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Unemployment, Welfare, and Masculine Citizenship: "So Much Honest Poverty" in Britain, 1870-1930.

Unemployment, Welfare, and Masculine Citizenship: "So Much Honest Poverty" in Britain, 1870-1930, by Marjorie Levine-Clark. Houndmills & New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. xix, 304 pp. $90.00 US (cloth).

This is not simply another book about the problem of unemployment in Modern Britain. Rather, this is a book about how unemployment and welfare provision were intimately connected to shifting definitions of gendered working-class citizenship in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Britain. It tracks how honest (and sometimes dishonest) poor men, their families, employers, poor law authorities, and policy-makers framed their place in society when they were jobless. A fitting progression from Marjorie Levine-Clark's work on gender, poverty, and family, this is a highly original contribution to the vast corpus of research on unemployment in British history and is key reading for British social and political historians and students.

Levine-Clark adopts the phrase "honest poverty" from a local newspaper in the Black Country, a region in the West Midlands of England and the focus of much of her book. She uses "honest poverty" to describe "a model of working-class masculine status built on the pillars of the male breadwinner ideal: the work imperative, which required men to demonstrate that they were willing to work, and family liability, which required men to support their families responsibly" (2). Together, she argues honest poverty, the work imperative, and family liability demonstrated men's respectability and welfare deservedness. This trifecta of respectable working-class identities was forged alongside what Levine-Clark aptly terms "welfare heteronormativity" (10), a system in which married men, particularly fathers, were privileged over women and single men in the dispensation of poor relief. In chapter six, we see how the 1918 Out-of-Work Donation program pitted unmarried ex-servicemen against married ex-servicemen with children and in chapter eight how single sons were expected to provide for elderly parents in ways married sons were not before, and even after, the introduction of the Old-Age Pensions Act in 1908. The marital preference was compromised when fathers went on strike or neglected their family responsibilities, as illustrated in chapters seven and nine. Mostly, though, married fathers embodied the definition of "honest poverty" for the entirety of this period. One of the book's greatest merits is Levine-Clark's attention to the enduring strength of "honest poverty" as the constant ideological thread that persisted through significant policy shifts in British welfare provision.

Honest poor married fathers, whose wives and children were seen as innocent sufferers, posed a problem to poor law authorities bound by the deterrent aims of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act designed to punish the poor for their unemployment. Increasingly understood to be out of work through no fault of their own, local boards of guardians required a new welfare strategy for honest men not requiring punitive lessons in the work imperative or family liability. A system of respectable welfare provision, one that stood apart from punishing loafers and vagrants, also functioned to position working-class men as worthy of the franchise (extended by the 1867 and 1884 Reform Acts), making old questions about poverty central to new questions about citizenship. Levine-Clark argues it was this combination of "honest poverty" and a newly enfranchised working-class that prompted a reorientation of the work-welfare system in order to preserve masculinity when unemployed. As she suggests, a space was required "for working-class men to remain 'men' even when they depended on public welfare" (3).

Over nine impeccably-researched chapters, Levine-Clark follows the thread of "honest poverty" from the crackdown on indiscriminate relief in the 1870s to the postwar depression of the 1920s, ending with the dissolution of boards of guardians in 1929. She uses the Black Country, a highly industrialized region prone to unrelenting unemployment, as her backdrop to the national narrative of modernization. Because her local research is so detailed, providing dozens of cases of struggling Black Country poor and new datasets of relief applications, the book runs the risk of reading not so much as a national history but as one of a region's singular relationship with these problems. However, Levine-Clark handles this tendency well, underscoring the centrality of "honest poverty" to national and imperial policy debates throughout the book. That what happened in the Black Country happened elsewhere in England is clear, but one limitation of the book--perhaps simply remedied by a change in the title--is that Levine-Clark says little to nothing about these relationships in Scotland or Wales.

What is most exciting about this book is the reminder that the moral, cultural, and political assumptions inherent in the nineteenth-century poor law persisted through the change to the welfare state. So persistent were ideas about individual responsibility, the culpability of the poor, and unemployment as a largely male problem, that they continued, and in some cases flourished, despite attempts to create acceptable categories of poor masculine welfare and citizenship. From Levine-Clark's rich cache of local sources we better understand the strategies struggling men used to navigate an ailing poor law and an immature welfare state as part of their fragile economy of makeshifts. Levine-Clark brings us full circle highlighting the fact that the stigma of social assistance and poverty remain key problems today, just as they did almost 150 years ago.

Elizabeth A. Scott, University of Saskatchewan
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Author:Scott, Elizabeth A.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 18, 2016
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