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Workhouse to welfare - child poverty and help for the poor

Child poverty and help for the poor

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Just before the first London Olympics, in 1906, 2% of people in England and Wales were receiving help via the Poor Laws – 2% of children, 1% of adults aged 16-60, and 15% of older people.

This help could take various forms, for example an allowance, medical help, or basic food and accommodation provided in an institution such as a workhouse. People receiving poor relief were called paupers.

The assistance provided under the Poor Laws varied from area to area. As the 1909 Royal Commission on the Poor Laws reported:
“In one part of the country a widow with one child would get no relief whatever unless she came into the workhouse; in another part of the country she would, indeed, get out-relief, but nothing for herself and only 6d and two loaves per week for her child; in a third district she would get as much as 5s for herself and 4s for her child; and in a fourth district, she would get relief only if she consented to part with her child and send it to a Poor Law school.”

Local economic conditions made a difference to the number of people needing help. Some areas that have high levels of relative poverty today – such as London – also had higher proportions of children being helped under the Poor Laws in 1906. Other areas have seen economic changes. Relative poverty is high today in certain parts of the north of England that were prosperous in the early part of the 20th century, due to industries such as textiles or ship building being hit hard by the depression of the 1920s and 1930s. Other areas which had high levels of pauperism in 1906 have less relative poverty now, for example, Dorset.

Today the welfare state helps people in many ways. Surveys suggest that three out of every five families in the UK receive some kind of benefit or tax credit. The rules for these are generally consistent from area to area. The most common benefits received are child benefit and the state retirement pension.

Percentage of children who were paupers in England and Wales in 1906 and UK 2009

Olympic Britain


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