I was born in the summer of 1947, after the coldest English winter on record. My parents, who had grown up in the poorer housing of inner Liverpool, were on the housing list and, newly married, had moved in to what was a new estate on the outskirts of the city in the late 1930s. The estate – what we would call a subdivision – was built by local government (the “council”), to which we paid rent for what was in effect social housing. It covered a large area. The houses were brick, two-stories, semi-detached. There were three bedrooms, one for my parents, one for my grandmother and one for me. We had a front, side and back yard with grass lawns, and we grew flowers and vegetables. I grew up thinking everybody lived like that. It was great.
Not that there wasn’t poverty. I remember seeing kids on the street with holes in their pants and bare feet in winter. But it didn’t last. And for ten years after the war we had a ration book that limited the number or amount of basic food items we could buy at the local stores. But that passed too. My father had reliable employment in the city as a toolmaker in a factory making telephones. My mother was a housewife who worked intermittently at the local tobacconist when my father couldn’t get overtime. Life was materially good, and got better as I got older: first a fridge, then a TV, then a washing machine, then a car, then a stereo record player. At 18 I left home to attend university in London. Fees, maintenance (lodging and food) and books were all paid for by the state. I could not have gone to university otherwise.
My point in writing this is as follows. This picture of decent, civilized life for the English working classes, where everybody had a house to live in, was the product of policy decisions made by government in response to demands made by the public. (The capitalists were horrified.) If it was doable then, in the wake of a devastating global depression (in the 1930s) and an even more devastating world war (1939-45) it is certainly doable now. There is nothing inevitable about people sleeping on the streets, in convenience stores or in tent cities. There is nothing inevitable about families waiting for years, potentially decades, to have fulfilled the right to adequate housing, announced in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, then enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights signed by Canada in 1966, and having come into force in 1976. It’s not a matter of human nature, or of individuals’ bad choices, or of lack of money. The world is awash in money. It’s a matter of political choice and political will, by those in government and by we the people.
Let’s get at it.
Peter Eglin – Contributor
Professor Emeritus of Sociology
Wilfrid Laurier University