In early January 2012, across the UK, thousands of tenants were on the move. Maximum housing benefit rates were cut from average local rents to the value of the lowest third of rents and upper limits set, with even tougher rules for single people aged under 35. Numerous low-income families and individuals were forced out of their homes, and in many cases relocated far away.
Workers ended up a long distance from their workplaces, a challenge for those unable to afford high travel costs. Young people were shifted further away from their schools, in some cases just before taking key examinations. In some cases carers found themselves far away from sick and disabled relatives, grandparents a long way from grandchildren for whom they helped to care.
The Chartered Institute of Housing estimated that 720,000 homes became unaffordable in England, 60,000 in Scotland and 30,000 in Wales. Unless housing benefit claimants cut back on already minimal living expenses or went into debt, they had to leave their homes, often their neighbourhoods and even their towns and cities.
While some people on housing benefit are unemployed, more are low-paid workers, and the majority are not in paid work because they are disabled, lone parents, pensioners or carers. Those hoping to re-enter the workforce in future may find it harder if they have moved to an area with fewer jobs, hardly helping them to become more independent, despite the government’s claims.
It may take time for the full social – and economic – cost to be assessed. It is not yet clear how many disabled people have ended up in inaccessible accommodation, how many sick patients are now far away from the health professionals who have been treating them, how many survivors of domestic violence previously forced to flee their homes have had their lives disrupted yet again.
In many areas, rents are absurdly high, even for far from luxurious (sometimes barely habitable) properties, while mortgages are out of reach for low and middle income people. In addition, the economic downturn has left many people unemployed or working fewer hours. The housing benefit bill is indeed high.
But this should be addressed by measures to increase the availability of affordable housing, and of jobs with reasonable pay, rather than punishing those already struggling to make ends meet. For those of all faiths and none who care about justice, the current situation is not acceptable. Indeed, simply on grounds of practicality, it would make sense for the government to rethink its policies.
Making things worse
But under current government policy, things may get worse. The Welfare Reform Bill, currently going through Parliament, proposes a further cap on housing benefit, putting even more accommodation out of reach.
Some people argue that people on low incomes who rely on housing benefit should get out of high-rent areas. But it is hardly feasible for, say, a home care worker doing a half-hour’s work here and there on the minimum wage to commute in from such a distance that she spends more on travel than she actually earns. Many other people rely on a support system made up of family and friends in their locality, and would struggle to cope if cut off from this safety net.
The House of Lords may amend this clause to soften the impact, reducing the number of additional households forced to move. However, as with other aspects of this harsh Bill that the Lords have amended or might amend, it is possible that the government will seek to overturn the amendments.
Other government policies too are likely to result in yet more people on the move.
Some people, including many children and young people, are highly resilient, and will cope with the stress, and sometimes loss, though in certain cases there may be a longer-term price to pay. Other families and individuals may not be able to handle the effect. Meanwhile, society will become more deeply divided.
Many people have not yet realised the full impact of housing benefit and other welfare reforms threatening further hardship for those already disadvantaged. But when increasing numbers find that they themselves, or close relatives or friends, are affected, opinions will shift.
On political if not humanitarian grounds, the government would do well to stop targeting those in greatest need.
© Savi Hensman works in the care and equalities sector. She is a regular Christian commentator on political and social issues. This article ties in with an earlier piece on the impact of housing benefit reform (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/15364 ) and the current push to highlight the flaws in the Welfare Reform Bill.