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The Reid scale

The board’s most urgent task was the drafting of regulations which, under the Act, had to be submitted to the Minister of Labour by 28 October 1934. The core of the regulations was to be the scale of needs which would not only govern the standard of living of unemployed people dependent on the board but would serve as a starting point for the evolution of minimum income scales in the British social security system. Although at first it would apply only to the unemployed and their families, its extension to other groups was bound to follow, as it did in the 1940s.

If anyone can be regarded as the principal author of the scale laid down in the Unemployment Assistance (Determination of Need and Assessment of Needs) Regulations, 1934, it is Eady’s deputy, George Reid. The task was not new to him: in April 1932 he had produced a hypothetical scale for transitional payments. Since then, a good deal had happened, including the parliamentary debates on the Unemployment Bill and the decision to restore the 10 per cent cut in the unemployment benefit rates. Hudson’s assertion that the unemployment benefit rates would form the “ground floor” of the new scheme had not gone unnoticed and, together with Chamberlain’s claim that the result of the bill would be “greatly to improve the lot of the unemployed”, could be regarded as an invitation to the board to adopt a liberal interpretation of its duty to meet the needs of applicants and their dependants. The scope for liberality, however, was severely limited. Assessing applicants’ needs at a higher level than unemployment benefit could discredit the insurance scheme and lead to large numbers of unemployed people applying to the board for supplementation of their insurance benefit. Generous scale rates would also involve the risk of making many unemployed people as well off as those in low-paid employment.

Reid’s initial proposals for the board’s scale, 1 submitted to Strohmenger on 25 June 1934, a few days before the board itself came into existence, were strongly influenced by the first of these constraints. They were as follows:

Shillings per week

Applicants - male




Other members of household aged 21 and over - male




18-20 - male













The figures, Reid told Strohmenger,

are necessarily only a diffident suggestion. They take account, however, of two important considerations; first, the relationship of the Board’s allowances to the unemployment benefit rates and the practice of the general run of public assistance authorities; and second, the necessity, in a service based on needs, of discriminating between children on the basis of their age.

The two considerations were, he admitted, to some extent in conflict. The flat rate addition of 2s. per child to unemployment benefit was “a grave embarrassment”, having “no reasonable relationship to the cost of maintenance except in the case of infants”. Unless the board’s scale rates for adults were set at an “impossibly low” level, however, age- related allowances for children would mean that, for families with several children, the board’s assessment of needs would exceed the benefit rates. The only comfort Reid could offer was the probability that about half the families dependent on the board would have a wage- earning son or daughter or other household resources, and would therefore receive allowances below the full scale rates.

Reid did not suggest that the scale rates for adults should be based on any objective measurement of needs. Nor did he suggest any basis for measuring children’s needs. He admitted that his age grouping was arbitrary, though it “could be justified if necessary by reference to dietary studies”. In this one sentence, he aptly summed up his approach, and that of his official colleagues. What was required, in their view, was a scale which would fit, with a minimum of disruption, into the existing pattern of family incomes from unemployment insurance, public assistance and wages. Scientific theories and abstract measurements of need were relevant only because they would be used by other people to attack the scale.

A feature of Reid’s scale which was to prove politically explosive was the treatment of rent. It was based on the proposal he had made in 1932 that about one-third of the scale rates, for both adults and children, should be regarded as for housing; if the actual rent was higher, a rent allowance would be paid covering the difference. 2 The idea was not entirely original; some public assistance authorities paid rent additions to outdoor relief recipients whose rent was above a certain level (e.g. 10s. a week in Liverpool, 6s. in Lancashire). 3 What was original was the suggestion that the level of rent above which an addition was payable should vary with the size and composition of the family, being a roughly constant proportion of their combined scale rates. In the 1934 version, the proportion of the scale rates assumed to be for housing costs was a quarter instead of a third, and the rent addition would normally be limited to the difference between a quarter


and a third of the scale rates and would be paid only if the rent was “reasonable”. If the rent exceeded one-third of the scale rates, any addition above that level would be paid only under the board’s discretionary powers. But - and here Reid departed crucially from his earlier proposal - the adjustment was to work both ways: if the actual rent was less than a quarter of the scale rates, the difference would be deducted from the weekly allowance. Thus, the board’s allowances would be adjusted to take account of the actual rent in nearly every case; and in areas of low rents the adjustments would be mainly downwards. Reid defended this on two grounds: first, that it was “undesirable to encourage people to economise beyond a certain point upon housing accommodation” and, secondly, that such deductions would be helpful in rural and other low-rented areas where the board’s scale might otherwise seem unduly generous.

A preliminary discussion of the scale took place at the board’s fourth meeting which extended from 23 to 25 July 1934. A long memorandum by Reid set out the main issues and an outline of the regulations; but the scale rates themselves were not discussed until the following meeting on 31 July. The officials may have judged it wiser to get the board’s assent in principle before presenting detailed figures.

The section of the memorandum headed “Basis for scale of allowances” roundly rejected the scientific approach:

There is no absolute criterion or scientific basis of need. The comforts of one age become the necessities of the next, and any “minimum standard” must be determined largely by time and place.

It noted that many, if not most, public assistance authorities had adopted relief scales close to the unemployment benefit rates. The benefit rates could be criticised in detail, the inadequacy of the 2s. children’s addition for older children being masked by the relative generosity of the rate for a single man (recently raised from 15s.3d. to 17s. on the restoration of the 10 per cent cuts). But unemployment insurance “could hardly survive, if the general level of the allowances granted by the Board were in excess of the payments for which the recipient had been required to make weekly contributions.” The Board, in short, was being invited to treat the benefit rates not as the “ground floor” but as the ceiling of unemployment assistance.

The memorandum stressed the need to “refrain from suggestions which would be disapproved by enlightened public opinion or which would have mischievous social consequences”; for example, by making a man better off out of work. To prevent this, an overriding provision that needs “should not be assessed at a greater sum than would be available to the household if the applicant were following his normal occupation” was suggested - the rule which was to become known as the “wage stop”. A proposal to set lower scale rates for those aged under 21, and still lower rates for those under 18, was also defended on grounds of social acceptability as well as of need:


It would

conflict with established ideas on these matters to

... allow as much for the lad of 15 as for the man of 22, and it would

overlook the fact that in many ways the needs of a man are more numerous than those of the boy. 4

The board’s reactions

Reid’s memorandum had a divisive effect on the board. Violet Markham viewed with deep concern the emphasis on public assistance standards. On the second day of the three-day meeting, she wrote to Tom Jones:

To sweep aside as the officials did the whole scientific aspect of nutrition and base ourselves on the practice of Public Assistance Committees seemed to me to take a wrong road at the start. There may be and probably is a wide gap between the ideal and the possible. But surely we should first consider what (if any) scientific basis exists for determining the minimum needs of a family. Then that determination can be reviewed in the light of other practical considerations that may modify it.

We have a great chance to put public assistance on a fair and humane basis. To blunder along weighted by the old Poor Law ideas seems to me a tragedy. There’s no chance of a private word at the Board so I send this note to tell you how I feel. 5

Thus prompted, Jones asked that the board should be provided with information about official and unofficial estimates of the cost of a minimum diet and other needs. Reynard and Strohmenger, on the other hand, backed Reid’s pragmatic approach. Reynard dismissed scientific dietary scales as having “only a limited reference to the problem before the board”; the practical question was the income on which households could reasonably subsist, and an enquiry he had conducted in Glasgow had shown that a couple could manage on 19s.5 1 /2d. a week, including 6s. for rent - far below the benefit rate of 26s. Strohmenger argued that under-nourishment was not confined to the unemployed and “might well prove to be a matter not so much of inadequate allowances as of bad use of income”. 6 After this meeting, another memorandum was circulated, in which Reid’s scale, with the figures now inserted, was compared with the benefit rates. The board was again warned against judging the rates in isolation:

it is not suggested that the full cost of maintaining a child of 3-

... 8 years is 3s., but that 24s. + 3s. = 27s. is not an unreasonable

allowance for a family of father, mother and one young child.

The 24s. rate for a couple was defended as a “very convenient starting figure”, low enough to leave room for age-graded children’s rates. The larger the family, the more favourable the comparison with both public assistance and benefit rates would be.

An item which had not appeared in earlier drafts of the scale was the 15s. allowance for a single man living alone or in lodgings - 1s. less than


the rate for a male householder (for women, the same rate, 14s., was proposed for those living alone or as heads of households) and 2s. less than the benefit rate for a man over 21. “This type of person”, the board was told, “is mobile, and in the younger part of the age can obtain work elsewhere with less difficulty than e.g. married men with families.” 7 Unemployment assistance, in other words, must not be generous enough to discourage young single men from leaving home to find work. Although 15s. a week would not cover normal board and lodging charges, Reid explained, it was quite common for charges to be reduced for an unemployed lodger who “would forgo special attentions in the way of food and services which he received when paying a full fee.”

The figures were discussed at length by the board. Reid claimed that the scale took account of expert opinion, including that of the BMA and Ministry of Health committees on nutrition and Eleanor Rathbone’s Children’s Minimum Campaign Committee, and of the poverty standards adopted in recent social surveys. The consensus of opinion, he said, pointed to a food allowance of about 10s. for a couple. Allowing 6s. for rent and 3s. for fuel and light, the 24s. scale rate left a margin of 5s. for other expenses. Reynard again cited his experience in Glasgow, where the PAC had offered to supplement unemployment benefit (then still subject to the 10 per cent cut) by 1s.6d. a week for a couple and 1s. for each child, but 86 per cent of benefit recipients did not apply “because they were able to manage on the benefit rate”. Towards the end of the meeting, the relationship of the scale to wage rates was discussed, Strohmenger, Hallsworth and Eady all suggesting different ways of preventing allowances for large families from exceeding the earnings of low-paid workers, either by reducing the married couple rate below 24s. or paying lower rates for children after the first one or two. 8

Markham’s reactions were, as usual, recorded in a letter to Tom Jones, just before leaving for her summer holiday:

When we start work again I hope we shall give a little consideration to first principles. What is the point of view of the Board? Is our approach to the question only that of the old Poor Law - the relief of destitution as cheaply as possible? Is our standard to be based on the practice of the Local Authorities many of whom have notoriously starved the unhappy people to whom they have ministered - as meagrely as may be? What do Eady’s figures represent - how are they composed in relation to food, fuel and other necessaries? Or is it a figure arrived at just haphazard? Dietics seem to rouse contempt in the breasts of Strohmenger and Reynard. But the Minister of Labour when he comes to defend our scale will find that dietics are not negligible.

it is really a question of philosophy. Are we out to do as little as possible or do we stand frankly for high taxation and a certain


redistribution of wealth by dealing generously with poverty? Generosity, however, should not be indiscriminate:


Above all I am harassed by the unsuitability of a universal scale - too low a scale for the decent man, too high for the rotter.

Unless we can get some flexibility into our arrangements the scale is bound to be pulled down to the level of the rotter.

Could there, she wondered, be a higher scale for applicants whose contribution records showed a history of regular employment? 9 The idea was never pursued, but the problem of reconciling relatively generous assistance rates with tough treatment of the work-shy was to play an important part in her thinking, and that of many other people, in the years ahead.

Science or the wage stop?

While most board members dispersed for the holidays, the officials, including Strohmenger, cancelled theirs to work on the regulations through the month of August. A statement issued by a number of eminent scientists, doctors and nutritionists at the beginning of the month urged the board to take into account “medical and other expert opinion qualified to estimate the minimum requirements of healthy living and the cost of satisfying them for families of various sizes”. Like the Children’s Minimum Campaign Committee, they recommended that food needs should be based on the findings of a recent joint conference of the BMA and Ministry of Health nutrition committees convened to iron out inconsistencies in the standards laid down by them. 10 Reid was now working on a long paper intended both to satisfy the board’s demand for scientific evidence and to play down the role of such evidence in determining the scale rates.

Strohmenger, meanwhile, applied himself to the wage stop problem:

how to modify Reid’s scale so that it would generally produce allowances below the unskilled wage level. His proposals included cutting the married couple rate from 24s. to 23s. and reducing the children’s rates by 1s. for each child after the second in a family with at least two children aged three or over. His final “more doubtful” suggestion was for a maximum allowance of 40s. a week, reduced to 29s. for agricultural labourers and others in “substantially the same economic condition”. 11 These ideas emerged in a modified form and without the 40s./29s. limits, in a memorandum circulated for the board’s next meeting on 13 September. At Eady’s suggestion, it was now proposed that the married couple rate should be reduced by 2s. to 22s., but only for couples with no children under 14. 12 Two other papers were submitted at the same time: Reid’s paper on “A ‘scientific basis’ for the assessment of needs” and another comparing the allowances produced by the proposed scale in four hypothetical cases with those payable by a number of public assistance authorities.

The comparison with public assistance payments disclosed wide divergences between theory and practice. In some areas, either there was no definite scale or local relief committees insisted on treating each case on its merits. Often, scale rates adopted for political reasons were


not applied, or the rules were vague, if not incomprehensible. Only two of the four hypothetical cases lent themselves to meaningful comparisons with the board’s scale: a single man living alone and a family with three children. For a single man, the average public assistance payment was 15s.3d. compared with the proposed scale rate of 15s.; some authorities paid considerably less for a man who was not a householder, others considerably more for a man with a high rent. The figures for the three-child family were more reassuring. Most local authorities allowed 32s. (the unemployment benefit rate), while the board’s allowance would be 35s. 13 It seemed, therefore, that while in some areas and for some family types the board’s payments might fall below public assistance standards, in most cases the comparison would be favourable.

Reid’s “scientific basis” paper adopted a tone of scepticism from the start, quoting the view of the authors of the Merseyside survey that the poverty line would be “drawn at different levels according to the standard of living prevailing at different places, at different times and in different classes.” Food, he argued, was the only category of needs for which any scientific authority could be quoted and did not represent more than half of any assessment of needs that the board was likely to adopt. The BMA committee had recommended a diet “on which health and working capacity could be maintained over prolonged periods”, costing about 6s. a week for an adult man, while the BMA/Ministry of Health conference had put the dietary needs of a man doing light work (or, by implication, of an unemployed man) at a lower level, costing about 5s. The BMA committee had made similar estimates for other members of a household, taking their age and sex into account. To these figures Reid added estimates of the cost of fuel, clothing and household sundries, derived from the household budgets used in Llewellyn Smith’s New Survey of London Life and Labour and other social surveys “which purport to be based on what is actually spent by persons of narrow means”. For rent he added 5s. a week for a single man and a quarter of total expenditure for a couple. He compared the resulting totals with figures based on Llewellyn Smith’s more plentiful but less varied dietary standard, costing 5s.8d. for a man at current prices. 14 The figures are shown in table 2. Compared with these estimates, the proposed scale seemed broadly adequate: 15s. for a single man living alone, 22s. for man and wife, 26s. for a family with one young child, and 35s. with three children aged 2, 8 and 14. For larger families, however, the comparison would have been less favourable.

The amended scale had a mixed reception at the board’s meeting on 14 and 15 September. Hallsworth strongly supported the principle of keeping the scale low enough not to compete with earnings. It would be regarded as an official minimum subsistence standard and it would be “a grave matter if the scale prevented any adaptation of the wage level which economic circumstances might require.” Eady explained that, in the absence of any scientific standard,


Table 2. Minimum income requirements in 1934, using alternative dietary standards



Minimum income

BMA food basis

London Survey food

Single man

12s.8 1 /2d.

13s.4 1 /2d.

Man and wife



Man, wife and 1 child aged 2

24s.10 1 /2d.


Man, wife and 3 children aged 2, 8 and 1435s.8d.

34s.4d. 14

Source: AST 12/2, UAB Memo. 14, 30 August 1934.

the office had “proceeded on the principle of less eligibility”, producing a scale under which the allowance for a three-child family would be below net wages without the need to apply the wage stop. In spite of this, the board’s allowances would on average be about 5 per cent above the existing level of transitional payments, though there would be many reductions, particularly in areas where administration was “profligate”.

Opposition came mainly from Markham and Jones. Markham drew attention to the wide range of single applicants to whom the 15s. rate would apply. She urged the need to discriminate between young single people and the “respectable artisan” living alone in his own home. Single women were not even to get the men’s rate of 15s. but only 14s. - a subject on which, she had warned Jones, “I shall be aggressive”. 15 Reynard defended the discrimination on the grounds that women could do their own washing, mending etc., but Markham demanded that the board should recognise the problems of young women paying high rents to live in a decent neighbourhood. When the meeting resumed the following day she voiced her disquiet about the proposals as a whole and the large number of unemployed people whose incomes would be reduced. The board, Betterton replied, could not guarantee that there would be no cuts when the profligacy of some local authorities was notorious. The effect of the scale would be that the money “would be differently distributed and would go where it was more wanted” 16 - in the language of a later age, it would be better targeted.

Markham and Jones were becoming increasingly convinced that the right policy was to draw up a scale of needs defensible in its own right and to rely on the wage stop to maintain the principle of “less eligibility”. By the end of September they had launched a concerted counter-attack. Appealing to Betterton’s political instincts, Jones wrote to remind him that, while they must not perpetuate the abuses of South Wales, nor must they be less generous that the government-appointed commissioners in Durham, whose transitional payments scale allowed 26s. for a married couple, compared with the 22s. rate for a childless couple in the board’s scale. The extra 2s. for families with children


would be regarded as a “clever dodge”, and a couple with one small child would still get only 26s., or 2s. less than the benefit rate. “The family of man, wife and baby”, Jones added, “is one with a popular appeal”. He made an even stronger plea that the scaling down for large families (a device which came to be known as “the supercut”), which he had previously supported, should be dropped, even if this meant more use of the wage stop. 17 Markham, meanwhile, was preparing a memorandum for the board’s next meeting, advocating a return to Reid’s scale, with no scaling down and improvements in the rates for older children. On the question of the wage stop, she wrote:

Personally, it seems to me its use has merits as well as defects. The better class working-man comes into this picture as well as the casual labourer and the agricultural worker. Is it not preferable to have a slightly higher scale which may give a little more help to the respectable artisan, out of work through no fault of his own, than to base the scale on the lowest wage group in the country? The difficulty of paying relief allowances which are higher than the ordinary economic wage is one that is recognised by all reasonable people and by the workers themselves. It does not seem to me that public opinion would be hostile to the regular operation of the stop. 18

The board met on eight days between October 2 and 16, in the course of which a compromise was agreed. The Jones/Markham alliance received support from an unexpected quarter. A memorandum by the officials, based on nearly 4,000 transitional payments cases in eleven areas, showed that the scale would result in annual expenditure of about £38.2 million, compared with the £40.5 million currently being spent on transitional payments - an overall reduction of over 5 per cent instead of the 5 per cent increase which the board had been led to expect. Raising the childless couple rate from 22s. to 23s. would halve the reduction; but only by adding a substantial sum for “additional allowances in hard cases or in exceptional circumstances” could it be claimed that the total paid to transitional payments recipients would remain roughly constant. 19 Moreover, while the eleven areas were said to be representative of the country as a whole, they did not include South Wales where, Jones warned, “there would be a great outburst as soon as the effect of the Board’s scales was known” (Eady’s comment that the outburst would not occur until the cuts actually took effect was accurate but hardly reassuring). 20

The scale which the board agreed to submit to the minister allowed 23s. a week for a married couple. Instead of the bonus for families with children (the “clever dodge” to which Jones had objected), the rate for a child under 3 was raised from 2s. to 3s., while changes in the age grouping of children increased the number of different rates for those aged under 14 from three to four. The “super-cut” principle was retained but in a slightly less objectionable form, the reduction being based on the number of persons of all ages in the household, not on the


number of children. No change was made in the single persons’ rates; it was agreed that the cases about which Violet Markham was concerned should be dealt with by discretionary additions. The scale was now as follows:

Per week



I. Members of a household of two or more persons:

Married couple


Single householder -



female Other members of household aged:


21 and over -first



















Total to be reduced by 1s. for each person in excess of 4.

II. Not a member of a household of two or more persons:

18 or over



under 18


12s. 21

The wage stop remained; indeed, successive drafts of the regulations had reinforced it. The exemption originally proposed for cases of “substantial hardship” had been dropped, leaving only the board’s general discretionary powers as a safeguard, and, instead of providing that the allowance payable must not exceed normal earnings, the rule now provided that it must neither equal nor exceed them. 22

The rural problem

The number of cases affected by the wage stop was likely to be relatively small in industrial areas. In rural areas it would be much greater unless other steps were taken to reduce allowances below agricultural wages, then averaging about 30s. a week. The problem had engaged the attention of the officials at an early stage; hence Strohmenger’s proposal for a 29s. limit in rural areas. 23 He was also concerned that the board should not undermine the work of the new Unemployment Insurance Statutory Committee, one of whose first tasks was to produce proposals for the extension of unemployment insurance to agricultural workers. They could hardly be asked to pay contributions if the resulting benefits were less than the allowances they would


receive from the board. The proposed deductions for low rents would help but, while rents were the main factor accounting for the difference in price levels between town and country, the difference in wages was far greater, reflecting both lower material standards and country people’s ability to produce much of their own food. Lower scale rates could be prescribed for rural areas, but the areas so designated were bound to contain a certain number of industrial workers, for whom the lower rates might not be appropriate. By October 1934, Strohmenger had decided that the answer lay in a combination of the rent rule and discretionary reductions. 24 The board agreed and the matter was left to be dealt with in instructions to the board’s officers.

The draft regulations

By mid-October, the draft regulations were ready for submission to the minister. The changes made to the scale since July owed more to Strohmenger’s determination to keep the board’s allowances below applicants’ normal earnings than to the more idealistic but less specific aspirations of Violet Markham and Tom Jones. The resulting figures had little to do with scientific estimates of need or empirical observation of the living standards of the unemployed; they were founded on a combination of financial caution and administrative expediency. Yet it cannot be said that the board had deliberately ignored evidence that the scale would fall short of the reasonable needs of recipients and their families. The information they had received suggested, on the contrary, that the scale was broadly adequate for the majority of cases. For the rest, it was assumed that discretion would fill the gap. Where the board went wrong was not so much in setting the scale rates too low but in over-estimating the role of discretion and under-estimating the social and political implications of an abrupt transition from the local standards of transitional payments to the national standard of unemployment assistance. The traumatic effects of that transition had less to do with the scale itself than with the deductions made for low rents and the stringent application of a household means test in areas where the local authorities had virtually ignored the resources of wage- earning members of the household.

On the question of low rents, the board and its officials showed an astonishing capacity to ignore the evidence of impending disaster. A sample of transitional payments cases in representative areas, including London and Glasgow, was examined and a report on 3,170 cases submitted to the board in September 1934. They included 493 single persons in lodgings, to whom the rent rules would not apply. Well over half the remainder, 1,560 out of 2,677, had rents below one-quarter of the scale rates and would therefore have deductions made for low rent under the rules proposed by Reid. 25 The minutes of that meeting do not suggest that board members were at all alarmed at the prospect of making deductions in such a high proportion of cases, though they did decide that, where the rent was only a little below a quarter of the scale rates, the difference should be ignored. 26


Violet Markham had at least a vague premonition of the troubles ahead. During a weekend spent with her friend the Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth in October 1934, she wrote to Tom Jones:

During the last week I have viewed with growing dismay the austere picture that is emerging from our deliberations - emerging as I recognise inexorably and inevitably. But this new universal Poor Law which we have sought to make equitable and within its limits humane is a very different proposition from the one the country however foolishly was led to expect from the Board. We have improved the children’s position but we have not met or attempted to meet the nutrition claims that will be hurled at us from many quarters (we couldn’t within the limits of less eligibility but I want to point out how vulnerable we are in this direction). We have done nothing to meet clothes and replacements except fling the people on to charity.

We have done nothing so far that has any real popular appeal and so far as we have eased the situation the fact is wrapped up in unintelligible formulae.

Now the only thing we can get across without being anti social is a substantial modification of the Means Test. 27

How the board set about modifying the means test is the subject of the next two chapters. But the scale itself, though endorsed by the board, had still to pass the test of political acceptability - and that was to prove a bigger obstacle than anyone had anticipated.

Reinventing the dole: a history of the Unemployment Assistance Board 1934-1940 by <a href=Tony Lynes is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain View, California, 94041, USA. " id="pdf-obj-11-14" src="pdf-obj-11-14.jpg">

Reinventing the dole: a history of the Unemployment Assistance Board 1934-1940 by Tony Lynes is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain View, California, 94041, USA.