Rural Poverty

The recently published transactions of the Sociological Society in a volume of “Sociological Papers” (Macmillan, 10s. 6d.) contain an interesting addition to the investigations of Booth and Rowntree which should prove useful to the Socialist propagandist. An investigation into the conditions of “Life in an English Agricultural Village,” by Mr. Harold H. Mann, discloses a condition of life among the rural proletariat that is sufficient of itself to condemn the proposals of certain superficial reformers to solve the unemployed problem by sending the unemployed “back to the land.” The 30.1 per cent of the population of London on or below the “poverty line ” ; the 29.8 per cent, of the population of York at or below the standard of “physical efficiency” ; and the 34.3 per cent, of the population of this typical English agricultural village of Ridgmount in Bedford in a state of “primary poverty,” present a problem that surely merits the attention of everybody, and particularly requires the consideration of the working-class who have to do all the suffering as well as all the work.

The village is a purely agricultural one, and is chosen as being most typical of the surrounding country, and almost all the population are engaged in agricultural pursuits. The Duke of Bedford is the greatest landowner house-owner, and employer in the district. Mr. Mann finds after a careful consideration of the prices of commodities in the village, that the minimum required to maintain an average family of husband, wife and three children, is 18s 4d. per week. “‘Primary Poverty’ is here taken to be that poverty caused by an insufficiency of earnings, even when most economically applied, to provide for physical efficiency. ‘Secondary Poverty’ is here taken to be that due to an uneconomical application of earnings.” Having found the minimum necessary and investigated the actual income of each family in the population, the author submits in a table the results he is driven to, as follows : —

Total population 407
Total Working-Class Population 390
Total Families 127
Total Working-Class families 104
pr.ct. of total pr.ct. of working-classl
Families in Primary Poverty 40 31.5 38.5
Population in Primary Poverty 160 34.3 41.0

“The conclusion to which we come from a consideration of the figures, after every allowance has been made for subsidiary sources of income, is that no less than 34.3 per cent, of the population of a typical agricultural village in Bedfordshire do not obtain the necessary amount of money to enable them to remain in physical health. This percentage rises to 41.0 when the working-class alone is considered.”

Following this comes another table showing the proportion living within 2s. and 6s. of the minimum, which I will repeat, as follows :—

Pr. ct. of Wage Earners Pr. ct. of Total Population
Persons below Primary Poverty Line 160 41.0 34.3
Less than 2s. per wk above line 213 54.6 45.6
Less than 6s. per wk above line 284 72.8 60.8

When this 6s. is added to the minimum it is only 24s. 4d. per week for a man, his wife, and three children, and 72.8 per cent, of the workers are below that standard of living.

Following that statement comes an investigation into the causes of Primary poverty under six different heads, and the results are submitted in a comprehensive table, as follows :– –

Secrions Number of Families Immediate Cause of Poverty No. of children affected No. of adults affected Total affected Per cent, of Population in Primary Poverty
1 5 Death or desertion of wage-earner 11 8 19 11.9
2 14 Illness or old age of wage-earner 3 23 26 16.2
3 Unemployment of wage-earner
4 6 Irregular employment of wage-earner 13 14 27 16.9
5 4 Largeness of family 25 8 33 20.6
6 11 Lowness of wages 31 24 55 34.4
40 Total 83 77 160 100.0

A detailed consideration is then given of specimen cases under each of the above heads, and if a bald statement of the normal condition is not sufficient, I will quote a few detail cases. Under head No. 2 is a case of “an old couple, the man deaf and quite incapable. The woman works at lace-making and cannot earn much more than about 2d. per day.” The rest of the small income is due to parish relief.

The author explains the absence of unemployment at that period of the year at which the investigation took place : “If these figures had been obtained a month or two earlier (than October, 1903) they would probably have shown a considerable number out of work.”

Another case merits particular notice. “A spinster makes her living entirely by lace-making, and works 10 or 12 hours per day for an income of about 3s. 6d. per week. The guardians refuse poor relief as she is a middle-aged woman ; but heavy work is impossible to her and as her sight is failing it is not likely she will be able to keep up the present close work long.”

The total deficiency works out as follows : —

Secs 1-2 Sec. 4

Secs 5-6 Total
Under 16 14 13 56 83
16-25 1 4 7 12
25-55 7 6 23 36
Over 55 23 4 2 29

Secondary Poverty is necessarily more limited here than in the towns, and the following are the statistics :—

Persons in Secondary Poverty 33
Families in Secondary Poverty 10
Percentage of Working Class Population 9.0
Percentage of Total Population 7.1
No. of Individuals per Family 3.3

Of the ten families in Secondary poverty, five are given as due to “the drink habit and its associated vices” ; three to bad management at home, which bad management is given as “sometimes through the overwork of the head of the household in getting a living” ; in one case to uncertainty of work; and the remaining one to the wage-earner not working regularly. The total poverty, both Primary and Secondary, is summed up as follows :—

Primary Secondary Total
Families in Poverty 40 10 50
Population 160 33 193
Per cent. of Working-Class Population 41.0 9.0 50.0
Per cent. of Total Population 34.3 7.1 41.4
Families not in poverty 77
Population not in poverty 27.4

The wage earners not in poverty are classified as follows :—

Total numbers of persons 197
Total number of families 54
Average size of families 3.71
Average family earnings 23s. 7½d.
Average rent 1s. 6½d.
Per cent. of population 42.1

The author warns you not to forget that every penny earned by every member of the household is here counted, and cases of adult sons earning full money and living at home help to bring the average up. The next table shows that the number of young wage earners living with their parents and helping to swell the family income is an important factor, and their influence in keeping the family above the poverty line can be seen as follows :—

Primary Poverty pr.ct. Secondary Poverty pr.ct.

Not in Poverty pr.ct.
Under 16 51.9 30.3 26.0
16-25 7.5 15.2 14.2
25-55 7.5 15.2 14.2
Over 55 18.1 15.2 23.4

showing that the relative position of the family with regard to the poverty line is largely influenced by the age of the children. So powerful, indeed is this factor of the help supplied by children’s wages, that without it “a vast proportion” of those at present over the line would be below it. Out of the 54 families of the workers over the poverty line only 40 would be above it if only the head of the family were earning wages, i.e., 25.9 per cent, of this group are dependent on the supplementary wage earners.

The trading and upper classes, we are told, are well over the poverty stage. Certainly we must expect that under Capitalism, the non-producers should be rich, and that the wealth-producer, the worker, should be poor !

The average weekly wage for the labourer, according to Mr. Mann’s investigations, is 13s. 7½d., and including extras from allotments, &c., is 14s. 4d. : while if foremen and others are included who earn considerably more than the labourers, the average only rises, including extras, to 14s. 11d., a sum considerably lower than that obtained by Mr. Wilson Fox for the Agricultural Commission.

He concludes with two caustic paragraphs, which I will quote in full:—

“Taking the actual figures obtained, it appears clear that a man earning the average rate of wages and the head of a household, must descend below the Primary poverty line so soon as he has two children, unless he is able to supplement his income by an allotment, by fattening and breeding pigs, or by other means. It is also clear that he will remain below the poverty line until the eldest child leaves school and begins to earn money, and that, even if he has no more than two children, his only chance to save will be in his later life when his children are grown up and are earning money, or have left home. This is the most favourable case : if there are more children the period of poverty is longer, and the chance of saving less. In any case, during life it is a continual round of poverty. During childhood, poverty conditions are almost inevitable. As a boy grows up there are a few years intermission till, as a young man, he has two children; then poverty again till these children grow up ; and finally, at best, a penurious old age, barely lifted above the poverty line.
“I do not wish to draw conclusions in the present paper, but one thing I must say. The cry of ‘back to the land’ has a curious commentary in the results I have obtained. As at present existing, the standard of life on the land is lower than in the cities, the chances of success are less and of poverty are greater, life is less interesting, and the likelihood of the workhouse as the place of residence in old age the greater. It is evident that the cry against the depopulation of the country and the concentration of population in the towns must remain little more than a parrot cry until something is done to raise the standard of life and hence the standard of wages in our purely agricultural districts —to increase the chances of success in life, to make life more interesting, and to bring about a more attractive old age than at present, when, under existing conditions, the workhouse is apt to loom too large on the horizon of the agricultural labourer.”

I must remind the reader that this condition obtains now, when the power of wealth-production is greater than ever before, and that the conditions depicted affect that class that alone produces the wealth and makes the land fruitful. So long as the land and capital remain in the hands of a separate class, whose interests are thereby antagonised to the interests of the wage-worker ; so long as the workers are forced to compete for a wage, the tendency will naturally be for that wage to fall to the lowest subsistence level. Wages, as wages, cannot be raised by any artificial means as the author appears to suggest, and the only remedy for the poverty problem in the country, as in the town, is the restoration of the worker to the land and to the tools necessary to wealth-production, and this will necessitate the abolition of the class-ownership of the means of living and the opening up of a new era for humanity by the establishment of tile Socialist Republic.


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