Review: Poverty and Progress by B. Seebohm Rowntree

Title: Poverty and Progress

Author: B. Seebohm Rowntree

Publisher: Dissertations-G

Published: 1941

Genre: Non-Fiction

Source: Library

My Rating: 4/5

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In 1936 Seebohm Rowntree conducted a survey in York about the poverty of the population. This was his second survey (the first being in 1889), and this book is his findings.

I decided to read Poverty and Progress because I am very interested in history from a social point of view (how real people lived) and this book was mentioned in a documentary I watched.  The book gave me much more insight into life in the 1930’s than I expected, and covered a lot of areas.

The first part of the book deals mainly with statistics – how much people had to live on, where they acquired that money (wages, benefits, etc), and how many were under the amount calculated to live off.  As well as including the statistics, Rowntree also includes examples taken from notes made during the survey about what type of building people were living in, how many people in the number of rooms, etc.  For me, the most interesting part of this was the information about diet. Not only does Rowntree discuss the percentage of the population under his poverty line, but again, examples are given of what a family ate for a week or two.

The second half of the book mainly discusses how poverty affects the living and social standards of the people in York, as well as making comparisons with the previous survey and discussing what change had occurred over the 40 years.  Personally the section about how people spent their social time was my favourite part of the book as it gave me real insight into how real people lived at that time.  This section of the book was also easier for me to read as it wasn’t so heavy with statistics.

Because the book was not written as a history book, I feel this gives it a unique perspective as it is aimed at people of the time. Therefore I found I didn’t necessarily understand everything discussed (such as certain jobs), and my knowledge of currency at that time is very vague. However, I don’t think that made it any less accessible to me, only more authentic as it wasn’t constantly trying to explain what it’s talking about. I feel that the intended audience of a book can give information about the society it is published in, in addition to the information in the book itself.

While Poverty and Progress is quite an in-depth non-fiction book, I feel that Rowntree’s narrative style makes it much more accessible to those of us who aren’t studying the book for whatever subject at University. The only thing about it I didn’t like was when Rowntree gave his opinion on changes (either positive or negative) in such a way that it reads like fact (for example, when he laments the way young people don’t visit church as often as in the previous survey), as I feel a non-fiction book such as this one shouldn’t include any bias opinion without it being clear that it is just an opinion.

I think that most people probably wouldn’t enjoy reading Poverty and Progress cover to cover unless they have a real interest in life in England in the 1930’s for those in poverty.  While the survey was only taken in York, Rowntree states how York is in comparison to other similar-sized towns in England.  However, I think that anyone with a passing interest in the society of the past would be interested in certain sections of the book.

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