1930s >> 1931 >> no-318-february-1931

Why Socialists Oppose Family Allowances

The argument for family allowances is, at first sight, so plausible and attractive that those who oppose the whole scheme are liable to have their attitude misunderstood. Let there, then, be no misunderstanding about our attitude. We oppose family allowances because they would not be of any assistance to the working class.
The case for them is simple. Most, if not all, working class families have at some time or other realised that children are an expensive item. If they are to be decently provided for, then the parents must go short. And, however willing the parents may be to cut down their own expenditure for the sake of the children, a prolonged spell of unemployment will inevitably result in the children going short, too. The advocates of family allowances believe that they have discovered a simple remedy. Why not, they ask, introduce a system of allowances to be paid to the father or mother in respect of the children? Then the family income would be more nearly adjusted to the size of the family. Working class families with two or more children would be receiving a larger income than families with only one child. Single men and women would receive less still. Such systems have been introduced in France, Belgium, Austria, Germany, the Irish Free State, Australia, and elsewhere. Why not here also?
We oppose the proposal. Are we, then, opposed to the working class receiving more money? Do we object to workers’ children being better provided for? Our answer is that we are most strongly in favour of the working class being made better off, both parents and children. We oppose the family allowance scheme because we deny that it would produce any such result.
Wages are based, in the long run, on what it costs the workers to live. In different climates and for different trades this cost, which normally includes the expense of bringing up a family, differs. It includes certain items of expenditure based upon the traditional manner of living in the various countries. Thus, in France the workers’ cost of living includes the cost of cheap wines, because everyone drinks wine. In the U.S.A., at least where Prohibition is enforced, the cost of living of the workers will not have to include the cost of alcoholic drinks, although, doubtless, it will have to include some dearer or cheaper alternative. The existence of a permanent army of unemployed enables the employers to bring pressure to bear to cut into the traditional element and force the wages of all workers down towards the bare physical minimum.
On the other hand, Trade Unions can be useful centres of resistance to that pressure, but experience shows that the Trade Unions have not been able to overcome the pressure. When prices rise, it costs the workers more to live, and Trade Unions can usually secure some increase, if not a proportionate increase, in wages. When prices have fallen, wages have fallen also, sometimes ahead of the prices. We have seen these two processes at work since 1914. Up to 1920, prices and wages rose. Since 1920, prices and wages have fallen.
Our criticism of the advocates of family allowances can now be more clearly stated. Family allowances would cheapen the cost of living of working class families. The constant pressure would tend to force wages down correspondingly. Five shillings would come in to mother, and be knocked off father’s wages. There is the further objection that single men and single women would suffer also, with the result that the Employers would be in pocket.
This has actually happened. In the Irish Free State, when married Civil Servants were given family allowances, the pay of the single men was reduced to the level of the single women. In the book, “Family Allowances in Practice” (Vibart, published by P. S. King, 1926), it is stated, on the authority of a Dutch economist, De Walle, that in Holland “whenever central and municipal authorities have introduced family allowances it has been with a view to making economies in their wages bills.”
In Australia the pay of unmarried employees in the Post Office was reduced by £11 per head, which just covered the cost of the married men’s allowances.
The Australian Worker (Sydney, October 28th, 1927) said that family allowances in New South Wales had been “manna from heaven—for the employers.” Instead of a 12s. cost of living increase all round, which would have cost the employers £13 million a year, and which was due under the existing wage arrangements, the employers “gave” family allowances to the married men. These cost £3 million, thus saving the employers £10 million a year.
L. Ross, of the Australian Labour Party, writing in the Socialist Review (December, 1928), said:—

   The New South Wales scheme, instead of redistributing wealth, actually meant a reshuffling of wages between single and married men.

Prominent advocates of family allowances make no bones about admitting this. They candidly confess that family allowances do not represent any addition to the income of the working class, and are not intended to.
Miss Eleanor Rathbone, M.P., is the best known of all the advocates of family allowances.
In a lecture which she gave to the Faculty of Insurance on April 2nd, 1927 (published in the Journal of the Faculty, July, 1927), she said that her object was not to raise wages or to secure an improvement in the conditions of the poor at the expense of the rich, but to re-distribute the workers’ wages among themselves.
In other words, make the single men and women help to pay for the married men’s children. Although Miss Rathbone’s heart bleeds for the unfortunate children of the workers, her remedy was not to touch the superfluous wealth of her own class, but to lower thev standard of living of unmarried workers. Let the rich go on with their horse-racing, their cigars, and their expensive society functions, but “the young men and the young women . . . would be expected to be willing to make some sacrifice at the expense of their cigarettes, cinemas, and betting on football.”
Of course, we are told by the I.L.P. that their family allowance scheme is fundamentally different from Miss Rathbone’s. They want family allowances to be a real addition to wages. They want them paid by the State, not by the employer. The I.L.P. believe that, if paid by the State, they could not have the effect of lowering wages, and in any event the Trade Unions would prevent such action by the employers. Lastly, the I.L.P. believe that family allowances would be paid during strikes and would thus help the Trade Unions.
Not one of these arguments will hold water.
If the I.L.P. scheme is in intention fundamentally different from Miss Rathbone’s, why is Mr. Brailsford, the prominent member of the I.L.P. who helped to prepare their scheme, allowed to be a member of the Family Endowment Council in association with Miss Rathbone? Why did Mr. Brailsford act as joint author, with her and others, of a book, “Equal Pay and the Family”?
It is reasonable to assume that Mr. Brailsford attaches more importance to getting any sort of scheme of family allowances, by associating with Miss Rathbone, than to trying to get the I.L.P. scheme in opposition to Miss Rathbone.
Whether the allowances are paid by the State or by the employer makes no difference at all; in both cases they would reduce the workers’ cost of living. In New South Wales they are paid by the State, but the effect is the same. In this country we have already seen the Wool Trade Committee, under Lord MacMillan, recommending a wage reduction in 1930 and giving as one of its reasons the fact that the workers’ cost of living had been lowered by unemployment pay, health insurance, old-age pensions, etc., all of them paid by the State.
When the I.L.P. fall back on the argument that the Trade Unions will resist such wage reductions, they are arguing with their tongue in their cheek, for their original reason for advocating family allowances was that the Unions were impotent. Here are Mr. Bradford’s words, in an article published by the New Leader on January 4th, 1929 :—

  Plainly, with our appalling surplus of unemployed labour, the usual methods for raising mass-purchasing power are beyond our reach. The Trade Unions can hardly defend their standards; certainly they cannot at present raise them. That is our justification for demanding political action in the form, firstly, of family allowances, and then of the fixing by the State of a standard living wage. . . .

It will be seen that the I.L.P. are simply arguing in a circle. They say, in effect: “As the Trade Unions cannot resist the employers, let us ask for family allowances; and then ask the Trade Unions to resist the employers’ attempts to reduce wages.”
Lastly, there is the question of strikes. There was a strike of textile workers in France in August, 1930. The following is a report by the Paris correspondent of The Times (August 28th, 1930):—

  2,800 workmen are reported to have returned to work during the last two days, and an even larger number is expected to return on September 1st in order not to lose the marriage and family allowance for that month.

The whole scheme is a fraud from the workers’ standpoint. The bulk of its advocates never intended it to be anything else. The others, the I.L.P., find themselves in this anti-working-class camp for the same reasons as on many other occasions. The reasons are their own clear ignorance of economics and of Socialist principles generally, and their incurable weakness for what Mr. Ramsay MacDonald has called “flashy futilities.”
Edgar Hardcastle

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