15th November 1932. The Decade of the Means Test.

The 1930 Poor Law Act (section 14) placed the onus on the family to maintain those members unable to work for various reasons, reminiscent of legislation going back to 1601.(1)

Since the 19thc social policy implied that the unemployed were not to be subjected to punitive Poor Laws to get relief. It was acknowledged that cyclical unemployment resulted from economic factors and that help would come from social insurance.

However this thinking changed in the Depression of the 1930’s as noted Today in 1932 when the Times newspaper reported that Labour’s David Grenfell in a debate on the Transitional Payments(Determination of Need) Bill claimed: ‘The Bill discriminated not against the unthrifty, the idler, and the waster, but against the industrious, thrifty person who had to pay a heavy penalty’.

He went on: ‘The Minister of Labour penalises self help. He poured contempt on Samuel Smiles and all his works’.(2)


We’ve spent all our savings. We’ve used up all our dole. If we can’t pass the Means Test. It’s Three Brass Balls.

In that decade of Depression in British heavy industries, between 1931 and 1934, a Means Test was introduced making the lot of the unemployed more was harsh.

It was administered by Local Boards of Guardians whose only concern was to keep local ‘Rates’ down. but who could in desperation apply to the Ministry of Health for relief.

Of all the people from whom the unemployed might have expected help, Labour Party’s Ramsay Macdonald and George Lansbury, all they got was complacency and National Assistance Boards, The Means Test and Workhouses for the elderly. Their only concern was for balanced budgets and monetary stability.

Those on National Assistance from Local Boards of Guardians were regarded as second class citizens and applied to those unemployed who had exhausted their right to benefit, which they had received for  about 6 months, and those with insufficient insurance stamps.

However they could claim Transitional Relief which had been made easier to claim in 1930, paid by The Public Assistance Authority which had to be convinced of ‘need’ and subject to a Means Test, where all the family’s income was taken into consideration. 

As time went on long-term unemployment became more serious, so the ad hoc system was formalized in the 1934 Act which established two categories: benefits paid by The Unemployed Insurance Fund, and those who had run out of benefit, under the responsibility of the Unemployed Assistance Board, a role inherited from the old Poor Law.(3)

The modern Welfare State based on Beveridge had to wait until 1946.

(1) The 1930 Insurance Act abolished the requirement that those receiving benefit should be genuinely seeking work.

(2) Page 7 Times Newspaper. 15.11.1932.

(3) Those receiving poor relief in September 1935 was 1.2m-3.1% of population- and double that of 1913.

Ref: nationalarchives.gov.uk.

Ref: jstor.org/national assistance or unemployed assistance. F.M. Miller. 1974.

Ref: marxistarchives.com/can-means-test-be-abolished?

Ref: thumbs3.baystatic.com/Pic Image.



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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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