Going short

Extracts from the Pilgrim Trust Unemployment Enquiry, 1936-1938 (AST 7/255)


(c) The weekly round; economics in unemployment.

We have spoken above about the economic cycle in working class life. There is a much shorter economic cycle, that of the week. The man on unemployment assistance ordinarily draws his money on Thursday. “The day you get your money and the day after are the only days you can get any relish” said an old man living in a Liverpool cellar, “otherwise it is just bread and butter.” A Liverpool housewife said “We have a good blow out on Thursday and Friday and Saturday, then go short for the rest of the week”; and a woman in Leicester, “After Sunday I often don’t know what I am going to do for the rest of the week.” What happens on Monday in pawnshop ridden neighbourhoods is that Sunday suits and any other likely articles go into the pawn shop, to be redeemed again, if they are lucky on Saturday. This shows the narrowness of the margin on which such families are living. There are not a few pennies over at the end of the week, but a few pennies short. It is a commonplace that there is all the difference between a household managed well and a household managed badly, and that in some homes the allowance goes further than in others. But even in the homes that are best managed, indeed particularly in such homes, we cannot but be aware how delicate is the balance. One of the investigators visited a young couple in Liverpool, aged 26 and 23, on a bitter February afternoon. It was snowing outside. The house could hardly have been better kept and both of them were neatly dressed. Yet there was no fire, and so far that day- it was three o’clock-they had had nothing to eat. They lit the fire when he came in, for the man said “his mother had just helped them out with a bit of coal”, so they could manage it. He said his wife “had something for this evening, and that they weren’t starved, though sometimes they do go pretty short.” It is a household like that which shows how difficult is life on the dole, however careful the housewife may be.

It is of course the first year’s unemployment that is worst. “The first year or eighteen months I was out and I had no pocket money, nothing for extras, it was terrible. Now though my clothes are worn out I’ve got used to it, and I don’t let myself mind about things.” The provident household has savings of one sort or another. In one case, a colliery official in Wales, who had once earned a regular wage of about £4 a week, had property to the value of £340, five houses, which brought him 16/- [16 shillings] a week.

We had many sidelights on the efforts made to make money go a little further. Thus the wife of a Liverpool labourer, with six children under fourteen, said “Every penny counts now, so we have to send the boys down the road to get 5 pounds of potatoes for 3d [3 pennies] when we have to pay 4½d here.” There was one instance of a small South Wales family struggling to keep up a particularly high standard of appearance and cleanliness, where the husband had finally given up the unemployment club because literally every penny counted and it cost a penny a week. “We try to find out where things are cheapest and buy meat on the market just before closing hours because the sellers are more generous then.” In the coal districts it is generally possible for the husband or his sons to get household coal for the family by “picking” on the coal tip. The trucks of rubbish taken out of the pit when the coal is won, move up continually from the pithead to these tips, which in South Wales are now, for the most part, along the tops of the mountain ridges. The tips themselves are in some instances nearly a hundred feet high. One of the most extraordinary sights in Wales is the scramble for coal as the trains are emptied.

With families living at this level, any sudden additional expenditure is of course impossible to meet, unless it is one over which the Board can help. One of the investigators called five times one day at a Leicester house, the fifth time, when at last the man was in, late in the evening. He was an eminently steady, respectable man, a pillar of the local church, and (until he fell out of work) of his Friendly Society. He told the investigator that that day was also the rent collector’s day for calling. His daughter was going to Somerset to stay with a friend, and he’d saved all the fare but 3/- [3 shillings]. So he had to default on the rent, which he had never done before. He had been out because he could not bring himself to face the rent collector. There was only eight shillings left to keep two for four days, but he was as happy as he could be that the ticket was at last bought.

The feature that was noticeable in almost every household was the tendency to spend money on the children while the parents would go short. Even in Liverpool this was the rule, and the cases where the children were in rags and the parents better dressed were rare and almost always went with very low general standards. In several instances great efforts were being made to keep children at school until sixteen, “even if we have to starve for it, Education is the only thing that matters now”. It was common for the investigator to make such notes as these: “Children very pleasant, rosy cheeks, clean, white regular teeth; disproportionate amount spent on children who are neatly and sensibly clothed and appeared to be well fed and extremely healthy. Parents determined to do their best for them. Wife seems under-nourished.” “Children look in good health, wife is very thin and on the verge of crying. Evidently this is a case where the wife goes short to give the children enough food and clothes.”

(f) Poverty and unemployability.

One of the chief dangers of the present system is the creation of an extensive pauper class. In our analysis of residual unemployment, as it can be seen in prosperous places, we have noticed that the most intractable element is probably the low grade social type, who live in bad conditions, who get enough to support them at their own low standards in those conditions, and who it would be almost impossible to get back to work in any circumstances. We saw that unemployment of this type occurs in the special areas, though it is not always so obvious there owing to the extent of the “structural unemployment” that conceals it.

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