AS SABINE GOODWIN OF THE INDEPENDENT FOOD AID NETWORK recently wrote: “A perfect storm is brewing—the impending overnight cut to Universal Credit, the end of the furlough scheme, and a dramatic increase in energy prices. All these devastating changes are planned for the start of October.”
When asked about this, the Prime Minister said: “My strong preference is for people to see their wages rise through their efforts rather than through taxation of other people put into their pay packets, rather than welfare.” Now, contrary to what some critics said, this seemed to confirm that the Prime Minister does in fact understand that almost half of people receiving Universal Credit are working. What he seemed to be saying was that people doing vital jobs, many key workers he clapped for, are somehow responsible for the fact that their wages are too low to live on, and they need to make more effort. He was actually blaming individual workers for an unjust and exploitative labour market. Workers have little power to change that unless they take industrial action – and no doubt if they went on strike for higher wages Mr. Johnson would be the first to call them far left extremists.
The Prime Minister, on the other hand, has plenty of power to change things so that people are less reliant on social security. He could raise the National Living Wage, which is not a Real Living Wage, or he could ban zero hours contracts, as in New Zealand. He could ban ‘fire and rehire’, which sees employers sacking workers if they don’t agree to a new contract with inferior pay and conditions. For those struggling to get a job he could remove barriers to employment, by improving access to good, affordable childcare, or by compelling employers to be more flexible towards workers with an illness or disability. But it is much easier to blame the victims of an unjust system, and keep taking donations from the people who profit from it.
What was also implicit in what the PM said was that for people who are claiming Universal Credit and not working, because of an illness, disability or caring responsibilities – well, tough luck. They will be plunged into deeper poverty by a cut to their income, but they really don’t seem to enter into the Prime Minister’s considerations.
It’s also extremely important to note that people on ‘legacy’ benefits, including sickness and disability benefits, did not get the £20 Universal Credit ‘uplift’, so have struggled through the pandemic on incomes which are now widely recognised as too low to live on. In 2019, before the pandemic, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation said that just over half of people in destitution were disabled or had a long-term health condition. Their struggle, as they face rising food and fuel prices, does not bear thinking about.
The systematic erosion of social security that has occurred over the past decade, and the introduction of Universal Credit, was often promoted and justified as a way of ending ‘welfare dependency’, although research showed that this ‘welfare dependency’ was a convenient fiction not borne out by reality. The number of claimants at any particular time is dictated by the state of the labour market, and rises and falls as a response to economic forces – it is not a manifestation of fluctuations in the laziness of the population. Cutting benefits to deter people from living on them as a ‘lifestyle choice’ was to further punish the victims of an unjust economy.
But tellingly, politicians who deplore the idea of people being dependent on welfare seem to have no problem with increasing numbers of people in the UK being dependent on charity.
Most people will be familiar with the term ‘food poverty’ and foodbanks, but as the range of essential goods or services which people cannot access grows, a range of charities has sprung up to provide them. A simple internet search can find reference to, and charities active on the following problems:
Hygiene poverty: “At The Hygiene Bank, we believe it is not right that feeling clean should be a luxury or a privilege for anyone in our society, yet many are living in poverty and cannot afford to stay clean”
Furniture poverty: “We define furniture poverty, (including white goods), as the inability to access, or afford to buy or maintain, any household furniture or appliance item that is essential to achieve a socially acceptable standard of living.”
Clothing poverty: “In many cases, students are avoiding school for fear of being bullied over their worn-out clothes. Those who do attend, could be seen with holes in their clothes and shoes that are held together with tape.”
Footwear poverty: “Thousands of men, women or children are wearing footwear that is neither suitable nor fit for purpose. And at least 10,000 homeless people have no shoes or shoes that are falling to pieces.”
Period poverty: “We believe all women should have access to sanitary protection during their period. But many are experiencing period poverty, unable to access or afford them. That’s why we’re working towards our goal to eliminate period poverty in Britain’s most deprived communities by 2025.”
Faced with overwhelming need, compassionate people have broken it down into something they can realistically deal with. Wanting to help, but without the power or resources to raise people’s incomes to a level where they can live a decent life, people do what they can. They can at least make sure people have soap, or a pair of shoes to wear. Ironically, policies which were justified by politicians as a means of reducing ‘welfare dependency’ (something they largely invented and used to stigmatise people in poverty) has resulted in many people becoming dependent on charity instead.
But the danger of this splintering of poverty into so many different parts is that it can obscure what we are really looking at – destitution. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says: “Destitution means going without the essentials we all need to eat, stay warm and dry, and keep clean. The UK should be a country where everyone has the chance of a healthy, decent, and secure life regardless of who they are and where they live. Yet our research shows that around 2.4 million people experienced destitution in the UK at some point during 2019, including over half a million children.”
A patchwork of charities supplying donated furniture, clothes and other items may relieve some immediate problems, but they cannot do anything about the desperately low incomes that make every day a stressful, gut-wrenching struggle.
Such terms to describe aspects of poverty can also be a distraction which prevent us looking clearly at the real picture. A perfect example of this was a recent radio 4 programme, Positive Thinking. How do we end fuel poverty?
At the beginning, low incomes and inadequate benefits were mentioned, but seemed to be simply accepted as a fact of life. Then the programme launched into what it was really about – community energy schemes. The advocate for these schemes was Afsheen Rashid, chair of Community Energy England. Rashid grew up in India, and when asked what motivated her she said: “Coming to London, where you think basic essential needs are met and accessible, and seeing that not being the case was quite shocking.”
It was clear that these community energy projects are very positive, a way of potentially reconfiguring the energy market, to eventually shift power from big energy producers to consumers, and produce cheaper, greener, sustainable energy. This is all to be warmly welcomed – but it does not solve the shameful problem recently raised by Marie Curie – of the terminally ill people deciding, today, whether to put £10 on their prepayment meter or buy some fresh fruit and vegetables, and dying sooner because poverty forces them to make that choice.
Until politicians stop blaming the victims of an unjust system, and voters make economic justice a priority, we will have millions of people living and dying in destitution in Global Britain.
© 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. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden