How does poverty and unemployment impact family life in the 1930s?


The aftermath of the war saw the huge impact on working class families as some soldiers return from war, psychically disabled and psychologically scarred, which alters their working ability and found themselves living on government benefits which aids them to integrate into civilian life. Nonetheless, the welfare state was not enough to provide for them and their families. At the time, Britain was affected by the Great Depression which affected all other countries including America and Australia. This led industries to create new fields replacing coal with oil and cotton with rayon with intention to create more job opportunities as it is assumed that oil was considered to be cheap and needed for transport to other towns and cities for better employment opportunities.

Child Poverty became a major social matter because children were deeply malnourished and lived in poor conditions making them susceptible to illnesses. This was recognized by various organisations and in particular, The Children’s minimum campaign and the Family Endowment Society advocating for the adoption of state funded child allowances that will help children who were below the poverty line, so they can be with healthy meals leading them to improve their educational performance and the qualifications they achieve will enhance their chances to seek employment  or continue into further education when they are older. Through the imagination of academic thinkers, the Great Depression created opportunities for domestic violence and child abuse.

Unemployment benefits were aimed to help the “deserving poor” by providing them  an allowance to help them cover basic needs for survival. However, they were forced to budget as the benefits were not enough, meaning that housewives had to act as bankers, deciding on how much they’re going to spend each day, and food had to be rationed to ensure it would last for a week. In consequence, they become marginalized by the stigma of  ill – health and social exclusion as they are cannot travel to seek help and support for their mental health, which exacerbates the feelings of frustration, and seek solace in alcoholism to escape the negative emotions, that poverty creates, thus results into alcohol dependency.

Women were assumed to suffer the worst than their husbands and children as they deprived themselves off food to feed their, ensuring that children and husbands are fed well and nourished for school and work (Burnett, J, Idle hands: Experiences of the Unemployment between 1790 – 1990. A study in Liverpool illustrated that a third of wives and mothers suffer from nervous breakdowns and anaemia. Through feminist imagination, poverty brought on by the Great Depression created a space for patriarchal control, where men  have control of the private sphere, subject their wives and children to violence to suppress the feelings of frustration with not conforming to the traditional masculine stereotypes as the breadwinner and protector.

A cautious study had been carried out on the diets of working class families, which displayed huge differences in the consumption of nutrients. The intake of calories per – man value ranged from 1,846 to 5,261 a day compared to the recommended intake of between 3,000 and 3,400. George Orwell (Burnett 1994 :248) believed that 2.5 million people were malnourished which can agree with Sir John Boyd Orr, a reputed nutritionist who quoted: “The less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food”. In other words, Sir John Boyd explains that families can only buy things they can afford rather than unnecessary items.

Poverty and unemployment created a big impact on British working class families, which continues at present. Functionalist writers like Durkheim and Parsons could argue the interwar periods created a form of social cohesion among those who affected. Marxist theorist could explain that poverty symbolizes class oppression and argue that the benefit state acts as a weapon the suppress the poor and working class members from progressing to skilled work and education opportunities. Child abuse and domestic violence was considered to be an outcome of poverty and unemployment, and is a controversial topic at present. However, not all child abuse and domestic violence cases were not a result of poverty and unemployment although it created opportunities for violence. Women found themselves putting their own health in jeopardy to fend for the health of their husbands and children, and some of them could resort to theft to ensure their families are fed and nourished.

Burnett, J (1994) Idle Hands: The Experience of Unemployment. 1790 – 1990, Ch 6 “Unemployment Between The Wars 1ed, Routledge, London, p243 – 54

George Orwell The Road to Wigan Pier, Victor Gollancz, London, 1937, 94.


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