The Spending Review - a continuing attack on the poorest households

By Bernadette Meaden
September 5, 2019

Recently on Twitter, Rory Stewart MP was discussing a visit to a foodbank, and struggling to process the anger he encountered. One person told him that until he renounced the policies that drove people to foodbanks, they couldn’t trust him, because he was, "still standing on the tank that is rolling over our lives".

Yesterday’s Spending Review was hailed in some quarters as ‘the end of austerity’. But I fear there is a growing danger that the general public’s flawed understanding of what constitutes austerity could be very bad news for people on low incomes, and so that tank will continue to rumble relentlessly on.

For people who don’t follow politics very closely, austerity is an umbrella term which covers all the spending cuts which have been made since 2010, including all the cuts and changes to social security.

Austerity was presented as an economic necessity which ostensibly affected the whole population, as we ‘lived within our means’. Unfortunately much of the public still believes this, despite the fact that the rich continued to get tax cuts. It was just about possible to argue that the whole population was affected to some extent by police and NHS cuts, library closures and other manifestations of austerity. Where those public spending cuts were concerned, it was almost plausible to say we were all in it together.

But this perception of the situation could be very bad news for those on the lowest incomes. It suggests that the proclaimed end of austerity will be good news for everybody, when in fact without a dramatic change of direction, and the reversal of many policies, those on the lowest incomes will continue to be crushed.

The fact is that the term 'austerity' has served to mask a set of policies which deliberately and disproportionately targeted those most in need of support – welfare reforms. Nobody who is in any way financially comfortable or secure will have been affected at all by these policies, indeed they probably have little or no knowledge of them – but year after year, from the Coalition government onwards, they have deliberately, and by design, crushed the poorest in our society.

Successive governments have denied that these targeted policies have caused the rising tide of misery and deprivation we see in our communities and on our streets. Ministers have repeatedly stressed the complexity of social problems, have talked about ‘pathways to poverty’ and placed responsibility onto the failings or weaknesses of individuals – even as they enacted measures which took money out of those very same individual’s pockets.

In the Spending Review, these measures, which continue to drive adults and children into poverty and homelessness, were barely mentioned.  Bob Stronge, Chief Executive of Advice Northern Ireland said: “People out of work and in low paid work are struggling to survive as a result of the four year benefit freeze, the two child cap, the problems associated with the rollout of Universal Credit including the minimum five week wait for the first payment and the raft of cuts to the social security system in recent years…In this context of hardship and crisis we are deeply disappointed by the inadequate announcements in the Spending Review which actually amount to a continuing attack on our poorest households.” 

Terrie Alafat, of the Chartered Institute for Housing, said: "On one area.. the Chancellor was silent – and that was welfare. And the freeze on local housing allowance (LHA) continues to cause misery. In some parts of the UK a staggering 97 per cent of private rents are now simply unaffordable under benefit rules. This leaves thousands of families having to choose between paying their rent and feeding their children. It is a national shame that people face being made homeless and councils have to spend £1 billion a year on temporary accommodation because LHA is failing to do its job.”

And the Trussell Trust called the Spending Review a ‘lost opportunity’, saying: “Increasing living costs, inadequate benefit levels, and the five week wait for Universal Credit are all leaving people without enough money in their pockets for the most basic costs. It’s no surprise we’re seeing the highest level of need for food banks ever.”

We should not allow policies like the five week wait for Universal Credit, harsh benefit sanctions, the bedroom tax, the two child limit, the cuts to disability benefits and other welfare reform policies to be mistakenly seen as part of general austerity. If we do that, we risk concealing the intensity and the targeted nature of the attack on the poor which has taken place over the last nine years. If we allow that terrible injustice to be swept under the carpet we risk absolving those responsible of any moral responsibility, and we risk it not being addressed as an urgent priority.

We must never forget that certain cruel policies were not just designed to save money, but were deliberately devised to change the behaviour of poor people, by wealthy people who believe that poverty is not caused by economic injustice but by the problematic behaviour of the poor. Those policies may have saved money, but that was not their only aim – they were also a ruthless attempt at social engineering, and we must never rest until they have been consigned to the past, where they belong.  

So if the government and media do proclaim the end of austerity, please remember - we cannot afford to relax until we have stopped the tank which is rolling over people's lives.

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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 

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.