i’ve finally tracked down a new copy of Round About a Pound A Week from the marvellous Persephone Books, and spent a very enjoyable evening reading it on Friday. Written in 1913 by the Fabian Women’s Group, it tracks the lives of the ‘working poor’ of Lambeth in minute detail. The project came about as the result of the Fabians deciding to investigate the impact of additional grants for food being given to families upon the birth of a new child. Actually, the book itself hardly dwells on the impact of this specific measure, instead looking at housing, relationships and food (Maslow’s basic needs – there wasn’t scope for much beyond them for these families). The over-riding message is of the impossibility of living on such tiny wages.
So much struck me about this book that I can’t fit it all into this one post. So for now, two things in particular stand out that challenged the assumptions around poverty in 1913, and that remain deeply pertinent today. First, Maud Pember Reeves (the principal author) ridicules the doctors and officials who suggest that women need to be educated about the wonders milk can do for their kids. Women knew this all too well – but managing the household budget when it was so meagre made it an utterly unrealistic choice. Women were already going without – as, often, their children were too – and there was no room to cut spending on other items to purchase milk.
Second, Pember Reeves notes with interest that almost every family in the study put a notable sum of their weekly budget into the burial club. Rationally, this seems crazy: much better to spend every penny possible on keeping the children alive in the first place. But, she notes, the ‘disgrace of a pauper funeral’ meant that £11,000,000 every year was paid in pennies by the poor to the burial clubs. Pride was in operation here and the book takes issue with the middle class moralisers who refuse to see the importance of a decent burial. I am sure that the usual stuff the papers cover about trainers, big TVs and the rest is something of a modern-day equivalent.
The working poor that Pember Reeves studied remain a woefully invisible part of our population today. The equivalent of a 1913 pound is roughly £370 a week now, or £19,250 a year, according to the IFS. Meanwhile the official poverty line is set now at £332 a week for a two parent, two child family. Half the kids living in poverty have parents in work, and our study of ‘Just Coping’ families in Kent indicates that up to a sixth of the kids living there experience conditions that, while unrecognisable to the children of the 1913 study, are still characterised by terrible housing, miserable environments, limited and unhealthy food and deeply unstable or unrewarding work for their parents.
The book didn’t stop at describing the lives of the families – although simply that description, in such detail, had a massive impact on the social reformers and politicians of the day. The study also made recommendations that influenced policy around child benefits, free school milk, and health visitors. I think it’s time to do another study like Pember Reeves’…