Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree was born in York on 7th July, 1871. He was the third child of Joseph Rowntree and Emma Seebohm. He was educated at the York Quaker Boarding School and Owen College, Manchester.
In 1897 Rowntree was appointed as a director of his father's successful business in York. Like his father, Seebohm believed it was his duty to help the poor and disadvantaged. On Sundays he taught at the York Adult School. He also visited the homes of his students and obtained first-hand knowledge of their problems.
In the 1860s Joseph Rowntree, had carried out two major surveys into poverty in Britain. Inspired by his father's work and the study by Charles Booth, Life and Labour of the People in London (1889), Seebohm Rowntree decided to carry out his own investigations into poverty in York. Rowntree spent two years on the project and the results of his study, Poverty, A Study of Town Life, was published in 1901.
In his study, Rowntree distinguished between families suffering from primary and secondary poverty. Primary poverty, he argued, was where the family lacked the earnings sufficient to obtain even the minimum necessities, whereas families suffering from secondary poverty, had earnings that were sufficient, but were spending some of that money on other things. Whereas some of these were "useful", others, like spending on alcohol, was "wasteful".
Rowntree's study provided a wealth of statistical data on wages, hours of work, nutritional needs, food consumed, health and housing. The book illustrated the failings of the capitalist system and argued that new measures were needed to overcome the problems of unemployment, old-age and ill-health.
Rowntree, a strong supporter of the Liberal Party, hoped that the conclusions that he had drawn from his study would be adopted as party policy. David Lloyd George, President of the Board of Trade, met Rowntree in 1907 and the two became close friends. The following year Lloyd George became Chancellor of the Exchequer and introduced a series of reforms influenced by Rowntree, including the Old Age Pensions Act (1908) and the National Insurance Act (1911).
David Lloyd George asked Rowntree to carry out a study of rural conditions in Britain. His report, The Land, published in 1913, argued that an increase in small landholdings would make agriculture more efficient and productive. In 1913 Rowntree also published How the Labourer Lives, a detailed study of fifty-two farming families.
Seebohm Rowntree believed that healthy and well-fed workers, were also efficient workers. Working closely with his father, Joseph Rowntree, Seebohm introduced a series of reforms at his own company. One change was an increase in wages for the 4,000 people the company employed. Seebohm argued that employers who refused to pay decent wages should be put out of business as their existence was bad for the "nation's economy and humanity".
In his book The Human Needs of Labour (1918) Rowntree argued strongly for a government enforced minimum wage and the introduction of family allowances. In The Human Factor in Business (1921), Seebohm urged employers to abandon their preferred style of autocratic management in industry. However, few companies followed Rowntree's example of establishing industrial democracy by the use of Works Councils.
In the 1930s Seebohm Rowntree carried out a second survey of York. In Progress and Poverty (1941), Rowntree argued that the city had experienced a fifty per cent reduction in poverty since his first study. He also pointed out that in the 1930s the main cause of poverty was unemployment, whereas in the 1890s it had been low wages. However, he argued that there was still much to be done and the conclusions of his report helped influence the policies of the post-war Labour Government. As a person said at the time, Rowntree's work made him the "Einstein of the Welfare State".
Rowntree published a third study of York in 1951. In Poverty and the Welfare State, Rowntree argued that the measures introduced by the Labour Government between 1945 and 1951 were dealing successfully with the worst aspects of poverty that he had recorded in his earlier studies. Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree died on 7th October, 1954.