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New Worlds: Making Ends Meet

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If you’re living on the precipice of poverty — but haven’t yet fallen over it into outright begging — how do you make ends meet?

The answers to this both have and haven’t changed over time. Post-industrialization, we have the ability to mechanize and automate tons of processes that previously would have needed someone to perform them by hand for a pittance of pay. We’ve also become vastly more bureaucratic, narrowing the range of jobs that can be done on a casual, day-by-day basis, without filling out employment paperwork — though such jobs certainly do still exist, even where they’re not supposed to.

At the same time, quite a few factors remain the same, and some odd jobs of the past have modern analogues today. Terry Pratchett summed up one of those factors quite memorably with Sam Vimes’ ‘boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money. Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles. But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

As for modern analogues, have you ever stopped at a gas station and had someone start washing your car windows without being prompted? They’re following in the footsteps of the street-sweepers of yore, who would clear a path across a filthy road for a well-to-do pedestrian in the hopes of being paid.

Quite a few of the odd jobs used to make ends meet involved minor services, especially those that required minimal or no resources. Day laborers showed up, as they do today, at places where temporary help might be needed — docks, construction sites, and so forth — hoping to be chosen for a job. Boys and old or disabled men not capable of heavy work could loiter around busy urban areas and offer to hold a rider’s horse while the person conducted business inside; girls and old or disabled women could look after a neighbor’s kids while the older family members were out working. Street performance is another option: can you sing? Play an instrument? Do acrobatic tricks? Sleight of hand? Have you trained a stray dog to dance on command? (We’ll leave prostitution for a future essay, but it’s a kind of service or performance, too . . .) Anything that might amuse a passer-by is fair game, and successful performers can potentially earn something approaching a real living. Local laws may or may not approve, though, so you might have to be ready to bolt at the first sign of police.

The same is true of street vendors, then and now. Some might be licensed; some might not. But that trade requires some up-front investment, since often you have to buy your merchandise from the source — whether that’s durable goods like ribbons or perishable ones like flowers and hot buns — and if you fail to unload it all, especially the perishables, then you’re in the hole financially. (The musical Newsies shows this operating in the nineteenth-century newspaper industry.) Beware offers from the person in charge to get you started with a loan: the terms might well be structured to ensure you never get out of debt.

Piece work is another option, and one that still exists today. Under this model, you get paid for each unit you produce, rather than the amount of time you work. This can be part of a formal factory setup, but as a matter of poverty-line subsistence, it lends itself to work that can be done at home, in moments snatched between other tasks. Historically, this meant it got used a lot for clothing and other textiles, which even the young and the old could generally manage — though perhaps not as quickly or as well. But if you’re depending on piece work to make ends meet, it often means you’re shorting yourself on sleep to get another unit or two done, and working by insufficient light because you can’t afford to spend that extra penny on another candle. This and street vending both remind me heavily of the modern gig economy, in terms of the social role they fill.

Another whole swath of odd jobs fall under the header of “recycling,” though nobody before the 1960s was likely to refer to it that way. Trash can contain valuable things now (for sufficiently low senses of the word “valuable,” like cans that can be redeemed for a nickel); that was even more true when everything had to be made by hand. “Rag-and-bone men” is an English term for those who went door-to-door collecting scraps of domestic rubbish; “mudlarks” comb the shore of a river for useful debris, becoming “toshers” if they’re searching a sewer instead. Broken glass could be melted down, broken pottery ground up for use in cement. Sometimes what’s valuable depends on technology; if cotton paper is in wide use, then worn-out rags are worth collecting, and if the merits of bone meal as a dietary supplement and soil fertilizer are known, then kitchen trash gains a new life. A small domestic animal has died? Someone might want its skin. Even dog feces had value: euphemistically referred to as “pure,” they were of use in tanning hides.

As I’ve noted in passing, quite a lot of the above were jobs that children or the elderly might take. For many families in the past, making ends meet involved putting to work anybody who could possibly bring in a supplemental coin or two; there were no laws against child labor, and “retirement” was (and is) an alien concept to anyone struggling to stay fed and housed. Even with our modern laws, there are still some jobs we consider suitable for children to undertake, like babysitting, lawn-mowing, and newspaper delivery. In a financially secure family, those might be seen as a great way for kids to learn about discipline and hard work, but for a household on the brink, they can be the difference between a rent check and eviction.

Finally, of course, there’s the shady side of survival. Some of the above jobs already skirt or cross over the edge of the law, e.g. if street performers, vendors, or prostitutes aren’t permitted, or if a business hires a day laborer off the books. Given a choice between starving and committing outright crime, though, a lot of people will choose crime. It’s no accident that reformer Henry Mayhew’s influential three-volume 1851 work, London Labour and the London Poor, acquired a fourth volume in 1861 that turned its attention to the criminal element; the line between those worlds can be highly porous. The most successful reformers recognize the interrelationship between poverty and crime, and know that reducing the former can help reduce the latter.

I should acknowledge that, as some of you have probably noticed, my comments above are heavily flavored by English history (especially of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). I don’t have nearly as good a sense of how the desperate poor of Republican Rome, Tang Dynasty Chang’an, or pre-colonial Tenochtitlan survived. Some of the factors will be different in those places and times; where there are strong social institutions mitigating poverty, there will be less need for such tactics. (Rome, for example, famously provided free wheat to its citizens . . . but then, remember that not every free person was a citizen.) I fully expect, though, that the basic ideas are likely to apply cross-culturally. What will vary is the small services being performed, the scraps of production squeezed in around other duties, the items worth scavenging in exchange for a coin or two.

Anything to keep you fed for another day.

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1 thought on “New Worlds: Making Ends Meet”

  1. Mayhew used the hiring of servants as the line between the poor and the — very poor. Poor people hired children and the elderly, but they hired them.

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