Most of my friends went slightly mad as they finished their PhD dissertations; some cried compulsively, another forgot to eat, and I knew a couple who never wore anything other than pyjamas for months on end. My lowest ebb came when I developed a mild addiction to The Archers, a daily, fifteen-minute soap on Radio 4, featuring the activities of a large, extended family in the fictional village of Ambridge.
Described by Sandi Toksvig as ‘a memorable theme tune, followed by fifteen minutes of ambient farm noise and sighing,’ The Archers was created in 1950 as a kind of public information service: the BBC collaborated with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food to broadcast information about new technologies and methods to farmers during a period when Britain was trying to increase agricultural productivity.
The series still has an agricultural story editor, and there’s at least one fairly awkward moment in each episode when Ruth Archer discusses milking machines, or Adam Macy mulls over the relative benefits of crop rotation. But its appeal lies now in its human drama. It’s been criticised – rightly – for avoiding complex or uncomfortable social issues, but, recently, it’s featured an excellent storyline involving the series’ poorest family, the Grundys.
Struggling with cuts in benefits and reduced wages, Emma Grundy runs out of money and takes refuge in a food bank, where she and her daughter are given a free lunch. In a sense, this thread dramatizes the Guardian’s excellent Breadline Britain Project, which tracks the ‘impact and consequences of recession on families and individuals across the UK.’ The project has demonstrated convincingly that British people are eating worse as they become less financially secure.
One of its most arresting reports argues that Britain is in a ‘nutrition recession’:
Detailed data compiled for the Guardian, which analysed the grocery buying habits of thousands of UK citizens, shows that consumption of fat, sugar and saturates has soared since 2010, particularly among the poorest households, despite the overall volume of food bought remaining almost static. Food experts and campaigners called for government action to address concerns the UK faces a sustained nutritional crisis triggered by food poverty, which is in turn storing up public health problems that threaten to widen inequalities between rich and poor households.
The data show consumption of high-fat and processed foods such as instant noodles, coated chicken, meat balls, tinned pies, baked beans, pizza and fried food has grown among households with an income of less than £25,000 a year as hard-pressed consumers increasingly choose products perceived to be cheaper and more ‘filling’.
Over the same period, fruit and vegetable consumption has dropped in all but the most well-off UK households, and most starkly among the poorest consumers, according to the data.
It’s no wonder that so many columnists have evoked George Orwell’s description of the very poor eating habits of Wigan’s most impoverished residents during the Great Depression in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). But the use of the term ‘breadline’ harks back to an earlier, and arguably more influential study, Seebohm Rowntree’s Poverty: A Study in Town Life (1901). Rowntree (1871-1954), the son of the philanthropist and chocolate tycoon Joseph (1836-1925), had studied chemistry in Manchester before beginning work as a scientist in the family business in York.
But like his father – whose awareness of poverty had been awakened, apparently, by a trip to Ireland during the potato famine – Rowntree’s encounters with York’s poor led to the first of three studies which he undertook into poverty in York. Inspired partly by Charles Booth’s The Life and Labour of the People (1886), which analysed the lives of London’s poor, in 1899 Rowntree conducted a survey of the working-class population of York. His findings caused a national outcry, as Ian Packer explains:
Poverty: A Study of Town Life (1901)…became an important subject of debate because of its assertion that not only were 28 percent of the total households in York in poverty but nearly 10 percent had incomes so low that they could not keep the members of the family in what Seebohm termed ‘physical efficiency,’ that is, provided with sufficient nutritional food to maintain health.
Rowntree used access to food as a means of gauging poverty, and it is here that he originated the idea of the ‘breadline’. Diana Wylie writes:
Rowntree latched on to food, or, more precisely, its lack, as a convenient and revealing means of measuring socially unacceptable levels of deprivation. He drew an absolute poverty line; below it, people did not earn enough to buy the ‘minimum necessities for the maintenance of merely physical efficiency.’ If working men did not consume 3,500 calories of food energy daily, and women four-fifths that amount, their intelligence became dulled and their stature stunted. This quite pragmatic definition of hunger, the ‘underfeeding’ that would destroy a person’s stamina, served for Rowntree as the index for judging Britain’s social progress.
This and Rowntree’s subsequent two studies of poverty in York, published in 1936 and 1951, became some of the most significant evidence on which arguments for the creation of a British welfare state, were based. Rowntree’s point was that unemployment and low wages – and not bad eating or spending habits – were at the root of working-class poverty. It became, then, the ethical duty of the state to provide the means of freeing the population from the threat of hunger.
There is a direct line between Poverty: A Study in Town Life and the 1942 Beveridge Report, one of the most important documents of the twentieth century, which provided the foundation for Britain’s welfare state. But the influence of Rowntree’s work was felt beyond Yorkshire and the UK. In Starving on a Full Stomach (2001), Diana Wylie demonstrates the impact of the idea of the breadline on social scientists in South Africa during the early twentieth century.
In 1935, Edward Batson, a graduate of the London School of Economics, Beveridge enthusiast, and professor of social science at the University of Cape Town, arrived in South Africa and began work on ‘the first systematic survey of black urban poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.’
By 1938, Batson had surveyed 808 Cape Town households to discover how much they spent on six essential food groups, and compared their diet with the…minimum daily standard recommended in 1933 by the British Medical Association. His figures revealed that half of Cape Town’s Coloured people lived below the poverty datum line.
Batson refuted some common social scientific assumptions such as that ignorance determined the poor diets of poor Capetonians, a perspective that, he said, had recently become ‘fashionable.’ … On the contrary, Batson wrote, most people simply could not afford to eat better.
Batson’s research was undertaken in the midst of widespread debates around the founding of a South African welfare state, the underpinnings of which were put in place during the 1920s and 1930s with legislation such as the 1928 Old Age Pensions Act, and the 1937 Children’s Act. But although his work concentrated on black people, the South African welfare state was established largely to benefit whites. Indeed, Jeremy Seekings makes the point that pensions legislation in the 1920s emerged out of concerns about protecting the white (and, to some extent, coloured) ‘deserving’ poor from a perceived black ‘threat.’ This meant that evidence of significant hunger among black people was not a force in the formulation of South African welfare policy, at least before the Second World War.
So whereas Rowntree’s research contributed to the creation of a universal welfare state in Britain, where all people qualified for assistance from the state through the provision of social security payments, and free healthcare and education, in South Africa, welfare was raced: the welfare state was created to protect and to maintain white power, and to entrench racial segregation.
Understanding the origins of the term ‘breadline’ helps us to see the extent to which attitudes towards, and efforts to eradicate, hunger have changed over time, and the ways in which they’re influenced by thinking about race, as well as class. That being hungry and white meant – and means – something different to being hungry and black.
This photograph is from the National Portrait Gallery‘s collection.
William Beinart, Twentieth-Century South Africa, new ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).
Timothy J. Hatton and Roy E. Bailey, ‘Seebohm Rowntree and the Postwar Poverty Puzzle,’ The Economic History Review, vol. 53, no. 2 (Aug. 2000), pp. 517-543).
Ian Packer, ‘Religion and the New Liberalism: The Rowntree Family, Quakerism, and Social Reform,’ Journal of British Studies, vol. 42, no2 (April 2003), pp. 236-257.
Jeremy Seekings, ‘“Not a Single White Person Should be Allowed to Go Under”: Swartgevaar and the Origins of South Africa’s Welfare State, 1924-1929,’ Journal of African History, vol. 48, no. 3 (Nov. 2000), pp. 375-394.
Diana Wylie, Starving on a Full Stomach: Hunger and the Triumph of Cultural Racism in Modern South Africa (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2001).
Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.