Government-created destitution

By Bernadette Meaden
July 2, 2017

A few days ago (29 June 2017) there was an event in Westminster – ‘The Conservative Route to Fighting Poverty: lessons from the last seven years’. The keynote speaker was Iain Duncan Smith.

On the very same day, a major study by Oxford University into the circumstances of foodbank users was published. It revealed that what many people face, after years of Mr. Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms, is not poverty, but destitution.

The research revealed that for people who most need help and support, particularly sick or disabled people, the welfare state has been ’reformed’ so badly it is now completely failing them. The safety net has been shredded and people are falling through into the type of living conditions we’d expect to see in a developing country.

Foodbank users are living on very little, and at times, nothing.  “Household incomes in the past month were very low…most households reported incomes in the range of £100 to £500 per month; the average income of the sample was £319.43. About 16 per cent of households reported having no income in the past month.”

Almost 80 per cent of households were classed as having been ‘severely food insecure’ over the past 12 months. ” In short, respondents were cutting back on food intake, experiencing hunger, and/or going whole days without eating because they lacked enough money for food.”

This is destitution largely created by government policy, and is set to get worse.  As the report makes clear, “The people using food banks are groups who have been most affected by recent welfare reforms: people with disabilities, lone parents, and large family households. These groups are seeing further reductions in their entitlements from April 2017 forward.”  

Particularly worrying is the destitution of people who are too ill to work and are placed in the Employment Support Allowance Work Related Activity Group. There was a high proportion of these claimants amongst foodbank users, yet the research was conducted before the cut which reduced payments for new claimants by £30 per week. It would seem inevitable that we will soon see many more people too ill to work using foodbanks.

The report concludes, “These findings raise questions about the cost of living and whether the current social security system is meeting people’s basic needs. Firstly, are levels of benefit support sufficient to ensure that all households relying on this income can always meet their basic needs? Our data suggest that this is not the case, especially for people who have disabilities and are relying on benefits.

"Secondly, for people in work, does this promise an income which meets their basic needs and that of their dependents? Our data suggests that insecurity and unsteadiness in income means even those in work can experience not having enough money for food. The profile of people using food banks highlights particularly vulnerable groups in the population and are groups who have been impacted by changes to welfare support (Hood and Johnson 2016, Equality and Human Rights Commission 2017) and increased conditionality (Watts, Fitzpatrick et al. 2014). As of April 2017, new benefit changes were introduced which are likely to mean that these groups will now be more financially vulnerable than at the time of this research (Hood, Keiller Norris et al. 2017).

"The severity of poverty observed, and what it means for people’s ability to acquire sufficient and adequate food, is a serious public health concern.”

Also on the same day as the Conservative Route To Tackling Poverty event, Disability News Service reported that the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (CRPD) had provided clarification of its report last November, when it said the UK had committed 'grave or systematic' violations of the human rights of disabled people. 

A spokeswoman for the committee said, “The committee can confirm that some violations were grave, some others were systematic and some were both: grave and systematic.”

“Most of the breaches – which were all under articles 19 (independent living), article 27 (work and employment) and article 28 (adequate standard of living and social protection) of the convention – were caused by policies introduced by Conservative ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) between 2010 and 2015.”

Meanwhile back at The Conservative Route To Tackling Poverty event, on the hashtag #specpoverty we could read, “@MJ_Oakley says we need to stop focusing on the losers of welfare reform and focus on those who want to get on.“

The only useful lesson that can be learned from the last seven years is that welfare reform has been a disaster for the very people social security was meant to support. It needs to be reversed. We cannot regard the UK as a decent, advanced country if significant numbers of people are unable to feed themselves or their children.

And we must be very careful not to be distracted by talk of social mobility. Social mobility is not social justice. Social mobility is about people improving their circumstances through education, training etc. This is of course a very good thing and to be supported. But it should not be a prerequisite for a dignified life.

There is always a danger that offering social mobility as a solution can recast poverty as a matter of personal responsibility, and can be tantamount to implying that people are living in poverty or destitution because of a lack of effort. There will always be people who are too ill or disabled to work. There will always be low skilled jobs, many essential to society, and those who do them should be respected and paid a real living wage. There will always be people who struggle to ‘get on’. We cannot accept that they be consigned to destitution, as they increasingly are at present. 

It can never be acceptable for anyone in the UK to be unable to eat or have access to the essentials of life. The fact that so many people are now in this position due to government policies is shameful. That is the lesson we should learn from the last seven years.

* Financial insecurity, food insecurity, and disability: the profile of people receiving emergency food assistance from The Trussell Trust Foodbank Network in Britain can be downloaded here 

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© 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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