“The fundamental assumptions on which the Beveridge social security system was based have subsequently become increasingly invalid, and the ability of the system to provide support from “cradle to grave” increasingly challenged” (Rowlingson, 2003). Discuss.

The shared experience of World War Two was the ultimate seed bed for a post war welfare reform in Britain. It was after the devastating affects of the war that there was a new sense of equality and purpose in society which prompted the government to concentrate on ‘individual liberty’ and collective welfare rights (Hill, 2000). The framework for a new, postwar welfare state was contained in the report entitled “Social Insurance and Allied Services” conducted by Sir William Beveridge in 1942 (Blakemore, 2003). This report was based on social surveys covering topics such as low birth rates, unemployment and retirement which were carried out during the wars.

Beveridge (1940) stated “Now, when the war is abolishing landmarks of every kind, is the opportunity for using experience in a clear field. A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.” This report therefore offered an excellent blueprint for the relief of poverty in Britain and a promising future for the people of the interwar period when unemployment levels were high and public morale was low. Over time however the “Beveridge Report” has become increasingly challenged in that it is not appropriate or well suited for a period of rising affluence, family diversity and complexity which is the state which Britain is in today (Lowe, 1995). The issues concerning the challenges to the Beveridge Report over the past sixty years shall be discussed in detail through out this assignment.

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The Beveridge Report aimed to provide a comprehensive system of social insurance ‘from cradle to grave’, requiring individuals to pay into an insurance based system whilst working which would, in return, enable them to claim monetary aid during short term periods of need such as unemployment and sickness. The report was revolutionary in that it suggested universal coverage of the whole population and the provision of a wide range of benefits without having to submit to a means test (Blakemore, 2003). The six fundamental principles embodied in his scheme were adequacy of benefit, flat rate of benefit, flat rate of contribution, unification of administrative responsibility, comprehensiveness and classification.

Beveridge designed his report around countering the “five giants” of illness, ignorance, disease, squalor and want and asserted that through the introduction of a national health service as well as family allowances and full employment policies, poverty would become an issue of the past. The report placed great emphasis on the establishment of a national health service and employment policies as according to Beveridge, without them, family allowances, pensions and unemployment insurance would not work (Blakemore, 2003). Beveridge hoped that, through the implementation of this report, the welfare state would offer social protection to everyone as a right and would thus ensure an acceptable minimum standard of living in Britain below which nobody fell.

The implementation by the government of the Beveridge Report brought about radical change to society as new legislation on family allowances had been enacted as well as the National Insurance Act (1946) which provided benefits for those who were retired, widowed or new mothers (Alcock, 2004). A National Health Service had also been established in 1948 which offered free medical treatment for all. The measures taken by the state were a huge step forward in that many families and children were lifted out of absolute poverty, freed from disease and were guaranteed minimum standards of health care and living.

In contrast to this, however, the Beveridge Report had major disadvantages. The first was that the report was based on flat rate contributions. These required individuals to contribute the same amount of National Insurance, set to what the lowest earners could afford, from which everyone would benefit equally (Blakemore, 2003). This posed a problem in that the scheme could gather in only modest sums and thus pay out inadequate benefits if the proposals were carried out exactly as Beveridge had recommended. The minimum ‘standard of living’ calculated by Beveridge was also criticized for boring no relationship to the cost of living as it was based on studies carried out by Seebhom Rowntree and others in the 1930’s which was when the minimum standard of living had been eroded due to wartime inflation (Balkemore, 2003). It was argued therefore that benefits were only enough to cover the costs of physical existence but not enough for basic standards of living.

Social groups such as the elderly and disabled suffered most and thus remained in poverty because of the low levels of benefits, suggesting a fault in Beveridge’s notion of countering poverty and the five giants. The concept of ‘universalism’ was also blamed for the failure to address those specific groups most in need as it resulted in benefits becoming too widely distributed. Another challenge to Beveridge’s Report in relation to the ongoing existence of poverty was the study by Townsend (1979) who estimated that up to nine per cent of the population at the end of the 1960’s was in poverty and up to twenty eight per cent of the population could be described as in or on the margins of poverty (Alcock, 2004). This study, amongst others by Abel-Smith therefore indicated a failure in Beveridge’s plan to provide everyone with a decent standard of living.

Employment, however, was the only principle of the Beveridge Report that remained consistent for the thirty years following World War Two as both Britain’s economy and level of employment steadily flourished (Hill, 2000). According to Alcock (2004), the “Keynesian” policies of demand management appeared to succeed but only until the 1970’s, however. The validity of the Beveridge Report therefore became increasingly challenged at this time as unemployment began to rise rapidly and permanently. Beveridge emphasized that without full employment, benefits such as pensions and family allowances, which were already failing to support those who claimed them, would not work (Blakemore, 2003).

As more and more people became permanently unemployed in the 1970’s, more and more people were becoming dependant on benefits from the state. By the mid 1990’s when unemployment was at its highest, the system virtually ceased to apply as only eight per cent of unemployed males were receiving National Insurance. The Beveridge Report therefore was reaching crisis point as social groups such as the permanently unemployed and pensioners had no choice but to apply for means tested benefits, to enable them to sustain a decent standard of living. The fact that means tested benefits became central to society in the 1990’s rather than marginal, contradicted Beveridge’s original notion that these benefits should only be used as a mere safety net to cover a very small and decreasing number of people (Lowe, 1995).

It became more apparent that Beveridge failed to acknowledge the long term future and the possible challenges that the implementation of his report may bring to forthcoming generations. From the 1970’s onwards, not only did employment levels change but family structures and the ‘role of women’ did too. These changes did not coincide with Beveridge’s Report as he made two basic assumptions that a ‘family’ would consist of a husband, who would be the breadwinner, the wife, who would be a housewife and dependants or children for whom she cared for (Blakemore, 2003).

With the emergence of the feminist movement in the 1970’s, the perception of a ‘woman’s place being the home’ became less apparent. Feminists groups challenged the Beveridge Report greatly; claiming that women were disadvantaged compared to men as they had no participation in the labour market and were not equally represented or rewarded by schemes such as National Insurance as men were (Alcock, 2004).

Onwards from the 1970’s, therefore saw an upsurge of female employment and school girls going on to further and higher education rather than leaving school for marriage and children (Fulcher and Scott, 2003). This caused great problems to the distribution of benefits as Beveridge proposed that only married women would qualify for a wide range of benefits ‘by virtue of their husbands’ contribution (Lowe, 1995). The Labour government of 1997 had recognized the irrelevance of this requirement as it introduced the ‘minimum wage’ in 1999 as well as various other schemes which promote gender equality in the work place.

Statistics, produced by the government, illustrate the decline of the ‘traditional’ family household consisting of husband, wife and children. It has been particularly evident since the 1970’s due to the changing law in relation to divorce and our increasing secularized society (Fulcher and Scott, 2003). Today, there are more single parents, cohabiting couples and divorce proceedings taking place than ever before. Government statistics show that marriage in women had fallen to fifty two per cent in 2000 from sixty five per cent in 1971 (Home Office, 2000). In Northern Ireland, the number of divorces had risen from four hundred and fifty in 1971 to two thousand three hundred and fifty in 2000 (Northern Ireland Office, 2000). Although some ninety eight per cent of children were raised by both their parents in the 1940’s and marriage was seen as ‘the norm’, Beveridge failed to recognize any possible changes to the structure of the family.

The governments since the 1940’s has tried to adopt to the ongoing changes in society as well as improving the problems associated with the distribution of benefits but nothing radical however has been done. The Conservative government under Thatcher believed in “rolling back the state” which encouraged individuals to work and families to invest in private schemes such as healthcare rather than relying on the ‘nanny’ state (Lowe, 1995). Although employment levels of this time had slightly risen, major changes were still needed to the provisions of the welfare state as many social groups did not receive sufficient monetary aid through benefits.

Pensioners suffered greatly as the Conservatives arranged the gradual abolition of the State Earnings Related Pensions Scheme and sought instead to encourage private pension provision. Beveridge’s notion of protecting everyone from ‘cradle to grave’ was therefore becoming increasingly invalid. The one success to date of this notion however was the universal benefit of Family Allowances, (now called Child Benefit) as it is paid to the mother, who may have no other income and avoids stigma as almost ninety nine per cent of mothers claim it.

On the whole, one success from the Beveridge Report is not enough and illustrates that the assumptions upon which it is based are no longer relevant in today’s society. The world today is more complicated as one has greater expectations, challenges and problems. It is clearly evident that the ‘five giants’ that Beveridge wished to counter through the introduction of a new welfare state, still blights the lives of many.

His notion of relieving poverty through the distribution of benefits may have succeeded as a ‘short term fix’ in the 1940’s and 50’s but has failed radically in twenty first century Britain. Poverty has become such an increasing problem, especially amongst children and the elderly that Tony Blair has introduced schemes such as the New Deals, Sure Start and Job Centre Plus in the hope of eradicating child poverty by 2020. As there are more cohabiting couples and single parents and fewer marriages than ever before, it is therefore safe to conclude that the assumptions upon which the Beveridge Report was based are no longer appropriate to Britain today.

In conclusion, Beveridge’s Report may offered an excellent blueprint for the relief of poverty in the interwar period but as we are still battling against the five giants today and poverty has become such an imminent problem, a radical and new ‘social contract’ is needed. This must suit the needs not only for today’s generation but also for tomorrows.


Alcock, C., Payne, S. et al. (eds) (2004) “Introducing Social Policy”, (2nd ed), Harlow: Pearson Educational.

Blakemore, K. (2003) “Social Policy: an introduction”, (2nd ed), Buckingham: Open University Press.

Fulcher, J. and Scott, J. (2003) “Sociology”. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hill, M. (2000) “Understanding Social Policy”, (7th ed), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lowe, R. (1995) “The Welfare State in Britain since 1945”, Basingstoke: Macmillan.

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