Strapped for cash


Thirty years ago in 1982, the year in which unemployment exceeded three million , the BBC launched a television series called Boys From the Blackstuff. Set in a grimly recognisable Liverpool, it chronicled the disparate and sometimes dissolute attempts of five former members of a tarmac gang to find work in a city hit hard by mounting unemployment and depression. Boys From the Blackstuff was written by Alan Bleasdale who described it as “an absurd, mad, black farce”.  The series came to epitomize the Thatcher era, reinforcing perceptions of a North South divide.

SHOP THY NEIGHBOUR

Also set in Liverpool was the television series called Bread. Written by Carla Lane and first broadcast in 1986, it turned the black farce of life within a state welfare benefits (DHSS) culture, as shown in Boys from the Blackstuff, into light-hearted comedy. Deliberately set in what was still Thatcher’s Britain,  the series Bread had the Boswell family running rings around the state welfare benefits system. Unlike the Boys from the Blackstuff and the poverty trap that Yosser Hughes and his mates found themselves in, the Boswell family were experts on the ‘benefits of welfare’. The series was initially roundly condemned by the critics, especially by those writing for the broadsheets of the time “[It] reinforces the cultural stereotype of the inhabitants of that self-destructive city as a bunch of spongers abusing the welfare state” wrote a reviewer in The Times. Confirming – if ever it were needed – the existence of a North South divide.

THE BOSWELL FAMILY

While both series depicted life in Britain during the eighties within a growing state welfare culture, they also showed life in a ‘black economy’. The black economy being cash based, untraceable and hence untaxable business dealings, in which transaction records are not kept or are kept secret. In the series Bread, the Boswell family survive and thrive in the black economy. The ‘secret cash account’ being the egg basket in the middle of the dinner table under the china hen. All the family members who sit round the table are expected to put a cash contribution into the basket. ‘Bread’ is a play on the rhyming slang ‘bread and honey’ – meaning ‘money’. Money, either the lack of it or the means of access to it, was taken to be synonymous with cash in both series. However, cash meant banknotes and coins as deposited in the egg basket in Bread, and the illegal payments made to those on state welfare benefits in Boys from the Blackstuff.

Outside of the black economy cash transactions were decreasing during the eighties. Although this was particularly true for those with a regular income, it was only partly true for most of those on welfare. Welfare payments had been made for some time in the form of a Girocheque, which was received through the post. However, those on welfare rarely had a bank account and access to any form of credit, so they immediately exchanged the Girocheque for cash. They were invariably ‘cash strapped‘ – never having enough cash available to meet their needs. For those not living a cash strapped existence, cash transactions, the visible and emotional exchange of personal wealth were disappearing. The the use of credit and debit cards was increasing, leading to an emotional detachment and a form of financial blindness to the effect their use had on personal wealth. The new form of access to debt that credit and debit cards created significantly increased personal debt. This made the distinction between those with access to such debt and those ‘living on cash’ even greater. Those with card debt were often strapped for the money needed to maintain their debt based lifestyle. This happened when they had insufficient wealth income in the form of money transfers (then often electronic and rarely cash) deposited into their bank accounts.

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