November 01, 2010

Understanding the 'bad' choices of poor people

In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell writes in chapter 6 about how government and social service agencies calculate carefully how much money should be given as public assistance to be sufficient, with careful budgeting, to purchase enough wholesome food to meet their nutritional needs. However, the actual choices of the poor, with its outlays on alcohol, tobacco and sweets, would appall social workers. These better-off people would scold the miners and their families for wasting their money on what should be considered luxuries, when their basic nutritional needs were not being taken care of first.

Orwell writes that there is something unseemly about well-fed, well-to-do people calculating with such zeal so precisely the absolute minimum amount that people need to eat to stay alive.

When the dispute over the Means Test was in progress there was a disgusting public wrangle about the minimum weekly sum on which a human being could keep alive. So far as I remember, one school of dietitians worked it out at five [shillings] and ninepence, while another school, more generous, put it at five and ninepence halfpenny. After this there were letters to the papers from a number of people who claimed to be feeding themselves on four shillings a week.

Orwell examined the food budget of one exemplar of frugality who claimed that he could eat nutritiously on just four shillings, even less that the public assistance allowance.

Please notice that this budget contains nothing for fuel. In fact, the writer explicitly stated that he could not afford to buy fuel and ate all his food raw. Whether the letter was genuine or a hoax does not matter at the moment. What I think will be admitted is that this list represents about as wise an expenditure as could be contrived; if you had to live on three and elevenpence halfpenny a week, you could hardly extract more food-value from it than that. So perhaps it is possible to feed yourself adequately on the P.A.C. allowance if you concentrate on essential foodstuffs; but not otherwise.

Orwell points out that how the poor people that he lived with actually spend their money bears little resemblance to this budget.

Now compare this list with the unemployed miner's budget that I gave earlier. The miner's family spend only tenpence a week on green vegetables and tenpence half-penny on milk (remember that one of them is a child less than three years old), and nothing on fruit; but they spend one and nine on sugar (about eight pounds of sugar, that is) and a shilling on tea. The half-crown spent on meat might represent a small joint and the materials for a stew; probably as often as not it would represent four or five tins of bully beef. The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes--an appalling diet.

Orwell then gets to the crux of the matter of why people behave like this and it is not because they are stupid or ignorant or lack character, which are the usual reasons that well-to-do people assign to this seemingly inexplicable self-destructive behavior.

Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread or if they even, like the writer of the letter to the New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes, it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would sooner starve than live on brown bread and raw carrots. And the peculiar evil is this, that the less money you have, the less inclined you feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man doesn't. Here the tendency of which I spoke at the end of the last chapter comes into play. When you are unemployed, which is to say when you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little bit 'tasty'. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let's have threepennorth of chips! Run out and buy us a twopenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we'll all have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the P.A.C. level. White bread-and-marg and sugared tea don't nourish you to any extent, but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread-and-dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be constantly palliated, and especially with tea, the Englishman's opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread. (my italics)

But there are yet more factors at play that push poor people into making 'bad' choices. In the next (and last) post in this series, Orwell argues that the very act of calculating how much people need to live on in order to give them the minimum required to subsist, actually makes it a good strategy for the poor to be somewhat thriftless in the behavior.


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I work at the med school, and an oft-mentioned problem among public health experts is that better foods are often not easily available in the inner city. It's much easier to walk to the carryout at the corner and pick up a 1 lb. bag of chips than it is to ride a bus to a grocery store and buy a 10 lb. bag of potatoes, even when they cost about the same. Also, nutrition education is woefully inadequate in most public schools. Hot dogs are cheaper than chicken breasts.

Posted by Scott on November 1, 2010 09:55 AM

Thank you; I never thought of it that way before. When I went through a tough economic time, I ate a lot of canned tuna fish. But I had hope of better things to come; not all poor people have that hope.

Posted by ollie on November 1, 2010 11:53 AM

thank you for this post.
i must say that the food that poor people choose to eat also has to do with the spiritual,mental,emotional food given to their minds.
when people are fed food for the mind first, that will help them develop into a self productive,creative,achieving person...he will be inclined to seek out better foods for himself..and will choose a nutrition full food instead of a bag of potato chips.
we must invest in self developing education.
thank you.
Dina Ruth

Posted by Dina Ruth on November 2, 2010 03:35 AM

Shalom Mano,

I'm reminded of the evergreen news spot of a well-fed politician, his wife and two or three kids pushing the baskart through the grocery store buying a week's worth of food on the government approved budget and how they always find enough money to buy cookies for the kiddies.

Yes, in a world where all you're thinking about is how to get your daily calories, it is possible to eat healthy on the budget, but no one lives in that kind of bubble.



Posted by Jeff Hess on November 2, 2010 07:59 AM

"White bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea, and potatoes--an appalling diet" - but almost precisely the menu at the much sought-after deli I most recently ate at.

Posted by Heidi Nemeth on November 2, 2010 05:21 PM

I do volunteer work at several shelters and "soup kitchens" and the truth is that the impoverished members of our society rarely have the understanding about good nutrition. The few that do know the difference between good and bad food, find it hard to come by because it tends to be more, sometimes much more expensive.

Posted by Ida Topps on November 23, 2010 11:49 AM

During WWII the British diet was very basic because of the food shortages and most people felt hard done by. Many decades later nutritionists looked into the diet and said it was probably the best diet the British people had been on in history. Obviously one of the main ingredients of this diet was bread.

Posted by Nigelinspain on December 28, 2010 07:45 AM