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Living Standards During the Industrial Revolution

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Submitted By chadfisher78
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The Industrial revolution had the long term effect of greatly improving the living standards for common people in Britain. There is however a constant debate on whether or not the British living standards rose during the early part of the Industrial Revolution (1770-1850). The optimists generally believed that the industrialization brought higher wages, and a better standard of living. T.S. Ashton suggested that for the majority of the population, the gain in real wages was substantial, and outweighed the negative effects brought by industrialization. Pessimists argue that the quality of life for workers deteriorated greatly between 1780 and 1850, with very limited improvements for some skilled sectors before the 1870’s. This purpose of this paper is to analyze the debate from an economic and social perspective. We will examine both arguments and prove that although there was a rise in real wages, that rise was not as high as many optimists believe, and that the rise in real wages did not mean that the living standards of the average citizen were necessarily improved. This paper will substantiate that the benefits resulting from the rise in real wages, did not outweigh the costs that followed. We will examine how pollution, poor working conditions, and an overall lack of basic human rights and equality, plagued the British population and did not initially raise the living standards of the average person in Britain. The majority of debates between pessimists and optimists consist of exchanging evidence from various indices including money wages, and real wages. The optimist’s argument is one dimensional, purely economic, and boiled down to the fact that the Industrial revolution brought gains in real wages (P.H. Lindert, 1983). In a 1983 paper by optimists Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson, the authors produced estimates of real wages in England from 1781 to 1850. The authors took estimates of nominal earnings for “blue collar” workers, which consisted of hired farm workers, non-farm low skilled workers, and skilled artisans. They also took estimates of nominal earnings for “white collar workers”, which consisted of higher rank professionals such as engineers, and businessmen. The authors then constructed a new cost of living index which found that from 1788-92 to 1809-15 the cost of living increased by 72%. From 1809-15 to 1820-26 the cost decreased by 27.3%, and from 1820-26 to 1846-50 the cost decreased by 26.0% (G.M. Koot, 1999) .The authors used the nominal wage , and the cost of living index to come up with the real wage trends. Overall, Lindert’s and Williamson’s analyses produced two results. Firstly, they showed that real wages grew slowly between 1781 and 1819. Secondly, after 1819, real wages increased drastically for all groups of workers, and more than doubled for some. The authors estimated that the gains in real wages for the period were over 60% for farm laborers, over 86% for blue collar workers, and over 140% for all workers (G.M. Koot, 1999). There are however, some fundamental problems with these optimistic results. Lindert’s and Williamson’s analysis only included adult male workers, and excluded women, children, self-employed, and permanently unemployed workers (C.Nardinelli, 2008). This exclusion makes their results inaccurate, due to the fact that women and children made a large portion of the work force and, were paid up to 90% less than male workers. Furthermore, these results did not take into account the first 30 years of the Industrial Revolution (1750-1781), and the authors note that the majority of the rises in real wages occur after 1820, which is relatively late in the early Industrial Revolution.

Other economists such as Charles Feinstein opposed their optimistic findings. Feinstein produced an alternative series of real wages based on a price index which took more factors into consideration. His new index of average nominal wages covered all manual workers, both male and female, from 1770 to 1880, and excluded “white collar” workers, as they were obviously extremely wealthy, and the purpose of his results was to examine the real wage of the average person (G.M. Koot, 1999). Feinstein constructed a new cost of living index, which measured changes in the prices of 12 types of food as well as beer, coal, candles, clothing, footwear and rent. Feinstein compares his index to that of Lindert and Williamson and finds a large decrease in the fall of prices. He finds that his index falls 37% from 1810/14 to 1849/51, compared to the Lindert and Williamson cost of living index, which saw a decline of 51% during this period (G.M. Koot, 1999). Feinstein found that from 1780 to 1815, nominal wages kept largely in step with the cost of living, and therefore there was no increase in real wages. He notes that after 1815 there was slow progress. In the Feinstein results, real wages rose much more slowly than in the Lindert-Williamson results. Lindert’s and Williamson’s analysis showed an 86% increase in real wages, while Feinstein calculated an increase of about 30% (C.Nardinelli, 2008), most likely due to the fact that all manual workers, both male and female were included in Feinstein’s indices, while “white collar” workers were excluded. Feinstein’s findings are considerably more accurate as his index of average real wages covers all manual workers, both male and female, as opposed to just male workers, and his cost of living index was more detailed, as it measured changes in 12 types of food as well as beer, coal, candles, clothing, footwear and rent (which Lindert and Williamson excluded). (G.M. Koot, 1999). Therefore, although there was an overall increase in real wages in the early part of the Industrial Revolution, the increase is greatly over-estimated by optimists. One cannot doubt that there was an overall rise in real wages, and per capita income of the average worker, however this does not equate to a rise in the living standards. Towns in the early industrial revolution were built purely to fuel the industrial revolution. Towns were built for industry and trade, and not for people (H.Mahamdallie, 1996). This was the first time in human history that such a high percentage of the population were living in cities; people did not yet realize the importance of public spending in order to make their cities healthier and more efficient. In the early 19th century the majority of London’s affluent citizens began to adopt water closets as an alternative to cess pits and privies. As a result, sewers originally intended to take rain water into the Thames River now carried raw sewage - which was then extracted by the water companies to be drunk by their customers (M.J. Daunton, 2004). These unsanitary conditions led to the cholera epidemic which plagued Britain in the early 19th century. In the summer of 1849 over 33,000 people in three months died of cholera in Britain. Around 13,000 of those who died lived in London. Right until the second-half of the 19th century, about 50 per cent of the people who caught cholera died of the disease. The cause of cholera was first identified in 1854, prior to this people believed the disease was due to air-borne "miasma"; no one then realized that the disease was water-borne. (Porter, 1999) The introduction of these water closets also led to the “Great Stink”, which was a time in the summer of 1858 during which the smell of untreated sewage almost overwhelmed people in central London. Cesspits were overflowing into street drains, which were contaminating the city before emptying into the river (M.J. Daunton,2004). Poverty had also increased in the early part of the Industrial revolution. Since the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, aid had been available for the poor within their parish. Outdoor relief provided payments for a range of needs, or relief in kind such as clothing and food, with the intention of enabling the poor to remain at home. The workhouse provided “indoor relief”, for the elderly, sick, or orphaned. The poor law gave support to those unable to support themselves. Many factors in the early part of the industrial revolution put serious strain on the poor laws. The cost of poor relief had increased by 75.5% during the French Wars (1793-1815). In 1802-3 the cost was £5.3 million. In 1813 the cost had risen to £8.6 million, and finally in 1817-18 the cost was £9.3 million (M.Bloye, 2002). A rising population also further strained the poor law. In his pamphlet, Principles of Population (1798), Thomas Malthus asserted that the existing poor laws created the poverty that they were designed to relieve. He argued that any family could claim poor relief; this allowed people to get married earlier and have larger families that would subsequently require support from the poor laws (M.Bloye, 2011). This belief that the old poor laws were the cause of poverty, and that they supported idleness among the poor led to the establishment of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. This act was basically designed to minimize the amount of relief given to the poor. The Act stated that no able-bodied person was to receive money or other help from the Poor Law authorities except in a workhouse, furthermore workhouse conditions were made to be harsh, in order to discourage people from requesting aid. “Life in the Workhouse was harsh, with hard work and poor food. Such was the social stigma attached that many old people died of shame. Workhouse dwellers were given a uniform in exchange for their clothes, usually a coarse gown or cotton shirt. These would have letters sewn on to them, `P' for Pauper, followed by the letter of the Parish. Couples were separated, families also.” At the start of the Industrial Revolution there was an enormous demand for labor. Families quickly migrated from rural farm areas to the cities to find work, and as we argued above, the social and economic conditions in the towns were not as bright as many believed. To survive in these low levels of poverty, families had to have every able member work in order to add to the overall income. This led to a high rise in child labor in factories. In 1750, 14% of the labor force consisted of children under 14 years old (B.Daniels, 2003).Children that worked in these factories were severely taken advantage of. In terms of wages and hours, it was normal for children as young as six years old to be working up to 16 hours a day, with little or no break (D.cody, 2008). These children were usually working with large, heavy and dangerous machinery. Children were often used to complete the most dangerous tasks that adults could not, such as crawling through tunnels in coal mines that were too narrow for adults (D.A. Galbi, 1994). Furthermore children were only paid roughly 10% of the wage an adult worker would get. Very often the factory owners would get away with paying child workers nothing. Orphans in particular were subject to slave-like labor. The factory owners justified their absence of payroll by saying the children were given food, and shelter (B.Daniels, 2003). The children who worked in factories were treated very cruelly. The safety of children was completely neglected. If a child worker were late, or failed to meet a quota they were subject to beatings, and other forms of pain infliction. A common punishment was for child laborers to be “weighted”. An overseer would tie a heavy weight to the child worker's neck, and have them walk up and down the factory aisles so the other children could see the consequences of their actions. These forms of punishment led to serious injuries in the back and/or neck of children (A.Ganse, 2005). As one could imagine, factory owners were huge advocates of child labors. They argued that it was a huge boost for the economy, and helped to build the characters of children. The children’s parents meanwhile most likely did not support child labor, however they were forced to approve because they needed the extra income (B.Daniels, 2003). Conditions for child workers didn’t start to improve until 1833, when parliament passed the factory act. This act limited the amount of hours that children of certain ages could work. The act made it so children 9 to 13 years of age were only allowed to work 8 hours a day, those 14 to 18 could not work more than 12 hours a day, and finally children under the age of 9 were not allowed to work at all (M.Bloye, 2002). In the early Industrial Revolution, the children of families who migrated into the city had their situation worsen greatly. In rural areas, children would have long hours, and hard work to do on the family farm. In the cities however, these children worked longer hours, and worked much harder in large factories. They were treated harshly and extremely under compensated, for almost the first hundred years of the Industrial Revolution. The early Industrial revolution also heavily widened the rich poor gap. Professor of Economics John Komlos believes that average height of the citizens of a person is a good indicator of that person’s overall well-being, due to the fact that it symbolizes their level of nourishment. The under-nourished, poverty stricken English children were shorter for their age than any other European or North American group so far discovered (including the American slaves), while the English rich were the tallest of their time; only 25cm shorter than today’s U.S. standard (J.Komos, 2005). If one was to use Lindert and Williamsons indices for real wage, (as mentioned above), they would notice that wages increased most drastically, and more than doubled for only the “white color” workers. There was another devastating epidemic that occurred during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This period; known as the gin craze refers to the early 18th century, when the per capita consumption of cheap distilled alcohol almost tripled. By 1743, the people of Britain were consuming over 10 liters of gin annually (E.Skinner, 2008). Increasing urbanization in Britain is what created conditions that allowed the gin craze to occur. Gin sellers thrived because local police were overwhelmed by the number of problems to deal with, and could not respond to the increased consumption of gin. Thousands of women and men began to sell gin openly and without a license (E.Skinner, 2008). To fully realize the social and economic effects of the gin craze, one could try to imagine a new modern day drug, stronger than any seen before it, being introduced to the market, being legal, and completely un-controlled, and consumed by everyone. As expected gin consumption was linked with a massive increase in the crime rate (E.P. Thompson, 1963). Incidents of assaults, murders, and self-induced harm in gin-shops were regularly reported in London news-papers. Many concluded that gin made people violent. Gin consumption was associated with a wide variety of crimes, as the following verse from The London Evening-Post, March 1751, illustrates: “This wicked gin, of all Defence bereft, and guilty found of Whoredom, Murder, Theft, or rank Sedition, Treason, Blasphemy, should suffer death, the Judges all agree” (E.Skinner, 2008).

The standard of living debate today is not about if the industrial revolution made people better off, the debate is about when. In the early part of the industrial revolution there was a very small increase in real wages, however this increase didn’t result in an increase in the standard of living. The fact that towns were built for industrialization and not for people greatly increased the death rate. Epidemics like cholera and typhoid plagued Britain during the early industrial revolution. Children’s youth was essentially taken away from them as child labor, and child abuse skyrocketed. The living standards of the poor worsened tremendously after the passing of the 1834 poor law amendment act, and finally the gin craze resulted in an increased death rate and a huge increase in crime. Pollution, poor working conditions, and an overall lack of basic human rights and equality, plagued the British population Professor M.J Daunton perhaps said it best when he asked was it better to be filthy and waged, or clean and poor. Did the workers in their factories, or the residents in the adjacent streets, lose more in ill-health than they made in higher wages? Is there much consolation in earning a higher wage - only to die early from a respiratory disease caused by pollution of the air?


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