How did living standards change during the inter-war period?

How did the National Government address issues caused by the Great Depression?

• Unemployment

A few programmes were implemented to deal with the issue of unemployment.

The Unemployment Insurance Act of 1920 expanded the policies of the 1911 National Insurance Act as it would provide 39 weeks of unemployment benefits to most workers, excluding farm workers, domestic workers and civil servants. It was funded by the taxpayers and provided 15 shillings a week to unemployed men and 12 shillings a week to unemployed women. The Conservative Governments led by Baldwin and Chamberlain further expanded the programme, with the number of workers in the scheme rising from 11 million in 1920 to 15.4 million in 1938.

However, the mandatory Means Test, implemented in 1931 to reduce government costs during the Great Depression, limited the number of people who could receive the benefits.

Paul Addison, a British historian known for his research on the political history of Britain during the Second World War, described Britain's social services as the “most advanced in the world in 1939”. National Health Insurance had been expanded, including more and more hospitals and providing health benefits and medical treatment subsidies. By 1938, 20 million workers were involved in this health insurance scheme.

Housing

In the UK, there was a rapid expansion of housing in the 1930s, with the construction and housing industries proving to be one of the most profitable industries in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash, in stark contrast to the United States, which suffered a decline in housing construction during the Great Depression.

The numbers show that the total housing stock in England and Wales rose from 7.6 million in 1911 to 11.3 million in 1939, with approximately 2 million of these built since 1930. This was partly due to the 1918 Tudor Walters Report which standardised council housing design and location for the next nine decades. Meanwhile, the Housing and Town Planning Act introduced by Lloyd George in 1918 required local authorities to calculate their housing needs and begin construction of government housing to replace slums, with the treasury subsidising low rents. Moreover, Lloyd George’s 1918 campaign of “homes for the heroes” ended up a failure due to the difficulty of quick deadlines, rising costs and a lack of building materials.

Post-Depression Growth in Great Britain

While people in certain areas of Great Britain struggled, there were benefits for the upper and middle-class people in Britain as the UK experienced general economic growth in the 1930s.

Though the British economy shrank by 9.9% in 1930 and 5% in 1931, it grew by 0.44%, 3.29%, 6.21%, 3.68%, 4.92% and 3.47% in 1932, 1933, 1934, 1935, 1936 and 1937 respectively. During this period of time, new mass-produced goods came into production; such as cars, radios, cookers and fridges, sparking growth in these modern manufacturing industries.

The introduction of credit allowed people to ‘buy now and pay later’, allowing them to purchase modern goods that they would not have been able to afford before. With this, there was a drastic increase in car ownership, with 2 million cars sold in 1938 alone. The most purchased car was £100 cheaper than in 1923 as the Austin 7 (see the two images on the left) could be purchased for just £125 in 1936.

This increasing car ownership, which makes individual transportation easier, may have contributed to the rise in domestic holidays, with seaside towns like Bournemouth, becoming more popular holiday destinations. This was also due to the reduction in working hours, and the introduction of annual paid holidays. Britons increasingly traveled to seaside resorts for their holidays, with Blackpool receiving 7 million visitors annually in the 1930s.

There was also a 1,200% increase in electrified homes. More and more people were attracted to new electrical consumer goods, and by 1937, over half of British households had radios, and generally listened to stations hosted by the British Broadcasting Corporation. Young women made up the largest group of listeners, as they did as the largest group of cinema visitors.