Michael Lambert
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‘Dumping grounds for … human waste’
Containing problem populations in post-war British public health policy, 1945–74
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Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s declaration in 1957 that ‘most of our people have never had it so good’ has come to encapsulate the idea of post-war consensus and the ‘golden age’ of affluence. Yet this consensus served to exclude and marginalise those not considered ‘our people’. Those deemed unsatisfactory and unable to improve themselves through the new benefits afforded in national prosperity and ‘social citizenship’ were outcasts. These ‘problem families’ were failed social units given that nuclear families constituted the building blocks of post-war society and social policy assumptions. Nowhere are these more visible than in public health policies which sought to contain and confine these ‘problem populations’. Through the operation of the local welfare state, public health professionals and practitioners created what Zygmunt Bauman terms ‘dumping grounds for … human waste’. However, there is a discrepancy between the discursive construction of actions on ‘problem families’ through reports and policy pronouncements, and their materialisation through the everyday operation of the welfare state apparatus. Drawing on the case files of those identified as a ‘problem family’ and subject to intervention, this chapter provides five mechanisms whereby public health practice in post-war Britain delineated, marginalised and confined ‘problem families’ from the public in order to safeguard ‘our people’. Together, practices concerning homeless families, housing hierarchies, intermediate welfare accommodation, slum clearance and peripheralisation materially constructed ‘dumping grounds for human waste’.

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Publics and their health

Historical problems and perspectives


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