Bread and Work: The Experience of Unemployment 1918-39 by Matt Perry

By Matt Perry

Having a look past records and financial cycles, Perry investigates the human influence of unemployment from the point of view of these who lived via it, their employers and groups, arguing that the teachings of the Nineteen Thirties have direct relevance at the present time because the structural difficulties of business capitalism stay inherent.

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These efforts continued in the annual reports of the Unemployment Assistance Boards. However, the volume and exhaustiveness of this material should not blind us to its omissions and bias. Government reports were written from a particular standpoint with specific aims; sometimes the official agenda was obvious and intruded on their conclusions. 59 Bias also affected government documents in more subtle ways. The first annual Unemployment Assistance Board was very carefully prepared to gain that controversial body the most favourable press coverage.

Sickness insurance maintained workers at times when ill health prevented them from working. Both measures negatively defined employment and allowed for the withdrawal of less productive individuals from the labour market. Unemployment insurance, which was the most radical break with orthodox economic and poverty relief thinking, was the final element that distilled the previously undifferentiated mass of urban poor. Obviously, this had important implications for the definition and measurement of the labour force.

Those blamed in the 1940s for the previous decade’s appeasement and unemployment, should be seen in a more favourable light. This interpretation sounds a counterpoint to the popular myths about the 1930s. These myths underpinned the 1945 settlement and were summed up by the slogan ‘Never Again’ – that is, there would be no return to the 1930s. These myths were based on a collective memory and experience, albeit a selective one, of the years between the wars. Was there really an orthodoxy amongst academic historians that the 1930s were a ‘low, dishonest decade’?

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