‘Scroungers’, ‘Welfare Dependency’, and Poverty

Consider, if you will, some of these objections to welfare:


“There is a growing class who will accept benefits readily.”

“Welfare dependency weakens familial responsibility”

“Dependency on welfare fosters improvidence”

“Some…view welfare as a form of insurance: a ‘benefit society’”

“Poverty appears hereditary”

“Benefit dependency is no longer viewed as a stigma”


The ‘debt crisis’ and the austerity cuts introduced by the government have been used to justify a deluge of cuts to the benefit system.  This has been accompanied by a discourse labelling those on benefits as morally reprehensible and socially irresponsible. Several examples, most notably the Philpott Case, have been used by some in the media (and in government) as illustrations of what is wrong with the current benefits system. These examples have been used to forward a position that welfare dependency is a financial and moral catastrophe, which requires extensive invasive surgery to correct.

Related to this are objections about who gets what, and why:

“We were struck by the large amounts of earnings coming in to some of the families to which benefits were granted. For instance, a single woman with three dependent children received benefits on top of £160* of earnings in a week”. 

Another objection, in a similar vein, is that the “taxpayer is now supporting the idle”, and that there are increasing numbers accepting public assistance which “weakens family responsibility [and] pride”. Effectively, assistance from relatives should be sought before any appeal to welfare.

I will admit that I have been slightly disingenuous with the examples that I have used. I have switched the terms ‘benefits’ and ‘welfare’ for the original terms ‘poor relief’ and ‘out relief’. The examples I have used all come from Edwardian Scottish society; predominantly from discussions regarding the operation and management of poor relief.  In effect, current ‘debates’ are nothing new and the same discourses regarding welfare are trotted out with alarming regularity. Despite the objections raised a Royal Commission investigating the operation of poor relief in Scotland in 1909 found that “the statistics of pauperism since 1869 furnish in themselves convincing proof that the Scottish outdoor relief system has not led to any widespread demoralisation of the people”. In effect, the availability of relief had not led to an explosion in dependency on that relief. Knowledge about what support could be received had not led the Scottish working classes to down tools, strip off their moral fibre and live at the expense of the middle-class taxpayer and church-goer.

Thus, one must assume that the objections voiced said more about bourgeois attitudes to the working man, than about the reality of poverty and despair which faced many Edwardian Scottish families.

Speaking of assumptions, we should be careful not to assume that the loudest voices are necessarily representative. Indeed, looking at the poor relief system in Scotland prior to 1921, it becomes evident that a fair amount of empathy existed within the system. Despite it being part of statute that able-bodied men could not receive relief there are numerous examples of parishes ignoring this ruling and giving temporary relief to families facing absolute poverty (even if it meant indoor relief). One senior medical officer remarked that “if you examine a man long enough, you will find some trifle that you can get hold of”. In our cynical society that would be viewed as participating in fraud, but in pre-war Scotland this was an act of kindness, of charity, for without relief that man, and his family, may well have faced starvation. The committee who sat in judgement of the system did not see this as fraud either, and pointed to the fact that several years previous the poor law authorities had advised their staff that they “should not carry the letter of the law to an extreme”.

Contrast this with the intense micro-management of the current welfare system that has resulted in much of the focus being on the administration (financial and bureaucratic) of the system rather than what is was set up to do in the first place. This has intensified to such a level in the past 30 years that any appeal regarding the latter is likely to fail.  In a recent article Polly Toynbee, one of the fiercest and most articulate critics of Government attacks on the benefit system, claimed that , ‘You need to go back to Edwardian times to find ministers and commentators so viciously dismissing all on low incomes as cheats, idlers and drunks’.  As historians have long argued, the Whig view of history where things keep getting better all the time, is deeply flawed.  Over a century ago, there were certainly negative and stigmatising discourses  relating to poverty but  they were tempered  by a recognition amongst the authorities that the poor did not create poverty and that there was room for discretion and even compassion.  The latter is a word that is sadly absent from the current government’s lexicon and practices.

*adjusted to 2005 values