 33 per cent of the survey population lived in poverty.

Rowntree conducted two further studies of poverty in York, in 1936 and 1950, based largely on a similar methodology (Research). However, in the later studies he included allowances for some items which were not strictly necessary for survival. These included newspapers, books, radios, beer, tobacco, holidays and presents. Despite the inclusion of the extra items, he found that the percentage of his sample population in poverty had dropped to 18 per cent in 1936 and 1.5 per cent in 1950. He also found that the causes of poverty had changed considerably over half a century. For example , inadequate wages, a major factor in 1899 and 1936, were relatively insignificant by 1950.

By the 1950s it appeared that poverty was a minor problem. ‘Pockets’ remained (for example, among the elderly), but it was believed that increased welfare benefits would soon eradicate this lingering poverty. The conquest of poverty was put down to an expanding economy (the 1950s were the years of the affluent society’), to government policies of full employment and to the success of the welfare state. It was widely believed that the operation of the welfare state had redistributed wealth from rich to poor and significantly raised working- class living standards. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s researchers became increasingly dubious about the ‘conquest of poverty’. Rowntree’s concept of subsistence poverty, and the indicators he used to measure poverty, was strongly criticised. His measurement of adequate nutrition is a case in point. With the help of experts, Rowntree drew up a diet sheet that would provide the minimum adequate nutritional monies required for food. It was very unlikely, however, that this minimum budget would meet the needs of the poor. As Martin Rein argues, it was based on: an unrealistic assumption of a no wasted budget, and extensive knowledge in marketing and cooking. An economical budget must be based on knowledge and skill which is least likely to be present in the low- income groups we are concerned with. (Rein, 1970)

Rowntree’s estimates further ignored the fact that most of their income on food than his budget allowed. Nor did he allow for the fact that choice of food is based on the conventions of a person’s social class and region, not upon a diet sheet drawn up by experts. Thus Peter Townsend argues that ‘in relation to the budgets and customs of life of ordinary people, the make-up of the subsistence budge was unbalanced.

For more information on Rowntree check out Haralambos and Holborn.


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