Seebohm Rowntree on NPR’s Marketplace

December 23, 2010 § 2 Comments

On Tuesday, December 21, American Public Media’s daily financial news radio magazine Marketplace featured a piece on Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree (1871-1954), a member of one of Britain’s three great chocolatier families. I feature this extraordinary man quite prominently in my book on Quakers and Capitalism and was tremendously excited to hear him profiled on this program. I highly recommend listening to it and/or reading the transcript of the story. Here is the link.

Rowntree exemplifies and was a major force behind momentous changes in both Quaker culture and in social, political and economic policy, especially in the UK. His book, published in 1901, Poverty: A Study of Town Life, literally changed the world, a little bit. And yet, as with John Bellers, whom I’ve mentioned in an earlier post about our economic history amnesia, Seebohm Rowntree is virtually unknown to Friends, at least here in the US. Poverty is available from Google Books for free as a download here.

Poverty launched Rowntree on an exceedingly prolific writing career; Amazon lists 26 books. (Here’s a link to Seebohm Rowntree – A Bibliography.) He resurveyed York in two follow-up studies to Poverty. Four main themes dominate his work: He returned again and again to the problem of unemployment and he wrote several books on housing. He wrote about the Christian and the Quaker responses to social problems. And he wrote several books trying to humanize business and industrial relations. He also applied for a patent in chocolate manufacturing.

This extraordinary man deserves our thankful remembrance for the following landmark achievements:

  • Groundbreaking work—understanding poverty. Poverty is the second attempt in history to use a sociological survey (and statistical analysis) to understand a social problem (poverty) and to shape a meaningful policy response. The story on Marketplace claims that it’s the first, but this in incorrect. Rowntree based his own research on the methods first used in London by the early sociologist Charles Booth, who interviewed tens of thousands of people in London’s slums and wrote a massive, 17-volume report in the years between 1889 and 1893. (The new social science of sociology was just then being developed by a handful of thinkers.) Booth’s study was, however, too huge, too dense with statistics, and too ploddingly written for many people to actually read. Rowntree saw how important it was, as did some other intellectuals in London, and he decided to do something about it. He used the same survey methods in his own hometown of York (interviewing more than 11,000 people), where there were only two industries—the Rowntree chocolate factories, and the railroad. Where Booth’s work was unreadable, Rowntree’s book was short and compellingly argued, with just the right balance of facts, figures, and exposition. It became a huge best seller.
  • Defining the “poverty line”. Rowntree is widely credited for inventing the idea of the “poverty line,” an income level below which a person or a family can no longer provide for the basics of food, clothing and shelter. I believe, however, that again we can thank Charles Booth for this innovation. However, Rowntree put it on the map and I believe he revised Booth’s calculations to make them reflect reality a little more accurately, though most economists today agree that it still needs to be redefined. The current formula for the poverty line (at least in America) comes originally from an American economist from the 1930s named Mollie Orshansky, who based her own work on Rowntree’s. The idea really caught on with the War on Poverty in the 1960s. Once a ‘scientific’ way to define poverty had been established, Rowntree (and before him Booth) came to a revolutionary and truly startling conclusion:
  • Groundbreaking conclusion—the poor are poor through no fault of their own. Rowntree’s research proved that poverty was not primarily the result of personal moral failing, but was rather a systemic, structural problem endemic in the capitalist system itself. It proved that the vast majority of the poor actually worked, worked hard, too hard; they just didn’t make enough money to survive—their wages were too low. It was not indolence, drink, gambling, sex (too many kids), and general wantonness that had cast them into poverty, as most people believed until then, though these factors often made things worse. The real problem for the poor was not at its root moral; it was structural—it was low wages. The poor wanted to work, they did, in fact work. It just wasn’t enough to lift them up out of poverty.
  • Groundbreaking paradigm—social science and technocratic solutions. This helped to usher in the modern social scientific approach to understanding and treating social problems. Poverty showed that scientific methods yielded results that you could not arrive at using moral philosophy, and it helped to pinpoint where and what the problems really were. This did not put an end to moralizing, as we well know. Conservatives, especially, have continued to cite moral failure as the cause of social ills up to the present day. Now, however, they must also downplay, discredit, bypass and obstruct scientific arguments that clearly point to structural evils in the system. Rowntree’s book ushered in an age of warring paradigms in social policy. One of them was rooted in 19th century evangelical theology and the political economics it had nurtured, focused on individuals, their choices and their ‘freedom’ from government intervention. The other paradigm was rooted in science and focused on communities, on systemic causes and solutions to social problems, and on the roles that only government was in a position to play in addressing these issues.
  • Groundbreaking policy—the birth of the welfare system. The book led directly to the modern welfare state in England and, by extension, everywhere else in Europe and North America. Someone recommended it to Winston Churchill, then a young Conservative Member of Parliament, who could not get it out of his consciousness, calling it “a book which has fairly made my hair stand on end.” He wrote and spoke about it all the time, and ultimately joined the Liberal government that formed in 1906. Lloyd George became Rowntree’s friend and would brandish Poverty as he spoke to large crowds all over Great Britain campaigning for the New Liberalism that he, Churchill and others were inaugurating. In 1911, Parliament passed the National Insurance Act, providing state-funded insurance for unemployment, sickness and old age. The modern welfare state had been born and Poverty: A Study in Town Life had provided much of the prevailing argument for this earth-shaking advance in human welfare.
  • The end of the ‘double culture’ period and the reengagement of Quakers. Seebohm Rowntree was part of the generation of modernist Friends that remade Quaker culture around the turn of the 20th century. They included his cousin John Wilhelm Rowntree, Rufus Jones and a number of others who had been energized by the Richmond Conference in 1887 and the Manchester Conference in 1891. They were the internal force for change within the Society of Friends that met the external forces that helped shape what I call the second great transition period in Quaker history, moving us from the double culture of religious and social withdrawal, on the one hand, combined paradoxically, on the other hand, with energetic engagement with the worlds of business, industry and commerce. They pulled us out of our isolation and insulation until both our feet were planted in the modern world.
  • Quakers discover capitalism as a system. Seebohm Rowntree’s landmark book and methods opened Quaker eyes to capitalism as a system. Until then, Quaker testimonial life had regarded the ‘social order’ as a matter for individual attention; that is, on the one hand, as a matter for the discipline of personal behavior, of “right walking” over the world, while on the other hand, individual Friends and Friends’ meetings had focused their efforts to address social ills like poverty on individuals. Recall Elizabeth Fry’s work in Newgate Prison raising up the educational and moral levels of inmates. With Poverty, Friends became aware for the first time of structural evil, of the way that systems caused suffering. This new awareness took a long time mature. It got major reinforcement, at least in the UK, during the Great War, when London Yearly Meeting convened a Committee on War and the Social Order charged with trying to determine what underlying causes had led to the war and with proposing ways to act that would prevent such a cataclysm from happening again. The resulting Eight Principles of a Just Social Order stirred intense debate in the 1918 sessions of London Yearly Meeting, because the Committee had essentially blamed capitalism. The Principles carried over into the first Friends World Conference held in London in 1920. (We’ll revisit this fascinating moment in Quaker history in a future post.) Nevertheless, it was not until the 1960s that systemic thinking really began to shape Quaker testimonies in any meaningful way: Right Sharing of World Resources addressed global trade policy; AFSC turned increasingly from service to the suffering toward advocacy on behalf of the oppressed; and the War in Vietnam vividly illuminated the power and role of the “military industrial complex” in our economic life. The war also brought Marxism back to life; Marx and Engels had understood that capitalism as a system oppressed the working class way back in the middle of the 19th century. But Quakers never really warmed to Marxism, even though Das Kapital mentioned their own John Bellers by name, and even though a small, very active group of socialist Friends did emerge in the same period in which Rowntree was doing his work late in the 1800s.

After writing Poverty, Seebohm Rowntree continued to bring innovative thinking to industrial relations, social welfare and management. He became a true liberal. Nevertheless, he was himself a transitional figure. Liberal and forward-thinking as he was, he still held on to some of his paternalistic past. For instance, though he saw clearly that a labor movement was essential to economic reform on behalf of the working poor, he resisted the organization of unions in his own business. He took it personally. He also adjusted his company’s wage system to guarantee a ‘living wage,’ a wage above the poverty line that he had himself defined. But he also established a rigorous system of quarterly employee review designed to ensure that his workers were performing well enough to deserve it. Under-performing employees were counseled, reassigned, and/or dismissed.

For all these monumental contributions to the cause of a more just and compassionate political economy, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree is one of my heroes. He also is one of the unsung heroes in the history of Friends. And so I have become one of his modern champions.


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§ 2 Responses to Seebohm Rowntree on NPR’s Marketplace

  • I continue to really appreciate your postings. Thank you.

    This post, at times, appears to pose the causes of poverty as either the structure of society or personal choices on individuals in poverty. While I am grateful for Rowntree and others who helped us see the structural causes of poverty, in my experience, it is not an either/or choice between structure and personal choice. I think there is truth in both causes, and in many other causes of poverty. I was a little distributed by the oversimplification of statements like this one:

    “Rowntree’s research proved that poverty was not the result of personal moral failing, but was rather a systemic, structural problem endemic in the capitalist system itself.”

    He might’ve made a strong case for this argument, but I don’t think he really “proved” it. I’ve appreciated the nuance and balance in most of what you write, so I wanted to let you know about my reaction to this portion of your writing, which came across to me as not as nuanced.

    • You’re right, Michael, I got a little carried away in this post. Thank you very much for the gentle and appropriate eldering. I’m going to edit this post to moderate it a bit.

      I agree that personal decisions inevitably help to shape our circumstances, whatever they may be. And the classic ‘liberal’ approach to social problems—of studying the problem and designing and implementing ‘programs’, often publicly funded and done through the mechanisms of the state—usually ignores the roles individuals play in their own (and society’s) transformation and the need for some form of ‘evangelism’—some way to win ‘buy-in’ from the population being served. The two need to go hand in hand. Successful social movements like the civil rights movement and Ghandi’s independence movement in India reached individuals with a message of personal empowerment and commitment while also addressing the structural barriers to change.

      The reason I highlight Seebohm Rowntree with such zeal is that, until he so conclusively revealed the truth about the structural dimensions of poverty, they were invisible, covered by a veil of ignorance and moral prejudice. Until he demonstrated how valuable the new tools of social science could be, the only tools available—evangelism and moral tuition, punitive poor laws, and philanthropy—had proved insufficient and even counter-productive. Rowntree and his peers did not just contribute significantly to human betterment, they actually changed the way we think. He did not only help to relieve the suffering of millions of people in tangible ways; he was a vehicle for a new revelation, if you will, one that combined science and religion, the private and public spheres, industry and the state, in a new social order. And in terms of Quaker history, he and his generation returned Quakerism to the world as a fully engaged force for change after two hundred years of disengagement. They did not, of course, possess the apocalytpic fervor of the Lamb’s War of the 1650s, but they shared with early Friends the belief that Christ had something to do with the social order as a whole, and not just with the inner lives of the believer.

      Another reason I tend to get carried away on this topic is that these two paradigms of social reform have always been polarized against each other, and, unfortunately, I tend to polarize them myself. When political economics first emerged as a mode of thought in the late 1700s and early 1800s, it branched almost immediately into two schools: the classical school initiated by Adam Smith (1776) and developed by David Ricardo, James Mill and his son John Stuart Mill; and the evangelical school, initiated by Thomas Robert Malthus (1798) and developed by Thomas Chalmers and others. Malthus and Chalmers were evangelical ministers and, in their hands, political economics co-evolved with evangelical theology. As history would have it, the evangelical school dominated in both academic and public policy circles (in England, anyway) into the second half of the 19th century. However, the analytical tools and social programs that this school favored failed to cope effectively with economic crises and with the social problems that we see so vividly in Dickens’s work. Most notable in this regard was the utter disaster of the Irish famine, which was made much worse by the early responses of the administration in Great Britain, which was self-consciously evangelical in its moral and policy approach to the crisis. History has shown us that what I’m calling ‘evangelical political economics’ has been a failure as a solution to social problems like poverty, when it has not been part of the problem itself.

      As you can see, I have it out for evangelical political economics. This topic is more important and complicated than this little reply to your comment can meaningfully address. A fuller treatment will have to wait. But I have developed a pretty strong prejudice against an ideology that, even today, still holds considerable sway over our discussion about the economy and its social dimensions and impact.

      Well, back down off of my high horse—again. Thanks again, Michael, for your comment. Now, to amend my original post.


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