Austerity, artificial scarcity, and the 'migrant crisis'

By Bernadette Meaden
January 4, 2019

A banker, a worker, and a migrant sit at a table, on which there are a dozen biscuits. The banker takes eleven of the biscuits then says to the worker, “watch that migrant, he’s after your biscuit.” I was reminded of this modern parable when Sajid Javid, formerly of Deutsche Bank and an avid admirer of Ayn Rand, declared a trickle of people crossing the Channel to be a crisis.

The public response to this ‘crisis’ has ranged from sympathetic to unashamedly racist. But it has also brought into sharp focus how many people in the UK feel that they are living in a country where resources are so scarce their own survival is threatened by a few new arrivals. Through austerity and welfare reform, and the propaganda that surrounded and enabled that perfect storm of cruelty, politicians and the media have, tragically, managed to create a country where the status of an asylum seeker can be seen as almost enviable. 

When the so-called crisis hit the headlines, in an effort to counteract the inevitable claims that people come to the UK because they will be rewarded with generous social security benefits, I tweeted, “Just for the record, asylum seeker’s allowance is £37.55 a week." I received replies which reminded me that in the UK in 2019, some people have little or no income whatsoever, and some of these may be struggling with physical and/or mental health problems.

Homeless people, sanctioned people, people waiting for their first Universal Credit payment, people who find the Universal Credit application process simply defeats them. Or people who have successfully navigated it, only to find that the complete shambles that is Universal Credit deems they can live on an amount so small it would be laughable if it weren’t so appalling.

We now have numerous people who are not technically homeless, but have none of the amenities or comforts one would normally associate with a home. As one Liverpool charity, the Papercup Project  tweeted, “Some people on the streets may well have a home, but don’t have money for food or utilities.” Being hungry in a cold dark flat will inevitably drive some people to beg or worse, simply to acquire basic essentials.

As the UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston said in his recent report, we have one a half million people who are destitute in the UK. In one of the richest countries in the world, the government has managed to place a significant section of the population into deprivation so severe that a roof over their head and a guarantee of £37.55 a week seems enviable.

People are declaring that we can’t afford to help asylum seekers, that because people in this country are living in poverty we need to ‘look after our own’ – and in a supreme irony, they are declaring this on Fat Cat Friday. The day (4 January) when the average CEO of a FTSE 100 company has been paid as much as a worker on median wage will get paid for working a whole year. 

And whilst people argue that we simply haven’t got the money to help, the Resolution Foundation has pointed out that, since the 1980s, wealth in the UK has surged from three to nearly seven times our GDP – £13 trillion. As they say, “Britain has unfortunately got used to weak income growth but soaring wealth, which is now worth seven times the size of our economy. It’s time our tax system caught up with that fact.” 

The UK is a rich country, we can afford to give everybody a decent life – and help asylum seekers, and send aid to the poorest people in the world. But our politics and economics has conspired to convince a significant number of people that resources are scarce, and the poor must compete with the desperate to survive. That is morally and spiritually corrosive, and we need to get the message out – the UK is a rich country. Poverty is a political choice.

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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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