Comparisons with 1930s 'difficult'

RELATIVE deprivation among Britain's poorest people is probably as great today as it was in the Great Depression of the 1930s, according to Professor Peter Townsend, of Bristol University, writes Stephen Ward.

Professor Townsend, of the Department of Social Policy and Social Planning, said although national income had increased over the past 60 years, 'it is as hard or harder for the poor to fulfil their expectations for their children'.

He said it was difficult to compare as so many factors had altered and there were far fewer statistics available from the 1930s than for the 1990s. But it was known that there had been a significant change in the social pattern of poverty.

There were fewer old people in the 1930s, and many of the poor least able to do anything about their plight are the elderly. There were also fewer single-parent families.

Although the benefits of the sense of belonging in working class communities can be overstated, more poor families today are isolated from the practical support which neighbours and families could give. 'There has been a tendency for society to fragment, and undoubtedly this affects in particular the elderly and the disabled.'

He also said that the amount of time spent unemployed had increased. 'A year used to be long- term unemployed,' he said. In the 1990s the structural changes in the economy have made it unlikely that many unemployed men over 45 will work again.

In the 1930s, benefit for a family of four, in today's money, was about pounds 30 per week, between a third and a quarter of the equivalent today. But inflation has been calculated on a basket of costs not necessarily relevant to the very poor. Only 4 per cent of the population had private cars in the 1930s, compared with almost seven out of ten households today. The television, now in 98 per cent of homes, was not available.

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