1900s >> 1906 >> no-24-september-1906

Doubts and Difficulties: Do the Workers Live on the Verge of Starvation?

Much discussion has been evoked at one time or another as to the statement alleged to have been made by Sir H. Campbell Bannerman that twelve millions of the population of Britain were living on the verge of starvation. To many people the important question has been as to whether the afore-mentioned individual made or did not make the assertion substantially given above. In all the discussions I have heard on the subject the question has never arisen whether the statement, whether made or not, was true in substance or in fact.

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To the Socialist the matter is one of vital interest. Half a century ago Karl Marx, after a close and searching examination of the conditions of English industry, arrived at the theoretic position that so long as the present basis of industrialism—the capitalist, privately-owned property basis—existed, for so long would the wages of the worker be determined by the cost of his subsistence, that is, by the barest amount necessary for maintaining the worker and his family. This theory arrived at by deducing from the basic laws of capitalist production, he verified it by a careful review of the conditions of the workers as found in practice and as described in the reports of Royal Commissions appointed to enquire into such conditions.

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True as the theory of a bare subsistence wage was found to be some sixty years ago so to-day is it true that the wage of the worker is similarly governed. An exhaustive analysis of present day conditions is not necessary to satisfy us as to the truth of this but for the benefit of some who may not have sifted the evidence for themselves, a few pointers may be useful in showing where the evidence may be found.

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A good many years have now elapsed since Mr. Charles Booth set himself the task of exposing the “wild” statements of the Socialist as to the poverty of the workers. The result of his work is shown in his “Life and Labour of the People of London,” a remarkable indictment of our vaunted civilisation. The figures he gave of the poverty of the London workers showed that the statements of the Socialist were not an exaggeration but an understatement of the position. 1,300,000 of the population of London, or over 30 per cent. of the people of the richest mother-city in the world, were receiving a wage of less than a guinea a week !

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A guinea a week was the mark at which he had drawn his poverty line, and there were in London thirteen hundred thousand people below that poverty line. Assuming that this rate of poverty ruled throughout the whole of the United Kingdom we should, taking the population figures of 1901, have 30 per cent. of a population of 41,600,000 living under the poverty line adopted by Mr. Booth. Thirty per cent, of 41,600,000 ! 12,480,000 !! What a picture of misery, of degradation may be conjured up by a contemplation of these figures !!!

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It was, however, always open to critics to contend that owing to London’s premier position men and women were more likely to drift thither than to other towns, and that in any event, in the rural districts, such a rate of poverty must be impossible. Unfortunately for this contention, it was not in accordance with the facts, and subsequent investigation has proved that what obtains in London obtains likewise in rural villages like Egremont, and in small provincial towns like York.

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With Egremont I do not intend to deal, and I shall also pass over investigations into similar and subsidiary poverty problems in other towns. But with regard to York I may be permitted to write at somewhat greater length.

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In the Autumn of 1899, which was a period of comparative prosperity, Mr. Seebohm Rowntree conducted a house to house investigation into the conditions of working-class families in York. The results he arrived at were published for him by Messrs. Macmillan & Co. in a book called “Poverty. A Study of Town Life.” From this it appears that in York in 1899 “families comprising 20,302 persons, equal to 43.4 per cent. of the wage-earning class, and to 27.84 per cent. of the total population of the city, were living in poverty,” and Mr. Rowntree sums up by saying that the fact that nearly 30 per cent. of the population are found to be living in poverty is of the gravest significance.

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30 per cent. of tne population in York. 30 per cent. of the population in London. Truly remarkable the way in which the results of capitalism are uniformly displayed. At page 133 he explains that the poverty of unskilled labour is due to low wages. I believe I have formerly quoted the following remarkable passage but it bears repetition:—

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“It is thus seen that the wages paid for unskilled labour in York are insufficient to provide food, shelter, and clothing adequate to maintain a family of moderate size in a state of bare physical efficiency. It will be remembered that the above estimates of necessary minimum expenditure are based upon the assumption that the diet is even less generous than that allowed to able-bodied paupers in the York Workhouse, and that no allowance is made for any expenditure other than that absolutely required for the maintenance of merely physical efficiency.
“And let us clearly understand what ‘merely physical efficiency’ means. A family living upon the scale allowed for in this estimate must never spend a penny on railway fare or omnibus. They must never go into the country unless they walk. They must never purchase a half-penny 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 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 club or Trade Union, 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, ‘Nothing must be bought but that which is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of physical health, and what is bought must be of the plainest and most economical description.’ Should a child fall ill it must be attended by the parish doctor; should it die, it must be buried by the parish. Finally, the wage-earner must never be absent from his work for a single day.
“If any of these conditions are broken, the extra expenditure involved is met, and can only be met, by limiting the diet ; or, in other words, by sacrificing physical efficiency.
“That few York labourers receiving 20/- or 21/- per week submit to these iron conditions in order to maintain physical efficiency is obvious. And even were they to submit, physical efficiency would be unattainable for those who had three or more children dependent upon them. It cannot therefore be too clearly understood, nor too emphatically repeated, that whenever a worker having three children dependent on him, and receiving not more than 21s. 8d. per week, indulges in any expenditure beyond that required for the barest physical needs, he can do so only at the cost of his own physical efficiency, or of that of some members of his family.

The italics in all cases are Mr. Rowntree’s.

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In face of these statements we can only conclude that there is more than sufficient evidence to show that at least twelve millions of our people are living below the poverty line, and that those living on the poverty line are on the verge of starvation. Nor is this all. Those who to-day are above the poverty line may to-morrow be below and vice versa. The conditions persist though the persons vary. Says J. A. Hobson “Only three out of every ten persons in the richest country in Europe belong to a class which is able to live in decent comfort . . the other seven are of necessity confined to a standard of life, little, if at all, above the line of bare necessity.”

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The persons differ. Again I quote from “Poverty.” “The life of a labourer is marked by five alternating periods of want and comparative plenty. During early childhood, unless his father is a skilled worker he probably will be in poverty; this will last until he, or some of his brothers or sisters, begin to earn money and thus augment their father’s wage sufficiently to raise the family above the poverty line. Then follows the period during which he is earning money and living under his parents’ roof; for some portion of this period he will be earning more money than is required for lodging, food, and clothes. This is his chance to save money. If he has saved enough to pay for furnishing a cottage, this period of comparative prosperity may continue after marriage until he has two or three children, when poverty will again overtake him. This period of poverty will last perhaps for ten years, i.e., until the first child is fourteen years old and begins to earn wages, but if there are more than three children it may last longer. While the children are earning, and before they leave the home to marry, the man enjoys another period of prosperity—possibly, however, only to sink back again into poverty when his children have married and left him, and he himself is too old to work, for his income has never permitted his saving enough for him and his wife to live upon for more than a very short time.
“A labourer is thus in poverty, and therefore underfed
(a) In childhood when his constitution is being built up.
(b) In early middle life—when he should be in his prime.
(c) In old age.”

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It thus appears that the number of the workers at some time or other below the poverty line is not confined to 43 per cent. It is true that this is the number at any one time. But the individuals at present below will to-morrow be above and their places will be occupied by others of their class. But the “aboves” and the “belows” cancel one another and we thus derive the result that the normal condition of the working class is to exist on the poverty line. The worker has absolutely no guarantee that he will escape from the position of having to receive less than is necessary to maintain him in a state of merely physical efficiency.

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The reason for this condition of things is that he must sell his labour-power in “free” competition with his fellows in an ever overstocked labour market. Hence no reform can do anything for him. The only remedy is to abolish the present method of private property-holding, the operation of which can be shown as the cause of the overstocked labour market with its necessary corollary of a subsistence wage. This abolition would be no mere destructive policy, but would be the preliminary to a system of common property holding, the end of which would be care of all and not the aggrandisement of a few.

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I think, therefore, that there can be little doubt that the statement that twelve millions of our population are on the verge of starvation is an understatement of the case, and that if this were clearly recognised to be the result of capitalism there would be a more speedy growth of a Socialist Party in this country than at present seems probable.

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Be that as it may the struggle has commenced, and to those who have studied the question there cannot be any doubt that victory lies with the working class and with Socialism.

ECONOMICUS

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