Thursday 7 April 2011

1930s Means Test

I've just gone all cold. Just google "1930s Means Test"

I cried a bit.

If you follow this blog, I think you'll feel much as I did. Hers's an example from an article in the Times, from 2008.

November 17, 2008

There is nothing mean about a means test

We should not let the petty cruelties and errors of the 1930s cloud our debate today about how to reform the welfare state

Forget dinosaurs and Roman orgies. If a Time Machine were invented tomorrow, we should just whirl back 80 years and bang a lot of official heads together. Their errors haunt us still: in the realm of emotional politics Britain is still paying a heavy price for misjudgments and cruelties in the years between the wars. OK, the Establishment was in shock, grieving for the war dead and wobblingly insecure about the loss of Edwardian certainties and reliable valets. But that is no excuse. Get back there, roll up the sleeves, give them a shake.
The damage done in the 1930s rings down the decades. It prevents sensible husbanding of public resources, muzzles plain speaking and ruined the Labour Party with years of sentimental infighting. Seventy years on, two words are still sabotaging the social security system: Means Test. If those two words convey nothing, try them out on your granny and stand well back. If you have no 1930s working-class adults handy, here is a brief summary.
In 1918 postwar relief for unemployed ex-soldiers and civilians was a comparatively generous “non-contributory donation”. It seemed that the degrading days of the Poor Law were over, and the nation was at last properly respectful of its workers and former cannon fodder. But through the 1920s conditions of unemployment benefit got narrower. Then in 1930 the Depression threw government into a fiscal panic, and the poor got the sharp end with the Family Means Test.
You had to prove just how poor you were, in intimate domestic detail. It imposed form-filling, impertinent questions, and regular, shamingly visible, visits from investigators licensed to peer into your cooking-pots, rule that one chair per person was enough, and order you to sell your spare blankets. John Craig, an apprentice fitter, recalled: “You got so much off the labour exchange, but they kept control, and following you about would come to your house. Mother had a lovely big organ in the house. The inspector says ‘Well, you don't get any more money for four weeks until you sell that organ'. And my father belted him down the stairs.” It broke up families into homelessness: adult children lost all benefits if anybody in the house earned 31 shillings a week, so they had to move out.
From 1934, 190,000 unemployed men were made to attend “training camps” simply because there were no jobs. One contemporary interviewee asked: “How could anyone expect an unemployed man to do physical jerks on 15s a week, or play ping pong, while his wife was sitting at home before a half-empty grate with only margarine to eat?” This humiliation visited on a formerly proud working class by the means test led to the Jarrow March: which demanded, let me remind you, not handouts but work......


  1. The 'training camps' bit seems eerily familiar, to me as a 28-year-old. Topical, almost.

    But if they want to do those home inspections for disability, I'm happy for them to come and see what a mess we live in, if they'll take that as some precious bit of positive evidence.

    Except obviously I'm not.

  2. Shudder. . . BUT so familiar. . . Echos of the Supplementary Benefit Officers visits to my home in the 70s

  3. There was nothing petty about the means test.... just pen pushers going insane with power and with delusions of adequacy. And we SHOULD remember it, because it teaches us what a combination of misplaced fervour, ignorance and a determination to to marginalise the poorest and weakest in society can lead us.

  4. Makes me shudder, too. And reminds me of the nineteen-seventies' Supplementary Benefit Officer who told me that my two kitchen-chairs, a small dining table and the mattress on the floor was adequate furnishing and that if I wanted more I should sell my piano. Thankfully, I found a nursery place for my then toddler son and got work soon after! But I had a number of older relatives and neighbours who told me of the horrors of the Means Test as it applied then. Truly a mean test!

    I've still got the piano...


  5. Plawsworth and Dean Street resettlement centres used to be run by social security, done 'em both.

  6. In the US there was the "resettlement movement" - years of over-aggressive farming on land which was never meant to be farmed turned the midwest into a dustbowl, and so families were moved onto government managed "Intentional communities" (which is how the whole community movement started). It was pioneered by Eleanor Roosevelt - one of the reasons I admire the woman so much - and to be truthful I often wonder why this government is so reticent to allow for such communities here when there's farmers going belly-up and land up for grabs. But with all the planning permission, the need for people to park horses they rarely ride on a bunch of acreage, and the idea that fast returns on second homes that are rapidly going up for sale and priced so high that locals can't afford them, I can see why it hasn't taken on.

    I really don't understand why this couldn't work here, however...there's land that needs to be worked, people who are being made redundant who might actually be able to make a living out of things they may originally have merely considered "Hobbies" before, and they'd be contributing to the food industry of the UK and keeping everything "in house".

    Or maybe it's just so logical a step, no one wants to be bothered with it.