1960s >> 1967 >> no-758-october-1967

Poor Kids

The new Minister of State at the Department of Economic Affairs, Peter Shore, is reported to be the author of one of the most embarrassing documents ever written—the 1964 Labour Party election manifesto The New Britain. For his own good we may hope that Shore’s work at the DEA will be sufficiently taxing to take his mind off the many promises made in that programme which have not been kept.


There was, for example, a lot about the alleged failures and cynicism of the Conservatives. Take a look at this:


 . . .  the nagging problems the Tories stupidly (in some cases callously) brushed aside . . .  Social Security benefits which have fallen below the minimum levels of human need . . .


Labour, we were told, would run things differently. They had, after all, come up the hard way; Harold Wilson could remember the kids without any boots, the late Nye Bevan had once made a speech about social priorities and there were even still a few miners among the Labour M.P.s, if they could be sorted out among the keen, smooth, ambitious university graduates.


The first thing to say about what are called—perhaps in jest—social security benefits is that it is nothing new for them to be falling below the minimum levels of human need. Sometimes, indeed, they have been deliberately designed that way. However outraged the tone of Labour’s manifesto, the fact is that no government ever anticipates this situation and actually pays out benefits so far above the minimum levels that they remove the danger of them falling below the level, at least for a very long time.


Instead, governments spend a lot of time investigating the fact that the benefits have fallen in value, producing recommendations to bring them up again and in arguing about whether they can afford to carry out their own recommendations.


This has been the background to every enquiry into social security. But whatever patching up a government may do they never complete the repair—as fast as one hole is plugged another opens up, and then another. No matter how they attempt to distribute the overall poverty of the working class, some section of workers is always in dire need, in conditions which are themselves a problem demanding immediate action.


So it was when Beveridge (assisted by a much younger Harold Wilson) came to the unsurprising conclusion that the scheme which had been operating before the war would be hopelessly inadequate in post-war conditions. So it was as each successive government increased one or other social security payment, hailing each rise as a permanent solution to the poverty problem. So it is now, in Harold Wilson’s heaven.


Today, about one million children in this country are living at a level below the basic National Assistance rates. Over half of these are in homes where the father is in full time employment but has a wage which is too low, or a family which is too big, or both. Many social reformers have been shocked to find out that these conditions exist, because they were supposed to have been abolished by family allowances and the other provisions of the “Welfare State”.


But apart from anything else, the buying power of the allowances has been worn away by the continuous rise in prices. On 13 March last Margaret Herbison (who was then Minister of Social Security) said that to restore the purchasing power of the ten shilling family allowance, for third and subsequent children, to the level it stood at when it was introduced would need an increase to 13/7d.


The government’s answer to this is to increase family allowances—again—by seven shillings for second and subsequent children. This will happen next April; meanwhile a part payment of an extra five shillings is being made for fourth and subsequent children. This is part of what the newspapers like to call a package deal; also in next April, school meals will go up by 6d. a day and welfare milk by 2d. a pint. The government are also considering decreasing the income tax allowance which can be claimed for children; when he announced the higher family allowances in the Commons last July Patrick Gordon Walker said:


  . . . it would be logical, in considering how it should be paid for, to consider, among other things, some adjustment of the income tax allowances which affect families.


The widespread reaction to this package deal was dissatisfaction, especially among those who had assumed that only a Tory government would stoop to imposing increases in the price of welfare foods, cutting education and so on. Margaret Herbison left the government over it, thus removing one of those useful Ministers who build for themselves a reputation for protecting the poor and underprivileged—and who have been known to use this reputation to soothe indignant and disappointed delegates at Labour conferences. Herbison’s colours, however tattered, had been nailed to the mast:


   There is no doubt that children of the low-wage earners are suffering serious deprivation at the present time and we have got to do something about it. (21 November 1966).
.  .  . every child born should have as its very birthright the opportunity to develop to its full capacity, enjoying the benefits of a good home, education and culture. Where poverty exists, these things are not possible .  .  . (20 April 1967).


It was clear that the protesters were beating themselves against the usual brick wall and we do not have to look far to find the reason. The key to a great deal of Labour’s policy in government is their concern over the level and the direction of investment in industry. This was the motive behind the setting up of the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation, it is the motive behind much current taxation policy and it is the motive behind the Bill which is now being prepared, which will extend the government’s powers beyond those of the IRC and will give it a stronger hand in allocating and controlling industrial investment.
All this will be done in co-operation with private industry. According to The Times of 29 August, over £100 million is likely to be spent when the Bill is passed, including “tens of millions of pounds” towards building an aluminium plant in this country. As good a description of this policy as any was given by Tory leader Edward Heath, in a statement he issued on 2 September, when he advised private industry not to kowtow to the government “.  .  . in order to get money for investment which the Labour government’s taxation makes it impossible to get inside the firm or on the open market.”


What this means is that, no matter what the theories, the desires, the hopes, of Labour supporters, there is only a strictly limited amount of money available for education, welfare foods, family allowances and so on. Within that amount the government have shuffled the figures about — increasing here, cutting there, trying to justify the imposition of a new-style means test—to try to convince everyone that they are doing something about working class problems.


Since most of the participants in the argument over family allowances have made free use of the word poverty, it is as well if we decide what we mean by it. Poverty is simply depending on a wage for a living. When a worker is in employment he may get enough to keep him at a level of poverty at which he can run a car, have a washing machine and hang those abominable strips of plastic curtaining in his doorway. But if for any reason he cannot work, or if his personal circumstances are such that his wage is stretched until it snaps, he finds himself among the statistics, under the eye of the sociologists and perhaps eventually of a Ministry.


The Child Poverty Action Group is one of the organisations which make it their business to uncover examples of this:


   A woman of 30, suffering from multiple sclerosis, with two boys of 8 and 5, writes: “We are in debt because over the last few years my husband has lost a lot of time off work to see to the children when I have been too ill to manage.”
This year with my husband off work with his accident, I really dread Christmas. I have to try not to think of it.
A 36-year-old man confined to a wheel chair due to polio, married with 5 children, was made redundant through the cancellation of TSR 2. Now, on sickness benefit, his financial problems are acute.


The whole point—which is missed by organisations like Child Poverty Action—is that these privations afflict only one section of the population—those who depend on their wage for a living. The other section—the capitalist class—have no money problems if they are ill or have large families and being out of work is not something which worries them because they don’t depend on working for their living. Miss Mervyn Pike, although she is the Tory Shadow Minister of Social Security, showed the Commons last December that she also knows this: “We all recognise that all large families, except those who are very rich, have greater difficulties than smaller families.”


It follows from this (although of course Miss Pike was not interested in where her opinions were leading her) that working class poverty, which sometimes becomes working class destitution, is an unavoidable product of the class division of capitalist society and there can be no cure for it as long as capitalism lasts.


This is the root reason for the failure of the Labour government, which has shocked so many of its supporters. Last April two of these—Professors Brian Abel-Smith and Peter Townsend — signed a letter sent to all members of the Cabinet which appealed to them to “. . .  restore the Government’s sense of social priorities ” and ended “. . .  it is doubtful whether our aim can be achieved unless members of the Cabinet are prepared to consider people with problems, rather than departments with traditional responsibilities.”


There could be no more bitter condemnation than this. The Wilson government has disappointed many of its friends, it has broken its promises. Its policies have been exposed as futile, it has a long list of failures, even by its own standards, to its name; it bids fair to go down as one of the most cynical governments for a very long time. What holds it together? In The Times of 31 July there was an interesting pointed article by David Wood which ended with this passage


   By his wits Harold Wilson put Labour in power, and they know that it is only by his wits that they can stay there. That is the covenant between the Prime Minister and his troubled party, and in party politics there is none more binding.


Is this, after three years of power, what Labour has come to? If Wood is right the party which boasted they were going to build the new Britain has the same sort of “unity” as a gang of hunted criminals. Meanwhile there are still those million children, who do not understand about political infighting, or financial juggling, but who are hungry and suffering.




(Some of the information in this article was supplied by the Child Poverty Action Group. We thank them) .