Benefits Britain 1949: yes, the world has changed since then

A light brown-skinned woman with braided hair, wearing a red jumper and a black top under it, holding a crutch in her hand, getting out of a metallic grey Nissan carCurrently Channel 4 is running a series called Benefits Britain 1949, in which people are invited to live on benefits at 1949 levels (supposedly adjusted to inflation) for a week. The Daily Mail has published an article by Melissa Kite in which it is declared that this “extraordinary experiment … PROVES the welfare state has lost its way”. The three people featured are a 54-year-old grandmother who it claims is “smartly dressed in fashionable clothes, jewellery and sports an immaculate manicure”, a 24-year-old man with spina bifida who uses a wheelchair, and a 71-year-old widower, all from Nottingham where, she says “half the population is on some kind of benefit. Yes, half”. The experiment sees the disabled man get his “first real job” while the pensioner is packed off to an old people’s home.

This is not the first time people have been invited to live in a recreation of the world as it was in the past — the BBC has put on a 1900 House (in 1999) and a 1940s House, and there was an American spin-off, The Pioneer House — but they tried to put on the whole show, complete with a shop that sold 1900 goods, as far as possible, at 1900 prices. This seems to be an attempt to get people to live a modern lifestyle on 1949 benefits, crudely adjusted for inflation, when so much about the lifestyle was different in 1949. It fails to take into account the state of public transport in that time, the cost of commodities such as oil, and the greater cost of keeping someone in an institution, as well as the change in social attitudes, notably the desire by older and disabled people to maintain their independence as much as possible. Both the pensioner Mervyn and Karen, who has a number of long-term health problems and has been “on the sick”, as the programme called it, for seven years (having worked as a care assistant for the previous 22), were obviously shocked when told that their weekly benefits only amounted to £38, but this appears to have been a miscalculation intended to provoke this reaction.

Kite calls Karen “smartly dressed in fashionable clothes, jewellery and [with] an immaculate manicure”; besides the obvious judgement for having anything resembling a luxury “on the state” (a common theme of present Tory welfare policy), it’s hard to see what’s fashionable about Karen’s clothes; she attends the benefits office in a red jumper and a long black skirt. They are certainly concealing, some would say dowdy, all the more so from behind, and they give no indication as to where they come from. She calls Karen “very overweight”; she is overweight (though she doesn’t look obese), but then, fatty foods are cheaper to get hold of and quicker to prepare than healthy foods and she may not be able to stand at the cooker for half an hour. Kite also tell us that her hair is “freshly braided”; she is obviously mixed-race (which doesn’t really show in the black and white pictures in Kite’s article) and braided hair is common among Black women. It may have been done by a relative for nothing.

Kite also notes that Karen claims that she’d “done [her] f***ing share for Britain”, which is probably quite true; she had been working, probably for not much money, as a care assistant for 22 years, which is often physically taxing work as it involves lifting heavy people, as well as unpleasant (like taking people to the toilet and changing incontinence pads and soiled clothing), and the people you care for may not always be very friendly, or may be challenging (if, for example, they have learning difficulties or dementia). I am not sure whether any of her health conditions had anything to do with her work, but it is important that people know that they will be well looked-after if they become unable to work, whether for work-related reasons or other. Some kinds of work require taking risks with one’s own safety, and people will not do this if it is likely to mean not only disability and poor health, but also destitution. This is even more true of the military, of course.

Mervyn, the pensioner, found that his pension did not meet his living costs and went into debt over his electricity bill, and ended up being put in a “state-funded old people’s home”, at which he is initially “tearful” but “when he gets there, he cheers up considerably and professes that there are advantages to being institutionalised because here he has cooked meals laid on, company and even entertainment. How unlike the fate of many elderly people today, who are effectively left to struggle alone”. So, it seems he is really costing the state a bit more than £38, because that old people’s home would have had to hire cleaners, carers and administrators, pay much bigger heating bills than for a small house, and so on. (Of course, the production company would have made sure he did not end up in a home where there was any whiff of a care scandal.)

Likewise, Craig, who was told he was ineligible for anything more than a tiny emergency payment as he had not paid any National Insurance because he had never worked (because nobody would hire him, apparently because of his condition), would very likely have been in an institution in 1949 if he had even survived; the survival rate for spina bifida before the 1960s was 10-12%; it improved because of antibiotics and improvements in how the urological complications were managed. The condition was the subject of a lot of negative attitudes among the medical profession (about such things as whether it is even worth operating on a child to prolong their life), something which only changed in the 70s and 80s. A man who was 24 in 1949 would have been born in 1925, when eugenic ideas were at their height, and it is very likely that he would have been institutionalised from early childhood. By 1949 these places were run by the NHS and that, of course, cost the state money, and that would have been more than £38 a week as well.

While it might have been possible for some people in wheelchairs to find work, it is laughable that, in a programme about the 1949 benefits system, he manages to travel to work by public transport in his wheelchair. That simply was not possible in 1949; no buses or trains were accessible, and would not be for fifty years (long journeys could be made by putting you in the unheated guard’s van on some trains). Wheelchairs then were much heavier than the one he is using, although he is otherwise a fit young man and would have been fairly well able to push one (an older person or someone with impaired arm function would have found that a lot more difficult).

This “experiment” was, thus, nothing close to a faithful recreation of life in 1949 with a focus on the benefit system of the time; it was a lazy attempt to justify cuts to the welfare system by casting moral judgements on people today by subjecting them to rules imported from a bygone era, which were made for a bygone era, not for a today that nobody had yet seen by then. In 1949, there was almost full employment (that is, full male employment, as marriage bars for women existed in many professions and it was not expected for women to work full-time), house prices were a fraction of today’s and there was a council house building boom, there was much less technology, which means there was much less adaptation for disability; people had much less expectation of independence, particularly at public expense; standards of living were different, the country only being just out of a war, rather than having enjoyed 70 years of peace; families were expected to care for each other and those they could or would not care for were institutionalised. This programme does not consider the cost of that, nor why they were unsatisfactory (unwarranted restrictions on people’s lives at best, neglect and abuse at worst). The benefits system has changed because the country has changed, in some ways for the worse but in very, very many ways for the better, and the human cost of returning to the living and health standards, attitudes and practices of the 40s would greatly outweigh the cost of supporting a relatively small number of unscrupulous or lazy people.

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