Back to Marienthal

Economic dislocation really does make people less generous citizens, says Tom Clark in an extract from his forthcoming book, Hard Times.

The men of Marienthal were so depressed that you could see it in the way they walked. Most trudged along at two miles an hour, and nine out of every ten would find an excuse to dither en route across the few hundred yards of their village. The slump’s poison had seeped out of silent factories, and ended up somewhere under the skin. We know all of this about daily life in this one tiny Austrian town in the 1930s because sociologists went there to find out what happens when everyone is thrown out of work, as virtually everyone had been when Marienthal’s flax mill fell victim to the credit crunch of 1929.

There was, of course, grave material hardship, but far more disturbing than the degraded diet and worn-out clothes was the impoverishment of the spirit. Despite boundless time, free library tickets and discounted newspapers, the town’s unemployed somehow did not get around to reading as the same people had when busy with work. The small town was once blessed with rambling, sport and discussion groups which all filled time pleasantly, and at minimal cost. Yet when the slump bequeathed all those spare hours to fill, instead of booming, many such societies suddenly wound up.

Contemporary Britain is an incomparably richer society than the Austria of 1929, and it is not suffering from the same mass unemployment. But is it nonetheless possible that the Great Recession could have done something similar here? David Cameron is banking on the opposite. He was elected on a platform that mixed stern words about the need for retrenchment with the sunnier promise of a great wave of volunteering to smooth the rough edges of hard times. We could not afford the big state, was his claim, but we could do without it, thanks to the ‘big society’.

The feasibility of the community combining to shield itself inevitably depends on people’s willingness to lend a hand, and the evidence here is grim. Both the number of volunteers and the level of their commitment slid with the economy.

Take the two halves of this dismal equation together – fewer volunteers, and volunteers who put in fewer hours – and the picture truly darkens. The chart shows that between the third quarter of 2008 (when the financial crisis was getting going in earnest) and the second quarter of 2010 the average commitment fell by a full hour, from 3 hours 10 minutes to 2 hours 10. Seeing as this is a whole-population figure, which includes many people who never have and probably never will volunteer, this was a dramatic change. The only comfort is that the final couple of individual quarterly data-points suggest that by early 2011 the decline had levelled off.

Figure 1: the impact of the recession on volunteering rates

Our grim findings come from the Citizenship Survey, but the gist of the results are reaffirmed by other sources: a poll for the Hansard Society enquired about ‘voluntary work’ and recorded a drop off of a full one-third between 2009 and 2011.

Why should this be? The employment figures, after all, tell us that there were suddenly 2 million extra jobless and under-employed people with time on their hands. Why wasn’t this getting donated?

One sticking point might have been the financial costs of getting involved, modest costs which go unnoticed in the good times but are keenly felt during a financial squeeze. Back in American Depression of the 1930s, several workless families told the celebrated researcher Mirra Komarovsky that they had given up on church because they had nothing to put in the collection plate, or couldn’t afford the ‘carfare’.

In depressed Britain in 2012, ‘Mike’, a leading light of Safe Anchor Trust – a Yorkshire charity which lays on boating trips for disadvantaged youngsters – told me that finding volunteers to provide lifts to the barges has become more difficult because of increasing worry about the price of fuel, a definite echo of that old ‘carfare’ concern.

Another practical problem – perhaps more of an issue today than in hard times past – might be the insecure or unpredictable shifts which have become more common, making life harder to plan. ‘Mike’ tells me that Safe Anchor has one enthusiastic 22-year old volunteer who has been unable to pre-commit over most of the last two years because of his zero-hours contract with a high street retailer – ‘he’s always keen, but you never know in advance which days he is going to be able to do’.

The Scouts Association, which has over 30,000 youngsters stuck on waiting lists as adult volunteering lags behind burgeoning youthful demand, have registered similar problems in some areas. They sometimes split several ways roles that would once have been filled by a single person, and also solicit more help on an as-and-when basis, rather than assuming they can rely on a weekly commitment.

Another possible problem, however, could be that – much as in Marienthal – recession-hit Britons were simply struggling to find motivation. Asked why she had stopped doing something or other, Marienthal’s Frau S told the researchers: ‘God knows, we have other problems these days’, vague words inviting a dark conclusion. But before jumping to apply that to 21st Century Britain, it is as well to consider a more sanguine reading. Maybe recession-hit Britons were volunteering less only because they were scrimping on travel costs and club membership fees, and were making it up for it through informal networks of kindness.

Fortunately, we have excellent information on the range of good deeds that Britons report doing – the Citizenship Survey asked about shopping for elderly neighbours as well as babysitting for toddlers down the road. Unfortunately, what this demonstrates is that ‘volunteering’ of this informal stripe actually fell away at least as sharply, with the average time spent ‘helping’ across the whole population dropping from 3 hours, 7 minutes a month just before Lehman Bros tumbled, to 2 hours, 8 minutes two years later.

Taking formal volunteering and informal helping together to gauge overall community engagement, and then measuring in a particular cautious way – by taking steps to smooth the data – implies an overall reduction of about a quarter. When social statistics move rapidly by that sort of margin it is reliably a Big Deal. It is, for example, equivalent to the proportion of their total vote share that the Conservatives mislaid between their victory in 1992 and their landslide defeat in 1997. A particularly alarming contrast is with the economy itself, which contracted by some way less than one tenth. By this measure, then, the UK’s social recession was considerably bigger than the financial one.

The overall reduction in involvement, again using smoothed data to guard against exaggeration, comes to very nearly an hour – a drop of 110 seconds for every adult in the country every day. If that does not sound like much, consider that two minutes is time enough to help a blind man across the road, or to make an old lady a cup of tea. Imagine the difference it would make if every adult in the country did something like that day in, day out – and them damage to the community if every one of them suddenly stopped. If the Big Society has any meaning at all, what unfolded in the immediate face of the recession was its very antithesis.

Why did this happen? Seeing as informal volunteering does not rely on organised clubs with subscriptions, the difficulty of paying these cannot be the problem. Rather, it appears that – like Frau S in Marienthal – Britons have been shrugging their shoulders, and sighing that they ‘have other worries these days’.

Speaking in 2013, unemployed ‘Winston’, a man who with a background in youth work who insists he used to enjoy bringing people together, says that these days: ’I don’t get involved; I don’t even put myself out there’. The only half-explanation he offers is that ‘where I live, I’m not happy with my accommodation. I have no balcony so I’m always in my house…’. But no architectural omission can account for withdrawal so complete that – as he emphasises – ‘I don’t get involved in any sort of way’. This is Frau S all over again.

Others, too, described – but could not explain why – they had withdrawn. Workless mother ‘Kirsty’ in Scotland used to volunteer with disabled children ‘for three hours’ at a time, taking them swimming; she also once did ‘volunteering with another group called the Rock Trust’ a couple of times a week. Nowadays, however, she has no such involvement, and – much more worrying – no informal network of any kind.

Asked if she has friends, she answers ‘no, apart from my grandparents’, and reports being too ‘nervous’ to strike up conversations in the park. Pressed to recall any help she might have received, Kirsty fondly recalls approaching a neighbour, another struggling mum, to borrow milk: ‘she filled a cup up to the top for me, which was really nice’. Perhaps this former volunteer’s expectations of her community have now reached a pass where she feared that a request for milk would be met with a glass half-empty.

So far we have been describing the frailty of community using statistical averages. The depressed ecology of Britain’s poor communities comes into sharper relief when we explore how volunteering rates changed across more and less prosperous boroughs and villages. Using an official deprivation index, which ranks wards on the basis of things like employment, income and crime, we find a chasm in neighbourhoods’ susceptibility to the Great Recession.

For people in richer communities, the recessionary drop-off in formal volunteering rates (i.e simply the proportion of citizens who do any volunteering at all) was a mere blip, a drop of a single percentage point. But in poorer communities, where there was already considerably less volunteering, it is another story. The chance of getting involved there dropped by a significant six points. With informal helping there was a substantial decline of around 10 points in more prosperous places, but – again – the drop is far sharper in the impoverished inner-cities at 15 points.

The rich-poor gap cannot be explained away by adjusting the data for the number of unemployed individuals. Rather, it seems, some wider ecological effect took hold – almost as if whole neighbourhoods had forgotten how to hope. Closer analysis suggests that the dwindling trust of poor neighbours in each other is one part of this story, although it cannot explain everything. Another element is the increasingly insecure work in poor towns, which engender anxiety and make life harder to plan.

However the link works, it would appear that those long decades in which the Barnsleys, the Liverpools and the Nottinghams have been left behind economically came home to roost after 2008: social ties that had gradually grown frail proved especially susceptible to hard times. And these, of course, are the very boroughs where people have often got nothing apart from each other.

The shrivelling of society after 2008 was unambiguously a hard times phenomenon, but – as recession gives way to proclaimed recovery – shouldn’t the same economic link mean that community life should pick up with in parallel with GDP? Perhaps. In early 2013, as the economy chugged back to half-life, David Cameron boasted in the Commons that his cut-price replacement for the Citizenship Survey was finally suggesting that ‘volunteering was up’.

So it was, and the apparent improvement was sharp, although with only a couple of quarters of data available from a new survey that inevitably introduced a certain discontinuity it would be wise for the prime minister not to crow too soon. The fact that the sharp rise in formal volunteering reported in the first quarter’s data, which included the 2012 London Olympics, fell back somewhat in the second quarter, after that volunteer-propelled festival was over, invites further caution. Nonetheless, it seems entirely plausible that the social fabric is now on the mend after hard times. The expectation must surely be that as the economy continues heal, then so too will the social effect – or must it?

The troubling answer from the very latest analysis – set out in chapter 7 of Hard Times – is that whereas the social wounds for the many may indeed already be well on the way to healing, for the minority of towns and the streets that got lashed most severely, instead of healing the wounds may resolve into lasting social scars.