The “austerity” crisis in the UK – it is not what it seems

The Guardian (for various reasons the paper this writer reads most often) is continually full of stories about people in poverty. There are more stories about food banks than there are stars in the sky. And “homeless” children (who it usually turns out are in fact being housed in a hostel at public expense). And people (this is one of their favourite story lines) “who have to choose between eating and heating”. And so on.

Interestingly the stories are often scant on detail. Just how can someone “have to choose between eating and heating” when the UK has one of the most generous benefits systems in the world – providing levels of benefits which have been calculated by civil servants as being sufficient to meet people’s basic needs?

To take a simple example – an unemployed adult aged 26 with no children living in a rented flat. Such a person will get £73.10 each week plus their rent paid. Council Tax* support is available and is calculated to ensure that the claimant is not asked to pay a level of Council Tax that would take their income below the minimum viable amount to live on. People with children or who are disabled receive additional support. This is not poverty.

However; there are some caveats. Some but not all of these relate to measures introduced by the current Conservative administration since 2010. These are some of the main ones (as far as I am aware);

  • Contribution to rent. Housing Benefit payments can be limited in various ways. If the person has a spare room a deduction may be made (up to 25% of the rent in the case of 2 or more spare rooms). And there is an overall cap on the maximum amount of rent which can be covered.
  • Council Tax support calculations only take account of 2 children.
  • Sanctions. Both the Labour and Conservative governments have implemented a regime of reduced benefit payments to people who do not cooperate with ‘reasonable’ requirements to find work. (Of course ‘reasonable’ may include being an exploited skivvy somewhere).
  • There is an overall cap on benefits which could penalise people with large numbers of children and multiple disabled people in one household.
  • A delay in the initial payment of Universal Credit though supporters of the scheme point out that loans are available.

Taking all this into account it is clear that people on benefits are being asked to trim their consumption. Some aspects of these limits are more easily manageable than others. Sanctions can obviously be avoided by cooperating with the regime. Someone in receipt of Housing Benefit should  be able to move to a property within the limit – especially if they are expecting to be on benefits for some time. But some are not so easy to deal with. The penalty for having a spare room supposes that people can easily downsize; but in practice there may not be sufficient properties available locally. The number of children people have at the moment they become unemployed is not controllable. (It seems quite draconian to argue that people who could go on benefits should never have more than 2 children).

That said; it does seem that for someone to be in real poverty they would have to either be not cooperating with the system or be something of an edge case who were (through no fault of their own) simultaneously penalised by more than one of the above restrictions. Perhaps this could happen. But, surprisingly, the endless articles in the Guardian never seem to give any details that would explain how this had happened to people.

It is not just financial details which are missing from the endless “poverty” stories in the Guardian. A huge elephant in the room is family. Basically; do these people – who feature in the Guardian stories – not have any family who can help them out? – Quite possibly they don’t; but in that case surely that is a social reality worth thinking about? A second lacuna is savings. Surely people when they were in work saved a little bit (even just £1000.00 over a year) for a time when they were in trouble? Wouldn’t that be wise? If they didn’t is it really a case of them being victims of government austerity? The implication is that the government should underwrite your consumption…

I think there is a reason the Guardian stories lack financial details. I would hypothesise that in 90% of cases or more the person is or could be receiving sufficient levels of benefits to pay the rent, heat their home, eat, and buy clothes and Christmas presents for their children. (Budget items admittedly).  My hypothesis is that what is really going on here is that people emotionally cannot cope with being without. They lack the character to gird their loins and get through the tough time. Food banks are not about “food poverty” but emotional neediness. I think behind this narrative about “poverty” is in fact an unspoken story about an emotional lack. People are used to being able to consume and when they can’t they can’t cope. The unspoken cry is that “I can no longer consume and so I feel cast out”. In a society which revolves around consumption this is entirely logical. Everyone wants to be part of society. If consuming is how people participate in society then not being able to consume is inevitably going to make people feel excluded.

The problem is not specifically material as the Guardian would have us believe.  But because of a certain ideology (which includes materialistic-hedonism as a guiding principle in life as well as belief in the state) they cannot look in the actual direction of the problem.

* Council Tax is a local fixed rate tax which pays for local services.

Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer