Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Henry Mayhew and the Jersey Poor

If a man, his wife, and two children, all go out in the streets selling, they breakfast before starting, and perhaps agree to re-assemble at four o'clock. Then the wife prepares the dinner of fish and potatoes, and so tea is dispensed with. In that case the husband's and wife's board would be 4d. or 4½d. a day each, the children's 3d. or 3½d. each, and giving 1½d. extra to each for Sunday, the weekly cost is 10s. 3d. Supposing the husband and wife cleared 5s. a week each, and the children each 3s., their earnings would be 16s. The balance is the surplus left to pay rent, washing, firing, and clothing. (London Labour and the London Poor, 1861)

"London Labour and the London Poor" (1861) was a pioneering work by Henry Mayhew on Victorian Poverty. Mayhew not only described the habits and daily life of the poor on the streets, he also investigated their finances, and detailed how they tried to make ends meet.

There is a great deal of well-justified concern about how a rise in GST locally will change from 3% to 5%. Clearly it will impact most severely on the poorest, and while there is income support, this often does not apply to pensioners who have saved, and managed to pay off a mortgage on their home or flat. They will have to sell their home, and use all their savings, and then go, cap in hand, to the States. This will impact on the rental market, and the degree to which it will cannot yet be ascertained.

More generally, the poorest in Jersey, who are renting already, will be forced into needing income support to make ends meet, and a culture of dependency will arise, which is not good either for self-respect, or for the finances of Jersey. It means more means-testing, more paperwork (and more staff), and more money needed from the States to support it. And there will be less money in the economy as a result, as people have less to spend, leading to lower returns on GST.

The impact of any rise in GST will be more severe in Jersey than, for example, in the UK, because here it effects the very basics of life - of heat, light, water and food. This is where GST really bites, because it hits essentials, not luxury items, which everyone needs, regardless of income.

I have been told of pensioners who are already finding it difficult to make a balance between heating in winter or eating, and the situation will only get worse. At the very least, the removal of GST from the utility companies bills to householders would ease the situation, and would be fairly simple to implement with modern computerised record keeping.

A letter to the JEP complaining about the low increase in the cost of living says it all - they said how, when the price of a loaf of daily bread - one of the staples of life - has risen so dramatically - and gas costs have just risen - can the index have shown a reduction? Clearly, they could not easily reconcile the increase cost of their personal outgoings with the drop in the RPI. But this is, in fact, understandable when we look at the Retail Price Index.

According to the Statistics Unit, inflation in Jersey has fallen - the Retail Price Index in Jersey was 2.8% in June 2010 and dropped to 2.1% in September. But this is how it is compiled, and note that it is a general measure on goods and services:

The RPI is compiled using a large and representative selection of over 500 separate goods and services. The price movements for each of these are measured at a representative range of outlets. About 2,500 separate price quotations are used each quarter in compiling the index

What we don't have, and clearly need, is not simply RPI statistics of an overall nature, in which the poorest and elderly get swallowed up in the figures, but an index of the price index faced by the poorest - the lowest quartile - and see how that has risen - how the daily household bill of that lowest quartile has gone up, and what proportion of income that consumes. We also really need to know how well the income support system is doing - how are people coping who are on income support - to see that enough is being given to them. A letter to the paper highlights the problems:

I accept that people have no work at home and are following work all over the world but we have less work now and it is becoming scarce. It's a frightening time for residents, and with tax being raised, monies spent on finance, no diversity is being supported. Benefit payments are at an all time high, but only those on benefit get help. Special payments for emergency assistance don't come into play for desperate working families if they have a crisis. (2)

Not only are food costs on the increase (because of the price of wheat worldwide), but also poorer people have problems with dental costs or medical expenses when trying to make ends meet. It is well attested that, in a situation where medical expenses are high, mothers with young children will struggle on and try to do without medical attention when they need it. This was written in 1952, but I have come across Jersey families where it is as true today as then:

Preventable pain is a blot on any society. Much sickness and often permanent disability arise from failure to take early action, and this in its turn is due to high costs and the fear of the effects of heavy bills on the family. The records show that it is the mother in the average family who suffers most from the absence of a free health service. In trying to balance her domestic budget she puts her own needs last. (3)

That is why, of course, so many people on lower incomes make use of the accident and emergency department at the hospital, because it is the only way they can easily make ends meet, especially when they need medical help out of house, when a call out can cost upwards of £80. And it should be notice that matters will be harder soon in the new budget proposals, which aim to severely restrict the use of A&E to just "emergency cases", rather than tackling the root problem of need.

What is needed is the kind of survey that Henry Mayhew did - anecdotal information, no doubt, but accurate nonetheless, and important in understanding just how the daily budget can be balanced, and how difficult it may be. This doesn't mean naming people, but it brings home the individual, out of the mass of statistics, and for those on lower incomes, that will probably turn out to be typical rather than the exception.

Figures depersonalise the situation, they take the politicians away from actual hardship, because they are abstractions from real people. Just as the reductions of grants to Les Amis are made by people who have probably never visited the place (and just a day helping out would let them see what work is done), so too the increase in GST is done by people who have never had to live on a basic pension. That's why we desperately need someone - to highlight what in means to live on a tight budget, and how hard it is to economise. That is often done around Christmas, with the JEP articles, but we need a more comprehensive report that just one or two pages of news print, which are often forgotten once Christmas is gone.

Here is Henry Mayhew again:

One Irish street-seller I saw informed me that she was a "widdy wid three childer." Her husband died about four years since...In the summer she sells green fruit, which she purchases at Covent-garden. When the nuts, oranges, &c., come in season, she furnishes her stall with that kind of fruit, and continues to sell them until the spring salad comes in. During the spring and summer her weekly average income is about 5s., but the remaining portion of the year her income is not more than 3s. 6d. weekly, so that taking the year through, her average weekly income is about 4s. 3a.; out of this she pays 1s. 6d. a week rent, leaving only 2s. 9d. a week to find necessary comforts for herself and family. For fuel the children go to the market and gather up the waste walnuts, bring them home and dry them, and these, with a pennyworth of coal and coke, serve to warm their chilled feet and hands. They have no bedstead, but in one corner of a room is a flock bed upon the floor, with an old sheet, blanket, and quilt to cover them at this inclement season. There is neither chair nor table; a stool serves for the chair, and two pieces of board upon some baskets do duty for a table, and an old penny tea-canister for a candlestick. She had parted with every article of furniture to get food for her family. She received nothing from the parish, but depended upon the sale of her fruit for her living.(1)

(1) London Labour and the London Poor, 1861, Henry Mayhew
(2) Letter, JEP
(3) In Place of Fear, Aneurin Bevan, 1952

1 comment:

Nick Palmer said...

and while there is income support, this often does not apply to pensioners who have saved, and managed to pay off a mortgage on their home or flat. They will have to sell their home, and use all their savings, and then go, cap in hand, to the States

I am not 100% sure this is correct. There are people on income support who have their own houses. I'm not sure if the dividing line is whether the mortgage is fully paid off or not.