Why Catholics Objected To It
From Our Labour Correspondent
The Prime Minister has announced that the notorious Means Test is to be converted into a test of " personal need."
The needs and resources of the applicant will continue to be aggregated with those of his wife and of any dependants, but the resources of any other member of the household will no longer be aggregated with those of the applicants.
It would appear from this that the wife may still be compelled to contribute to the support of her husband, but it is not to be denied that the proposed legislation represents a great step forward, affecting the welfare of thourands of families, The proposed new legislation marks another step in the repudiation of the original principles that govern a much detested institution.
FURTHER BACK THAN THE SLUMP
The beginnings of the Test lie much further back than the great slump. It soon became obvious after the world war that a self-balancing fund derived from statutory contributions was quite inadequate to cope with that problem of mass unemployment which first began to make its presence felt in 1921.
Statutory benefit had up till then become atxhausted after fifteen payments, and it becarne clear that since the Poor Law authorities had totally inadequate means for maintaining those large numbers of men whose benefit was exhausted, something had to be done and statutory benefit was extended to twenty-six weekly payments.
Even this, however, was insufficient, and the system of extended benefit beyond the twenty-six weeks' perioci was begun. This later was called " transitional " benefit, but its payment was now always at the discretion of the Minister of Labour, who could refuse it in any case in which he conlittered either that it was not absolutely needed, or that other members of the applicant's family should be charged with his support.
This resulted for the most part in the refusal of extended benefit to single men living with their parents, to husbands whose wives were at work and vice versa, fa workers earning on short time fast enough to subsist on and to certain other classes who for some similar reason were considered undeserving of public help.
MAY'S COMMITTEE MEANS TEST AND TARIFFS These principles were finally crystallised and ultimately given legislative force through the recommendations of the notorious May's Committee on public expenditure, which called for drastic reductions in the general scale of benefit, for a large increase to the contributions of the unemployment fund and for the introduction of a " means Test " in all cases of " transitional benefit."
The reaction of Catholic opinion to these recommendations and their resulting enactments was at first not very strong. Many, particularly among the higher social groups, thought the provisions just and necessary and refused to recognise any duty on the part of the State other than that of enabling the unemployed to keep body and soul together.
Two influences, however, helped to modify this attitude, so that it may now fairly be said that almost all the active and intelligent elements of the Catholic body are strongly critical of the Means Test. The first of these influences was the increasing popularity of the study of economics, money and the trade cycle which, though it led to much ill-instructed generalisation, tended to swing people to the view that mass unemployment was not an act of God, like an earthquake or a pestilence, but was the result of permitting faulty economic principles to operate.
BROKE THE FAMILY
But an even more important influence was that of the Papal encyclicals, which forced people more and more to accept the view that it was the State's duty to create adequate opportunities for employment, or at least the conditions under which those opportunities would become available. On this assumption it was obviously unjust to penalise the poor more than was absolutely necessary because the State, which was felt to be largely in control of the wealthy, had failed to do its duty.
A circumstance that made the clergy particularly hostile to the Test was that members of a family, in order to escape the obligations which the law would otherwise now definitely hare Imposed on them, tended increasingly. to leave home. arid families thus became disunited. One other cause of indignation to the Catholic mind was that the small accumulations of the poor over and above a negligible minimum had in part to be dissipated before relief was granted.
As was recently pointed out by a writer in the Dublin Review. this really meant that the State was relying on such dissipation of the poor people's savings to keep trade going while the well-to-do could sit back, await favourable investment opportunities and actually draw profits as a result of these petty decumulations of capital. It is understood that the scandal of the compulsory dissipation of savings by the poor will shortly be dealt with.