Rationing is limiting the purchase or use of a good. Typically this term refers to rationing by the government when its policies result in a supply less than demand. The alternative is to let the market system adjust, which will result in very high prices for common goods, generating severe discontent and even starvation.
One form of rationing is price controls, whereby the government limits the price that can be charged for a good.
More common is coupon rationing. each person is given coupons for goods—usually on an equalitarian basis. To purchase an itrem a consumer must have both money and coupons—and the store has to have the goods. A third method is to restrict supply of materials and labor to the manufacturer. This allows special priority to be given to munitions and essential war supplies.
A black market transaction is the illegal sale of rationed goods, without coupons. A gray markey transaction is the buying and selling (or trading) of coupons. In wartime governments usually tolerate gray markets and crack down hard on black markets.
Rationing during wartime is common in many countries, including the United States in World War II (but not in other American wars).
World War II
Rationing and related controls since 1914 have been accompanied by intensive propaganda campaigns sponsored by the government.
Essential goods requiring coupons were clothing, shoes, butter, tea, sugar, gasoline, and (from January 1944) meat. Clothing and footwear were rationed in June 1942, imposing a cut of about 40% on normal purchases for men and 33% for women, and 20% for children over five. Tea was rationed at 2 ozs. a week, sugar 1 lb. a week, butter 8 ozs. a week. Rationed at the wholesale level were cigarettes, and tobacco, supplies of which have been cut 30%; beer and spirits, cut one-third. Automobile tires were tightly controlled and available only to essential users.
Canberra exerted strict controls on civilian investment. The Capital Issues Board had to approve whenever a business wanted to raise capital; it had to be necessary for wartime. Normal housing construction was ended except for war workers. To prevent excessive speculation, share prices on stock exchanges were given upper and lower limits. Similar control was exercised over dealings in houses and land.
Wages were pegged at the general level as of February 1942. Wages were not frozen, for they could be raised in terms of the rising cost of living. The Manpower Directorate, regulated the supply of labor for every activity, diverting it from less essential to more essential uses, and so decreasing or increasing production as war needs required.
Civilian consumption increased 22% during the war, though there were many shortages in critical areas. Production stopped on many civilian items, such as automobiles, new houses, and new appliances. Many commodities, such as meat, sugar, butter, coffee, gasoline, tires, shoes and clothing were rationed. Local schools set up stations where people could get their ration coupons (with teachers handling the paperwork.) Each person (regardless of age) received the same food and clothing coupons. To purchase an item three things were needed: the storekeeper had to have the item in the first place, the purchaser had to have the cash, and had to have the coupons. Most automobile drivers received coupons for 3 gallons a week; those who could document special needs received extra gasoline coupons. (There was plenty of gasoline; the rationing was an efficient way to ration automobile tires, with rubber in very short supply.) Bread, milk and beer were not rationed. People eating in restaurants had to pay with cash and ration coupons. Rationing was generally supported by the civilian population, although there was some black market activity, that is, purchase of an item without the coupons. The government hunted down and prosecuted black marketeers. There was much "gray market" activity—that is family and neighbors selling or trading ration coupons; that was technically illegal but rarely prosecuted.
The main result was a striking egalitarianism of consumption, especially regarding food. Rationing was needed due to the needs of the men and women serving overseas. The commodities mentioned above were a very important key to the success of the US war effort. Also, rationing was also needed due to the limited shipping capabilities during the war. Many cargo ships were converted from public use to military use to aid in the war effort.
Bentley (1998) argues that wartime food rationing encouraged planners, consumers, and producers alike to focus on the communitarian dimensions of the American war effort. Rationing drew women into the national wartime effort, but the result was "simultaneously to elevate women's status and to maintain gender hierarchies." The Office of Price Administration instituted food rationing to combat high inflation while ensuring equitable distribution of scarce resources; from the start, it saw women as essential collaborators in a new, and democratic, practice. Rationing mobilized women as "wartime homemakers," especially as consumers who faced the challenge of providing meals while restricting sugar and meat consumption. (Ironically, although women worked in them, too, victory gardens and food production were more often viewed as men's work.) Women's work as food preparers also held the power to remind Americans daily of what the nation was collectively fighting for ("Freedom from want").
- Frank W. Fox, Madison Avenue Goes to War: The Strange Military Career of American Advertising, 1941-45, (1975)
- Amy Bentley, Eating for Victory: Food Rationing and the Politics of Domesticity. (1998)