We need to recognise our common humanity as the welfare changes hit

By Bernadette Meaden
May 13, 2013

On the miserable journey that is welfare reform, we have reached a very sad milestone: the first suicide to be attributed to the bedroom tax.

Stephanie Bottrill, 53, wrote suicide notes to her family and stepped in front of a lorry on the motorway near her Solihull home.

In the letter she left for her son, Stephanie wrote,"Don’t blame yourself for me ending my life… the only people to blame are the government, no one else." Days earlier she had told her neighbours, "I can’t afford to live any more." The sum of money that had pushed Stephanie over the edge was £20 per week.

Meanwhile, at the DWP, the Department responsible for the bedroom tax, Minister Mark Hoban was learning that he was being allowed to keep much of the £144,000 profit he made when he sold his taxpayer-funded second home. This nice little windfall was enough to pay Stephanie’s bedroom tax for 138 years. Perhaps we should bear that in mind next time a Minister talks about a ‘culture of entitlement’.

And whilst people like Stephanie are contemplating suicide over such small amounts of money, we learn that the UK’s richest citizens are hiding billions of pounds in offshore tax havens.

We have also had news of Iain Hodge, a 30 year old father diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, Hughes Syndrome, who was nevertheless hoping to return to work. After being left for ten weeks without benefits he took his own life. His body was found by his 28 year old fiancée.

For many who have taken an interest in welfare reform, there is bemusement that such policies and their tragic impact have not caused more public concern, even outrage. But worryingly, research may now explain why the fate of benefit claimants does not disturb the general population as much as one would hope.

Research has shown that many people, shockingly, regard benefit claimants as being less than fully human. This process, known as ‘infrahumanisation’ means that people in receipt of benefits are thought not to feel the full range of human emotions as say, a ‘hard working taxpayer’ would.

And as Robert de Vries points out in his article, ‘This would explain why people are so tolerant of the cuts – on an unconscious level, the people being hurt aren't real, full people. If this is true then fighting the cuts is going to be much, much harder than just fighting myths and misapprehensions.’

This dehumanisation of benefit claimants is a process that has been actively pursued by government, and continues apace. In discussions of the benefits system and unemployment, it is usually the poor and unemployed people who are seen as the problem, not the economic conditions, of which they are simply the victims.

Consider this call for evidence on welfare reform from the think tank Policy Exchange. It concentrates almost entirely on the so-called ‘barriers to work’ which are such a preoccupation of those involved in welfare reform, and which often seem to equate to the personal shortcoming of those on benefits, without ever taking account of one glaringly obvious fact. People are unemployed because there are not enough jobs. In the preferred approach of welfare reformers, it often seems that unemployed people are the problem, not unemployment.

This constant emphasis on changing the behaviour of the poor and unemployed is damaging, and one could say verges on abusive, with claimants having their benefits stopped for flimsy reasons, or being forced to undergo bogus psychological tests on pain of losing their income. This contributes to their dehumanisation and exerts pressure on some of the most powerless people in society. Many are not intrinsically vulnerable or weak, in fact they display great strengths in coping with hardship. But every now and then, the pressure will become unbearable, and someone like Stephanie or Iain will feel that they cannot take any more.

This poses an urgent challenge to all people of faith and goodwill: to reiterate our common humanity, and maintain the unique, equal and precious worth of every individual. We cannot accept a society where some, because of their economic circumstances, are seen as less than human.

Thankfully the Churches have been vocal on these issues. The Joint Public Issues Team has done much to challenge the myths surrounding poverty, and now the Catholic Church has called a Conference to organise its response to ‘Poverty on the Doorstep’.

Many faith communities have also done much to meet the needs of people in poverty, and this is unquestionably a good thing. But perhaps they also need to be careful that they are not being used by the welfare reformers to absorb the impact of their policy decisions, making the consequences seem less harsh to the public, and the policies therefore more acceptable. Whilst comforting the afflicted, through meeting their immediate needs, those who are dealing with the consequences of welfare reform must also afflict the comfortable, by ensuring that politicians are held accountable for the results of their decisions.

For let’s make no mistake, the hunger and distress now being seen at foodbanks across the UK is not a temporary blip in a welfare system being ‘reformed’. For a long time the Conservative Party has wanted a minimal welfare state and a society more like the US, where ‘welfare’ is a dirty word, and foodbanks and soup kitchens are no longer seen as an emergency measure but a daily reality for a substantial part of even the working population.

Voters are entitled to vote for these policies if they choose, but we mustn’t, through goodwill, compassion and charity, allow such policies to have a false air of moral respectability, or unwittingly help to disguise their inherent cruelty.

Anyone affected by these issues can call the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 or visit Samaritans.org


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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