When austerity emerged as government’s response to the 2008 crash, people on low incomes faced cumulative increases in poverty. Cuts to transport, social housing and care, health, welfare benefits, legal aid and public funding of the voluntary sector were among the obvious contributors.
Five years on, and more cumulative impoverishment faces those whose stagnant wages struggle with rising costs and falling public services. Government is emphatic that reductions in the public sector have much further to go (see for example).
Many of these cuts are frustratingly self-defeating, being likely to incur higher costs a little down the line. Yet the problem of poverty is not rooted in public sector cuts, but in the shape of our UK economy.
What’s the picture now facing CAB advisers? It depends where and who you are. Until last autumn I worked in Peterborough, and am now in Uttlesford, in rural north Essex). Though not geographically so distant, they are a world apart. Peterborough is a low-rent area short on social housing and long on cheap and overcrowded rented properties, often of a truly appalling standard. Uttlesford, particularly where it borders Cambridgeshire, is problematically high-rent but with better social housing provision.
On paper, Peterborough has work, but that includes a high proportion of insecure agency jobs at the minimum wage, providing minimal prospects of training, promotion, job satisfaction or work community and a near-certainty of week-by-week fluctuations in income. Those fluctuations are a nightmare for benefit claimants. I wanted to laugh (or scream) when I recently heard the prime minister speak, with all the enthusiasm of the privileged, of the security of being in work.
Uttlesford’s work scene is less ruthless, but it has plenty of zero-hour employment and we have a constant flow of clients subject to summary dismissal, unilateral changes in contract or non-payment of wages, along with a high proportion of low-skilled people struggling against heavy odds to make a go of self-employment.
In both areas, the problem is less lack of work than the impossibility of making it pay. In Uttlesford, public transport is non-existent in many villages and expensive where it does exist. Everywhere, loss of legal aid for employment matters, the introduction of fees for Employment Tribunals and the loss of access to an ET for those employed for less than two years reduce employment protection to a cipher.
Affordable childcare and housing are country-wide problems. Uttlesford has much less street homelessness than Peterborough, and I don’t here routinely hear of people sleeping in garages or packed with whole families into single rooms. As far as I can gather, families still exist in rural Essex to a degree that they don’t in Peterborough, young and older people in crisis often being supported by those networks. But families crack under the strain: many people seek advice on the practicalities of relationship breakdowns; single parents are finally evicted by their parents or siblings and have to take their children into unlovely interim accommodation; not infrequently we suggest Age Concern’s advocacy service, fearing financial or emotional elder abuse. Here as in Peterborough, it’s quite common for separating couples to be unable to afford separate homes; trapped under the same roof, they and their children face rising tensions as well as benefit/tax credit complications.
In my experience and that of colleagues elsewhere, we see ever-fewer clients with ‘simple’ problems. Issues now are multiple and hard (or impossible) to resolve without major and long-term disruption. People who never expected to need a CAB come to us because one problem - employment, health, relationship - has brought the whole house down.
Why? Welfare benefit cuts have hit the headlines and they are heavily implicated. Well before 2008, benefits and tax credits were being stealthily reduced. For many people and in some areas particularly, the high-profile cuts - ‘bedroom tax’; council tax benefit; increased conditionality of Job Seekers Allowance and Employment & Support Allowance (for sick & disabled people) - cause persistent hardship. Everywhere household margins are being shredded. Many, particularly young people, those with children and those with hard-to-evidence disabilities are at best right on the edge of not-managing, and it takes little to push them into destitution. Anxiety is a way of life.
But the overwhelming message of my work is that the problem doesn’t lie with benefits, any more than blame for the benefit bill lies with its claimants. The problem lies with the nature of work and the unavailability of jobs which pay without recourse to public top-ups; with the unaffordability of housing without the same; with the short-term emphasis on immediate employment over and above long-term investment in health, education and skills. The problem lies also in our increasingly unequal society, which insulates richer people from the realities of daily life for those at the bottom, the Precariat.
CAB advisers meet some people--they’re not the norm, but they are far outnumbered by those who struggle to escape benefit dependence--whose problems are exacerbated by their refusal or inability to face the realities of falling benefit entitlements and rising prices; who look to advisers or to some anonymous public-sector ‘They’ to make the problem go away. I’ve increasingly come to believe that there is a problem of dependency in this country.
But it’s a cultural problem far more pervasive than is recognised by those who pillory the poor. The people at the bottom - those zero-hour or agency workers and unskilled ‘self-employed’ - subsidise the security of those economically above them, keeping prices low and shareholders happy. People with financial and social capital have no idea how far they are dependent on those goods; they (we) rarely question their ‘right’ to them. Yet they are rights derived from a deeply exploitative society and economy. Lectures about getting a job and ‘doing the right thing’ come poorly from those enjoying job satisfaction and choice of work; broader sermons on social responsibility come no less badly from those who can pay carers to look after dependent family members, or accountants to minimise their tax bills.
I’m a benefits adviser and simplistic condemnation of claimants angers me. But, increasingly, I’m far more concerned about the broader issues which the benefits debate serves to mask.