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The children of the state? The social impact of welfare in modern Britain

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This paper examines the social impact of private and public investments in the early years of people’s lives in twentieth-century Britain. We know a lot about the politics behind the creation of pioneering welfare provision since the 1880s, much of which sought to preserve and improve the lives of the nation’s young. These services included: legislation and organisations to protect children from abuse and neglect from the 1880s; infant welfare services, free school meals and medical inspections from the 1900s; and following the Second World War the payment of family allowances (from 1975 child benefit) and free healthcare. We know far less about the social impact of this care on children and their families. This on-going research examines the experiences of children and the impact of changing welfare policies in Britain since the 1880s. In seeking to place a spotlight on children’s embodied and subjective experiences, this project uses archived case files to consider not only how welfare provision was used, but also how these uses – sometimes unintentionally – contributed to sustained and cumulative inequalities. The approach taken to studying archived case files is primarily qualitative, seeking to bring together microhistorical studies of subjectivity, epidemiological approaches to the life-course, and the attention to power dynamics afforded by histories of gender and of childhood. The findings discussed in this paper focus principally on previously unexamined case files relating to children born immediately after the Second World War.

This talk is part of the Core Seminar in Economic and Social History series.

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