Faculty of education department of english language and literature

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3.3 Unemployment and poverty

There were many studies of the British society's poverty and other issues connected with the poorest in the society during the interwar years. Amongst the most precise and commonly accepted were the researches of Orr, Bowley, Rowntree and Cole. The inquiries were to find out how many people live in poverty despite the overall rising living standards and what should the steps proposed to better the situation. All inquiries showed that poverty reaches a significant section of working population (Stevenson and Cook, 40-41). Groups that suffered poverty the most were children and the elderly, however, other groups that succumbed into the poorest in the society were the sick, the widowed, the low-paid and the unemployed (Stevenson, 136). Rowntree for example described the conditions of life under the standards of 'bare subsistence' in 1937 that was quite common for a big working family with more than 5 children or a family or a person who is unemployed (Stevenson and Cook, 41).

A family living upon the scale allowed for this estimate must never spend a penny on railway fare or omnibus. They must never go into country unless they walk. They must never purchase a halfpenny newspaper or spend a penny to buy a ticket for a popular concert. They must write no letters to absent children, for they cannot afford to pay the postage. They must never contribute anything to their church or chapel, or give any help to a neighbour which costs them money. They cannot save, nor can they join sick clubs or trade unions, because they cannot pay the necessary subscriptions. The children must have no pocket money for dolls, marbles or sweets. The father must smoke no tobacco, and must drink no beer. The mother must never buy any pretty clothes for herself or for her children, the character of the family wardrobe, as for the family diet, being governed by the regulation.

In the interwar period the number of the registered unemployed was never less than 2 million, the highest number was in the years 1932-3, which meant about 23 per cent of all insured. Agricultural workers, domestic servant of the self-employed were not included in those numbers. If those had been included, the numbers would have been much higher. The government was fully aware of the problem of high unemployment and tried to solve it. The solution usually took a form of extension of the unemployment insurance. The insurance in 1918 was very limited and covered only a very limited number of workers. In 1920 the insurance was expanded to most workers earning less than £250 annually and non-contributory grants were introduced. Those grants were supposed to provide a financial aid in the time when the unemployed were looking for work. However, many unemployed workers used this money before they found a job and were, therefore, forced to go to poor law guardians. In 1924 the basic rate of benefits was raised from 15 to 18 shillings a week (Constantine, 50).

The poor law system had to be reformed in 1929, because it suffered from a great financial pressure as many people were coming for help. According to Robbins "Nothing, however, can disguise the extent of poverty in Edwardian England. Almost one-third of the whole population in arguably the richest country in the world was living in poverty." (210) From now on people who needed help had to undergo a test, the so-called ‘Means test’, proving they were really in a bad situation. This became very unpopular and many unemployed people tried to avoid going there as long as they could. As written by Stevenson "the means test became one of the most despised aspects of the inter-war years. Assessment of 'means' involved relieving officers visiting people's homes, prying into their circumstances, suggesting they sell items of furniture, or reducing relief because of savings, or income from sons, daughters or pensioners living within the household." (277) Furthermore, unemployment benefits were reduced in 1931 and the benefits were available only for 26 weeks. The Unemployment Act, passed in 1934, finally gave the matters of unemployment a solid conception. The most important aspect of this Act was that the cuts from 1931 were restored and those groups of workers that had been until then excluded from the scheme were brought in. Besides it provided a unified plan for fighting long-term unemployment. It took some time for the new scheme to be implemented and some confusion was only to be expected, but once it was adopted it worked reasonably well.

The other ways of fighting unemployment was the creation of new jobs. This, however, was not done on the governmental level, but on local levels. The government provided grants for the local administration to organize public works, but the amounts were limited. There were also some efforts to transfer workers from the areas with high unemployment to more successful areas. Although this was a good idea, it proved to be difficult as it meant that a man would have to move all his family and to leave a place where he had established some sort of social position. Furthermore, training centres were set up in hope to teach new skills which would help in finding a job.

3.3.1 Life on dole

The living conditions of the unemployed were in sharp contrast with that of the employed. Because money was very tight it very much depended on the housewife and her ability to cook as cheap, and at the same time nourishing, food as possible. It was up to her to take care of the clothing – not only washing them, but also mending, and making new ones. While the majority of working people were able to keep a relatively nice and spacious house or flat, a lot of poor families were living in a house with only one room, which served as a kitchen during the day and as a bedroom during the night. There usually was not much furniture and the equipment was very basic, with a toilet outside, and central heating could be found only sporadically. An example of such a house was described by Simon in Manchester 1929:

No. 4, F Street. The general appearance and condition of this house inside is very miserable. It is dark house and the plaster on the passage walls, in particular, is in a bad condition. There is no sink or tap in the house; they are in the small yard, consequently in frosty weather the family is without water. In this house live a man and wife, and seven children, ranging from 15 to 1, and a large, if varying, number of rats. (Stevenson and Cook, 59)

It is no wonder that in such an environment many diseases spread and the infant mortality remained high. Children were mostly underfed, and during spring and summer many of them did not even have shoes because most belongings were pawned.

It was those areas which invoked the idea of men standing on street corners with nothing to do and of long queues at the Salvation Army centres. Occasionally they were able to find an odd part-time job, but opportunities were very limited. The main activity was going to the library, pub or café where they could learn about a new job.

This way of life was psychologically very hard and exhausting. Many men felt that they failed in their role of food-provider and many of them turned to alcohol and gambling. The numbers of suicides committed in the interwar period was very high, and most of them happened in the most distressed areas. Therefore, the Salvation Army and the National Council of Social Services organized a network of clubs in which men could learn new skills from other unemployed and in turn teach them what they knew. The authorities provided material, although it was in a limited amount. In this way, men were able to make wooden toys for their children or different things for home – such as chairs, cupboards and so on. This kind of activities helped many men to keep sanity even in the worst of the times.
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