This war is a revolutionary struggle being fought in large part for security. Security falls into two parts, international and domestic. Soldiers and diplomats must deal with the international phase, but at home masses of people in all lands seek the other type of security, and no peace can be permanent without it.
This is the situation that produces the Beveridge Report, born in war-torn London, right at the turning point of the struggle. That its publication marks a historic step goes without saying. Its effect upon American thinking is already evident. At the very least, it is likely to become the British Labor Party’s post-war program, but it is winning wider than party support. It gives expression to some of the intellectual ferment which is so striking a British social phenomenon at present, which has found utterance in such respectable spokesman as the Archbishop of Canterbury, The (London) Times, The (London) Economist and Others. It has immediately become a best-seller. Britain is seeking to justify her war sacrifices and to pay tribute to her dead by making a better world—the only tribute, incidentally, in any country at any time, that can be made with clean hands to youth fallen in battle. Making a better world on the international side may depend on the United States, but a better Britain depends on Englishmen. Therefore, the Beveridge Report: produced in a battered, dingy, unconquered nation that shows its vitality in the very document. Its author, Sir William Beveridge, head of University College, Oxford, has been sleeping three nights a week in the basement of his London club while preparing the eighteen-month study—basements having assumed a new utility since the blitz. He told me recently, with testy pride, that he is not using his precious clothes rations, expecting to make his pre-war wardrobe last through the duration. Whether accepted by the Churchill government or not, the Beveridge Report produced in this bomb-pitted land by an elbow-parched Don, constitutes a landmark, since it brings the National Minimum for the first time in an official report into the realm of practical discussion.
What is the National Minimum?
Economists have written learnedly about it years, but the best way I know to explain it is to the homely illustration of the free roll in the restaurant. When you sat down at Childs the waitress automatically presented you with a glass of water, couple of slices of bread and a pat of butter. There were also, of course, sugar and condiments on the table. You got those things free before placing any order. In America the system symbolically recognized the fact that the country had come far enough toward universal prosperity so that, within limits, certain minima of subsistence could be supplied and the cost generalized over all patrons. That, in effect, is what the Beveridge Report proposes to do in Britain. It would not give the bread direct, but it would pay insurance to buy bread. It would unify and simplify existing widespread social services; extend them to cover new classes and new needs; increase the rates of benefit and thereby establish “a national minimum for every citizen in every income, under every circumstance of want, but in contrast to the Nazi system of social security, without political conditions.” Most of the vicissitudes of man, from the cradle to the grave, would get this minimum coverage; unemployment, health, accidents, marriage, childbirth, allowances for children and retirement for the aged—provision would be made for all, with free medical, dental, hospital, nursing, and convalescent services.
There are two points which ought to be brought out, the one brief and the other taking somewhat longer to develop. The first one was emphasized to me by Sir William himself and is now amplified in his report. Social-security enlargement under a National Minimum or other standard is not sufficient in itself, he says, to guarantee prosperity. The Beveridge plan would not, and does not pretend to, solve the problem of cyclical mass unemployment—the sort of unemployment that lasted for ten years in America after 1929. The technique for meeting that second problem has also been evolved, it is believed, and follows the lines laid down by Keynes, Hansen and others, for using government fiscal controls, public works and similar weapons. The National Minimum, according to its present advocate, would not of itself keep the storms of the business cycle from raging, though it might serve as oil on the immediate waves by promoting business confidence through the assurance of a certain minimum standard of purchasing power on which industry could count.
That this minimum would be by no means inconsiderable is indicated in the figures of the report itself, By a system of joint contribution from government, employer and employee the new program would cost about $2,730,000,000 in Britain for 1945, it is estimated, if it were put into effect, the government providing $1,404,000,000 of the sum. Thus the purchasing power of the typical family of four, whose breadwinner is ill or unemployed, would be sustained indefinitely at $n.2O a week, instead of receiving short-term payments of as little as $1.50, which were in force before the war.
The second point requires some emphasis at the present time. The National Minimum program, revolutionary though it undoubtedly is, has been under discussion for a long, long time and no dispassionate Wader can doubt that a substantial element of thought has been tending in its direction. Probably the Beveridge Report is the firecracker that will finally startle the public into contemplating the matter, wheher they accept it or not, and social-security extension, on a big scale, is also planned in Washington. Practically every book in the current flood on post-war problems which deals with economics at all, discusses the matter in one way or another. In fact, the historic importance of the Beveridge Report may be in having given practical expression in an official document to the development which had already won a measure of theoretical agreement among sociologists and economists, not to say business men.
In America, whether the problem as a whole has been understood or not, at least the public has known what it wanted. Thus, the Fortune poll for July, 1942, as its editors pointed out, gave a clear indication of mass desires: 74 percent urged medical care for everyone needing it; almost as large a number wanted old-age pensions for citizens over sixty-five; 68 percent wanted jobs for everyone in public work if private work were not available, and 58 percent wanted unemployment compensation during the minimum.
Messrs. Roosevelt and Churchill in their eight-point program, signed at sea, declared: [We] “desire to bring about the fullest collaboration between all nations in the economic field, with the object of securing, for all, improved labor standards, economic adjustment and social security.”
Economic and political writers point out that the groping of the German masses for security played a major part in precipitating the war, and that it is an explosive force that must be reckoned with in the peace. Hitler won over the German people, as William L. Shirer comments in his column, “The Propaganda Front,” “by promising them work and giving them work.” He sees in the Beveridge Report “a major contribution to propaganda at this turning point of the war.” Why? Because “one of the main psychological forces on the Allied side has been the confident belief of the masses of the people who are doing most of the fighting and producing that not only will the scourge of Nazism be wiped out but that the United Nations, in the flush of their victory will set up—not a perfect world—but a better world” than heretofore. The Beveridge Report is the first specific blueprint offered in that direction.
People who are startled easily will be startled now by the acceptance of this same thesis by such a representative spokesman of American industry and trade as Henry Luce’s opulent dollar-a-copy magazine, Fortune. In a supplement to the current issue, dealing with post-war domestic economy, the magazine comes out strongly for a widespread expansion ‘of the whole social-security system as part of a still larger program of stabilizing prosperity under government direction. “Such a program,” the editors say in a concise exposition of recent thought in the Keynes-Hansen school, “is absolutely essential to the well-being and sense of security of the American people.” Some American editors who are asking themselves uncertainly if Britain is going Communist might get reassurance, or possibly grow even more apprehensive, by reading the Fortune supplement.
Fortune advocates “a greatly extended system of unemployment insurance, old-age pensions and other forms of social security.” It urges a “great deal more government responsibility for public health, housing end nutrition, as well as more and better schools.… As a nation we can afford it; indeed we cannot afford to go without it. Since Americans want security, there is no reason why they should not have more of it in its most obvious form.”
Even on the subject of insurance, the Beveridge Report is by no means unique. The report would end private industrial insurance, or so-called “burial insurance” widely bought by workers, and turn it over to the government. But in America the scandal of industrial insurance was exposed by the TNEC during 1939-41. High-pressure salesmanship and installment methods have taken millions from the working class annually, the studies showed, with 70 percent of all policies lapsing and another 20 percent terminating by surrender. In the decade 1928-37 the companies wrote and revised almost 200,000,000 such policies, but at the end of the period the total gain was only 6,600,000. The TNEC unanimously recommended that either a fundamental change should occur or “its eventual elimination may be necessary.” Sir William Beveridge urges that the government take the whole thing over.
As to the need of something like the National Minimum in the United States, the figures are compelling. Stuart Chase in the second of his Twentieth Century Fund books goes over the ground. Education? Of all Americans twenty-five years or older, almost 60 percent have never gone beyond grade school. Physical condition? Of the first 2,000,000 men examined for the draft, almost 1,000,000 were rejected as below army standards. Food? In 1940 some 45,000,000 families lived below the diet danger line and the average cost of the meals eaten by 20,000,000 Americans was 5 cents each, whereas the army allows 43 cents a day to feed its soldiers. Many other items covered directly orindirectly by the Beveridge Report require similar examination in the United States.
Will Britain accept the report? It will be impossible to say for some time yet. It is significant that The Times has given wholehearted support to the program, The Times having been, for as long as one can remember, the first newspaper on the breakfast table of the rulers of Britain.
The latest information I get from British sources is that support of the scheme is growing more rapidly than had been expected.