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On this day in history in 1871, was born Seebohm Rowntree.
Rowntree was a sociologist and philanthropist, known for producing the Kit Kat and the Polo mint, but whose real life’s work was the elimination of poverty.
Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree was born on 7th July 1871, the third child of Joseph Rowntree and Emma Seebohm Rowntree, Quaker grocers of the city of York. After attending the Friends' School at York, he read chemistry at Owens College, now the University of Manchester.
In 1889, Rowntree joined the family business, Rowntree and Company Ltd, a chocolate factory which had grown out of his parents’ grocery business, and was now under the direction of his elder brother, Francis. After several years in the business, he attempted to make some radical changes, based on a new concept of social realism. He argued that if workers were paid better, they would have the resources to feed themselves properly and therefore produce more at work. If they worked shorter hours, they would not be fatigued by over exertion, and their output would be of better quality. He proved his argument by establishing a five-day week, an eight-hour day, a works doctor on the premises and a department of ‘social helpers’, what we would now call ‘human resources’. Under his guidance the company thrived and expanded continually, until it became a major corporation, Rowntrees of York. We owe the development of the Kit Kat, Polo, Aero and Quality Street to Rowntree’s benign regime.
Rowntree noticed the difference between his company and other firms around him, and became increasingly concerned about poverty. In 1897-98, he conducted a survey of working-class homes in York, and in 1901, published his results in A Study of Town Life, later known as the classic sociological survey. He surveyed poor families and calculated what he called the ‘poverty line’, the minimum income needed to maintain a decent quality of life. Sad to relate, about one third of the working class homes in the city fell below Rowntree’s ‘poverty line’. He went on to state that poverty was caused by low wages, contradicting the accepted belief that workers were responsible for their own plight, or that poverty was a sign of God’s displeasure. Rowntree tried to get his ideas accepted by leading politicians, and in 1908, the Liberal government introduced a meagre old age pension.
In 1913, Rowntree published The Land, the results of his survey on living conditions of farming families, which argued that an increase in landholdings for small farmers would increase agricultural production. His survey work was interrupted by the First World War, during which he served as director of welfare at the Ministry of Munitions. After the war, he returned to manage the chocolate business, where he remained until 1936.
After retiring from business, Rowntree conducted a second survey in York, on similar lines to his first, in order to see if poverty had been alleviated. His findings, published as Poverty and Progress, showed that York had experienced a reduction in poverty, but now poverty was caused, not by low wages, but by unemployment. Before he had chance to lobby government ministers to deal with this particular social problem, the Second World War broke out in 1939, clearing up unemployment overnight.
In 1951, Rowntree conducted his third survey, entitled Poverty and the Welfare State, which reported that poverty was now a minor problem, but that pockets remained especially amongst the elderly. He concluded that a small increase in welfare benefits would eradicate this particular problem, and that the expanding economy had been responsible for the improvement. Rowntree was criticised in some quarters for his methods, particularly his measurement of adequate nutrition. The diet sheet that he used to calculate the cost of meals was undoubtedly the correct standard for proper sustenance, but he assumed that his subjects had the knowledge of which comestibles ought to be purchased to provide a reasonable food intake. His opponents argued that choice of provisions depended on social class, region and personal preference, rather than a standard list prepared by Rowntree’s nutritional advisor. Due to this criticism, and the perception that poverty was now eliminated, a proposed fourth survey was abruptly cancelled.
In 1953, Rowntree became president of War on Want, a charity devoted to fighting poverty overseas. He died on 7th October 1954, aged 83, at his home, Hughenden Manor, Disraeli's former house, in High Wycombe.
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