FORTY YEARS' PROGRESS
By BARBARA WOOTTON
AFTER the lapse of over forty years Mr. Seebohm Rowntree has repeated his famous survey of the facts of working-class life in the city of York*. These York surveys are exceptionally interesting, because an attempt has been made to cover, not merely a sample, but actually every one, of the working-class households in the city—those, in 1936, in which the chief earner received under £250 per annum. And the second enquiry has a double value, because it enables us not merely to see where we stand, but also to take heart for the work that remains to be done, by looking back upon the remarkable achievements of the intervening generation.
Let us summarise those achievements as they appear in these fascinating pages. Exact comparisons on some points are not possible, because Mr. Rowntree's own standards have gone tan along with everybody else's. His " poverty-line " is now drawn appreciably higher than in the earlier enquiry ; and improv- ments in technique and classification have provided contem- porary data which we cannot parallel from the earlier work. But subject to these limitations, this is what we find.
Forty years ago 151 per cent. of the working-class population of York did not have enough income to provide for a farthing of anything above their crudest physical needs. That propor- tion has been halved. During the same period, the hours of work have been reduced by anything from six to ten hours a week. The income per head, from all sources, of the popula- tion covered has risen by 38.6 per cent., allowance being made, of course, for the change in the cost of living that has also taken place in the same period. By the end of 1939 about a third of the working-class houses in York had bathrooms and gardens. In 1899 scarcely one had either. The infant-mortality rate has been reduced from 160.6 per thousand to 54.6. For the children that survive far better educational opportunities are open : some twelve hundred are receiving a secondary educa- tion, for which no provision whatever was made at the beginning of the century. Age for age, these children are any- thing up to 2+ inches taller than their parents were a generation back.
Along with all this, there have, of course, been equally pro- found changes in the ordinary citizen's way of amusing himself. It is true that the public-houses still rank first as places in which to pass one's leisure. A sample census gave the rather remark- able result that the average number of visits to a pub works out at about two per week for every man, woman and child in the city. Nevertheless the proportion of income spent on drink has fallen by 4o per cent.; and licensed houses have considerably improved. Church-going has noticeably diminished, gambling has increased, and the cinema (visited on the average once a fortnight), wireless and, for the more fortunate minority the motor-bike, offer new possibilities of recreation. The only previous alternative to these seem to have been just walking about the streets.
So far so good. But there is indeed no cause for compla- cency. For, with all this progress, the record of poverty is still disgracefully high. Mr. Rowntree has classified as below the poverty-line every household in which the available income (after payment of rent) for man and wife and three children did not exceed 43s. 6d. per week (or equivalent for differently con- * Poverty and Progress. By B. Seebohm Rowntree. (Longman. stituted families). Let the middle-class reader, even the it financially harassed middle-class reader, stop for a moment think just what this figure means. Out of it the housewife in feed and clothe and provide fuel and light for her husband, ha self and her three children ; and there must still be enough I to provide fares and pocket-money and smokes, and repairs renewals of furniture, not to mention holidays and arnusemen Measured by this yardstick, 31 per cent. of the working-cl population of York were still living below the poverty-line 1936.
Particular families will, of course, fall below, and rise abo the line at different stages in their history, as expenditure a total income vary. From this point of view there are tin exceptionally dangerous ages: childhood, the early years parenthood and old age. Over half the working-class childr in the city under one year of age are living in this state poverty, while 47 per cent. of them have every prospect so remaining for at least five years, and nearly a third not escape for ten years or more. At the other end of t scale we find half the old-age pensioners in the city also lit below the line, which, for these old folks; is defined as income (after payment of rent) of 15s. 3d. for a man li alone, or 22s. 4d. for a married couple. The poverty of old is, moreover, exceptionally acute. On the average th fall short of the minimum by as much as 3s. 21c1. per he which is a greater deficiency than that suffered by th whose poverty is due to any other cause. No doubt the gr of supplementary old age pensions, since the survey 1; completed, will have done something to clean up this bla spot.
But the pen-pictures, quoted from investigators' noteb of the actual homes and lives of some of these old peo are pitiful in the extreme. It is shocking to think h often this is all that the ordinary citizen has to look forwa to. So far as the children are concerned, poverty is prim due to the fact that, so long as the head of the family is work, our economic system customarily ignores their existence and that when he is unemployed the allowances paid for th maintenance are much too small—largely because, if reasona sums were paid, people with several children would get money when they were out of work than when they were Actually, low wages ranks (perhaps a little surprisingly) a It ahead even of unemployment in the percentage of perso whom it reduces below the line ; but the degree of poverty the unemployed is generally much greater than that of the and paid. About half the abject poverty, that is the poverty those who, when they have paid their rent, have an inco of less than 33s. 6d. per week for a family of man and 1; and three children, is caused by unemployment.
What are the conclusions that emerge from the whole sto The progress of the past has been due not to the benefi operation of economic law but to deliberate and purpo action. The new and better houses have been built, not supply and demand, but with public money as the result Government and municipal initiative. At the end of the war the York City Council had built only 3o houses in In the next twenty years it built 4,79o. Again, the great bulwarks against abysmal poverty -are our social services. F years ago the only financial assistance available for the wor population was the Poor Relief paid to the destitute. In I 5,950 was paid out on that account in York. In 1936 the al of cash social-service payments of all kinds amounted o more than £275,000. It is these figures which go far to plain the thirty per cent. rise in the standard of living. All at is wrong is that they are still inadequate. If they were ot, and particularly if they included a general system of lay allowances, there would not still be nearly ohe in three all the working people of York, and half their children, ing below the poverty-line.
One word by way of postscript. It is fashionable to argue that after this war is over we shall all be shockingly im- poverished and faced with an inevitable decline in the standard of living. Except for certain temporary stresses, there is no reason why this should happen, unless we are too stupid or indifferent to tackle our problems constructively. Mr. Rowntree aptly reminds us that the period between his two enquiries included four and a half years of warfare more expensive and destructive than any previously experienced. Nevertheless, everywhere in every way standards have gone up and up. It could happen again.