Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Australia 1930 - Jobless Rate Exceeds 20 Per Cent

Although I love a lot about the 1930s, there are some things that I am glad I missed. However, I think it's good to look at history to remind us of the mistakes made, so that we can hopefully learn from them - like the Great Depression.

1930s Oxymoron
Throughout the 1920s, the stock market had grown on speculation by people who bought on margin and, in fact, owned only a small portion of their stocks. Many could not meet margin calls - demands to put up the money to cover their loans. The result was panic selling. On October 29, 1929 (Black Tuesday) alone, stock values fell $14 billion on Wall Street. The great Depression had begun, and rapidly spread worldwide.  Queensland had already been pushed into a recession in 1926 by falling wool and mineral prices.  Dependent on exports to England, wartime inflation had upset the United Kingdom's terms of trade and their sluggish economy naturally reduced the demand for imports from Australia.  By 1930 international commodity prices collapsed, triggering a fall in export earnings and increasing overseas debt. Basically there was no money circulating within the population and therefore no one could buy anything, which meant no businesses made money and therefore no jobs were available in a catastrophic cycle.

$100 will buy this car must have cash lost all on the stock market
In August 1930 the visiting Bank of England representative, Sir Otto Niemeyer, insisted the Australian state, territory and federal governments balance their budgets, cut all overseas borrowing and lower all award wages by 10 per cent.the state. The State Premiers agreed to balance their budgets and not seek any more overeseas loans, and to finance only 'reproductive' public works. Many infrastructure projects, which had begun in the 1920's under the previous 'men, money and markets' policy, were stopped immediately, except perhaps the building of The Sydney Harbour Bridge which had begun in 1923 and kept many men employed during the depression.

Sydney Harbour Bridge c. 1929
The cut in public expenditure happened at the same time that private businesses were putting thousands of people out of work.  In November 1930 figures showed that 20.5 %, or 90,379 union members of a pool of 439,971, were unemployed.  A year later it would reach 28%. Those still employed had their hours lengthened and their wages cut, and set off to work each morning knowing there was every chance they could finish the day on the dole queue.

Men ordered to present food relief tickets for inspection because of fraud allegations, at the dole queues at No.7 Wharf, Circular Quay, Sydney. 11 June 1931.
For the majority of people, there was little government assistance, especially at the beginning of the crisis. Private charities were often the only source of support outside of families and neighborhood communities.

Unemployed men receiving food handouts
Protest marches and demonstrations by the unemployed in all states and territories demanded increased sustenance pay and rent subsidies. In April 1930 a mass meeting of the unemployed in Melbourne led to the establishment of the 'Anti-starvation Crusade' which planned to go directly to the State Government and ask that better remedies be put into action before winter, including banning unscrupulous landlords seizing furniture and turning tenants out into the streets. In 1931 over 1000 unemployed men marched from the Esplanade to the Treasury Buildings in Perth, Western Australia, to see Premier Sir James Mitchell.

 Perth 1931

Many people lost their homes and were forced to live in makeshift dwellings with poor heating and sanitation.   City and urban people planted gardens to produce fruit and vegetables. In some urban areas co-operatives were formed based on barter systems to share what was available.People set up camps int he domain in Sydney  and unemployment camps sprang up at various locations  including Happy Valley at La Perouse,  behind Congwong Beach. People often arrived with only the possessions they could carry, pick a spot and erect a hut with scrounged corrugated iron roofing, white washed hessian walls and earthen floors. They scrounged food from local Chinese market gardeners and local fishermen and the government provided one pint of milk per family per day. By 1932 Happy Valley had a stable population of at least 330.

Happy Valley, 1932
Labor Prime Minister James Scullin came to power on 22 October 1929, just a week before the stock market crash. in 1930 Mr Harris, the deputy leader of the Liberal opposition, somehow voiced his views that there was 'no one on the breadline' in Melbourne, and that there was no need of Unemployment Insurance in Victoria.

Breadline in New York City during the Great Depression.
By late 1930 the States started providing 'sustenance' or 'susso' for the unemployed in the form of ration vouchers, but this was worth only a tiny amount of the basic wage. Many people, especially in Sydney and Melbourne, turned to begging or 'door knocking', trying to sell small trinkets, fruit, shoelaces, soap, moth balls, artificial flowers or stockings to earn a few coins.

An unemployed man selling apples 1930s.
Others played instruments sang,and others feeling they had no choice turned to theft to provide themselves and their families with food. Sometimes children failed to thrive on food issued with the government rations, and would end up in hospital with malnutrition. Deaths from malnutrition, disease and suicide increased, and parents often went hungry to give what food they had to their children, and other parents choose to give their children to people that could care for them.
Children of migrant fruit worker in Berrien County, Michigan

David Potts in his 2006 book 'The Myth of the Great Depression' explains that dripping had to be substituted for butter, which apparently could be quite tasty. Unfortunately he then goes on to say that "going without food intermittently for two or three days, or five or ten, or even a degree of persistent hunger, does not damage the body or health". I's like to see him try it.

Schoolchildren line up for free issue of soup and a slice of bread
Not only was malnutrition an immediate effect of poverty, but also emotional and psychological distress - just imagine being forced out of your home as you could no longer pay the rent/mortgage, and had to take your family to live on the streets.  The majority of the people of Australia lived very well prior to the fall, so they felt the effects of the depression strongly.  

William Roberts, an original Anzac, and his family evicted from their Sydney home into the street 

Apparently today even many two-income families today are a paycheck away from losing their homes  because they are living beyond their means. So the lesson from this - minimize the amount of debt that you take on. Easier said than done sometimes. Oh, and don't have too many children. Like I did!

Back to something cheery tomorrow, although there are more Depression images on tumblr if you want to see them.

Deb xxx

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