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eebohm Rowntree’s Poverty, a Study of Town Life, which presents the results of examining the condition of the working clases in Leeds in 1898, states a number of shocking facts, one of which is that 30% of the laboring classes are malnourished and constantly live in danger of death and disease. Examining crowed housing, lack of sanitary facilities, and other contributing factors, Rowntree nevertheless concludes that poverty, specifically poverty produced by low wages, is the fundamental factor in the labouring classes’ poor health, high rates of infant and child mortality, and unfitness for military service. (Approximately 40% of potential army volunteers are physically unfit. 207)

“In the commercial world things are not as they were”

He then proceeds to emphasize the implications of malnourished workers for Britain’s current and future economic competitiveness with other nations, pointing out that “other nations have been moving up to our own standards of efficiency, so that British labour *does not enjoy the same incontestably high relative position that it formerly did” (220). Within the past three decades “Germany, Belgium, and even Russia, have transformed themselves economically. The two former especially are now highly developed industrial states claiming a large share of the world's markets.” Worse, we are also face to face with the unprecedented competition of the United States” (221). In other words, “the conditions of industrial competition are, therefore, wholly changed, and the question of efficiency — mental and physical — has become one of paramount importance” (221).

At present our most highly equipped — and therefore most formidable — competitors are our kinsmen across the Atlantic. America is commercially formidable, not merely because of her gigantic enterprise and almost illimitable resources, but because, as recent investigations have shown, her workers are better nourished and possesss a relatively higher efficiency [i.e. physical health]." [221; emphasis added]

Rowntree concludes, “Even if we set aside considerations of physical and mental suffering, and regard the question only in its strictly economic and national aspect, there can be no doubt” (221) that the U.K. faces loss of both exports and even domestic manufacturing. Cruel, inhumanly low wages for the poorest section of the working classes not only produces astonishingly high infant and child mortality, it continually eats away at the nation’s ability to make money. Subpar wages make for bad business.

Links to Related Material


Gaffney, Adam. “Public Health, Social Medicine, and Industrial capitalism.” To Heal Humankind: The Right to Health in History. London: Routledge, 2018.

Rowntree, B. Seebohm (Benjamin Seebohm). Poverty, a Study of Town Life. London, Macmillan: 1902. Internet Archive online version of a copy in the Harvard University Library. Web. 2 July 2022.

Last modified 11 July 2022