Benefit Britain 1949: Episode 1

“You can’t expect me to live off that.” said Karen, an annoyed client at the Labour and Welfare Office. Everyone has an opinion on what should be changed with today’s benefits, but does anyone have a definitive way of making it fair?

You could not help feeling a sense of guilt at the difference between 1949’s benefits and today’s high paid so-called ‘scroungers’. 

One might say that it was a propaganda stunt to get claimants thinking about how ‘lucky’ they are by 1949’s standards. However, it raised some important points about how the long-term sick, disabled and elderly were supported.

Craig, 24, who suffered with spina bifida, had never had a job and was starting to feel rejected by today’s working society. With the 1949 benefits he only received emergency funds because he had not ‘paid-in’ to government. However, with training and work-experience his benefit went up. He probably got the most out of this experiment, as he ended up with a job offer at a call centre. While watching the programme, I asked myself, is this a better way of helping the disabled. Seven decades ago were actively helped them find a job that was suitable for them. Yet Craig had never received help in finding a job which could work for him. 

While Craig benefited from 1949, Karen, who was on long-term sick benefit and Melvyn, a retired train engineer found the task more challenging.

Melvyn was given just £5.49 to live on a day, that had to cover his rent, bills, travel and food costs. He was left alone in his flat. He had with no car or bus pass because they were not provided until the end of the last century. He ended up in debt, and having to sell his grandfather’s watch just to break even. It got worse, because Melvyn had little food and a poor diet, he was told he could not look after himself, and with no-one around to help, ended up in a care home. Is this not more of a strain on government resources than the adequate state pension of 2013?

Karen, who suffered with a string of ailments, from a bad back to diabetes, also received very little money and had several check-ups from the welfare officer. She as forced to defend her conditions which made for very uncomfortable viewing. It was very clear that pensioners and the long-term sick were made to feel like a strain on resources in the 1940’s. 

The programme had its highs and lows from watching an ecstatic Craig get a job offer, to watching elderly Melvyn cry into his bedding because he was so lonely. Uncomfortable, yet engaging, emotional viewing. The series will hopefully make some benefit claimants think about just how lucky they are.

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