The Jobless Crisis: Images change as joblessness affects all social classes: John Arlidge considers whether there are similarities between the 1930s and present-day unemployment

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The Independent Online
THE IMAGES have changed. Couples slumped in front of videos on modern estates have replaced cloth-capped men hanging around slum terraces. Queues to the soup kitchens have shortened. With joblessness among men at a post-war high, however, are there similarities between the 1990s and the Depression of the 1930s?

Unemployment was much worse between the wars. In August 1932, joblessness reached 23 per cent among the insured population - those eligible for the benefits of the day. This was about 16 per cent of the total workforce, compared with 10.6 per cent last month.

The jobless were more regionally concentrated. The export-dependent industries hard hit in the slump - shipbuilding, cotton textiles, coal - were located mainly in the north of England, Scotland and Wales, which observers called 'outer Britain'. As sales collapsed, unemployment reached 36 per cent in Wales and 28 per cent in Scotland and the North-east.

Although unemployment rose to 13.5 per cent in London and the South-east in 1932 - today it is about 10.5 per cent - 'inner Britain' saw job growth between the wars. About 3.5 million jobs were created between 1921 and 1938 south of an imaginary line between Coventry and Ipswich.

Dudley Baines, senior lecturer in economic history at the London School of Economics, said: 'There was higher regional industrial specialisation than now. Northern industries lost markets and had nothing to fall back on. But in the South there were vacancies. Developments like the Hoover and Gillette factories in west London, all came in the 1930s.'

'Blue-collar' workers comprised the overwhelming majority of the Thirties' jobless while 'white-collar' workers, who formed a much smaller part of the workforce, were hardly affected. Today the spread is much wider. Half of the 1.5 million jobs lost since the summer of 1990 have been in manufacturing industry. The service sector - financial services, retailing, public service - accounted for about half of the remaining 750,000.

John Philpott, director of the Employment Policy Institute, an independent think-tank, said: 'Today, unemployment cannot be thought of as affecting just one sort of industry or worker. Joblessness extends across the social and occupational spectrum.'

Calculating the number of women who are unemployed is difficult. Mr Baines estimates there are 6 million more married women looking for work today than in the Thirties when about 10 per cent of married women worked. 'Single women worked between the wars but married women were by and large not part of the labour market,' he said.

'It is difficult to know whether married women would have worked had there been jobs. If you accept that most of them would not, then female unemployment in the Thirties was far lower than today.'

Women today form half of the 'hidden' unemployed - the estimated 1 million people who are not eligible for benefits, or do not claim them. Although changes in the methods used to measure joblessness make it difficult to make direct comparisons, it is likely that the number of hidden jobless was lower in the Thirties than now.

Using 1931 census data, Charles Feinstein, professor of economic history at All Souls College, Oxford, estimates that unemployment was 'very considerably' less among the uninsured in domestic service, farming, the post office and railways than among the insured.

With high personal indebtedness, life might seem hard now but unemployment was a more devastating experience 60 years ago.

Unemployment benefit for a single man was 17 shillings (85p), when social observers calculated the required minimum income was more than 22 shillings (pounds 1.10), plus rent. Mr Baines estimates that the 1930s benefit for a family of four, in today's money, was pounds 30 per week, compared with pounds 96 now, plus housing benefit of, say, pounds 22.

Only 4 per cent of the population had private cars. The television, now in 98 per cent of homes, was not available, and few people took holidays abroad.

Some who lived through the Depression say today's more divided communities, coupled with the higher standards of living enjoyed by those in work, have created a 'crisis of expectations' among the jobless greater than that 60 years ago.

Mr Baines disagrees. 'It is extremely easy to idealise the past. The idea of chumminess of working class society in adversity is a load of rubbish. When times are hard they are hard. If you are hungry, you are hungry.'

(Photograph omitted)