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A dystopian reality - welfare, the homeless and the unfed

Perhaps people are unaware of just how bad the situation has got for many of their fellow citizens, those who have little food, no money, and no home - in 21st century Britain. Two forces make this possible: hypocrisy and invisibility.

Deborah Padfield
12 May 2014

Flickr/Byzantine_K

“Our reading of where [we are] heading is bleak. For those not working, the price of state financial support is discipline and demonisation. The real value of that support, already low (especially for those without dependent children), continues to fall... For some, state support no longer even stops people from going hungry.….

 

“The pressure now being applied to the poorest quarter of society has not been seen since before the birth of the welfare state in the 1940s...

 

“The problems that this government and the last see themselves as addressing through their welfare reforms… are serious indeed. But their roots do not lie in the people caught up in them. Instead they lie elsewhere, in the behaviour of both financial and non-financial corporations, in the laxity of regulators, in an unwillingness to contemplate a low-cost, good-quality alternative to private rented homes, in confused thinking that treats valid answers to questions about individuals (why this person is unemployed rather than that) as if they were valid answers for social ones too (why there is unemployment at all).”

 

Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2013, Joseph Rowntree Foundation/New Policy Institute

 The Joseph Rowntree Trust gives a sombre picture. So does Dick Pountain, painting ‘the outlines of a very grim society indeed’, in which economic, political and technological power lie with a narrow band of capitalists, both income-rich and the heirs of wealth.

Is it credible that policy-making is self-interestedly controlled by such an elite? It is compatible with the current policy of withdrawing the welfare safety-net from those who fail to become economically independent. I focus here on welfare benefits and social housing, removal of access to which is eased by removal also of much access to law.

The aim of welfare

The Beveridge Report, which ushered in our post-war welfare system, did not promote state-dependence. Beveridge envisaged a system that, by outlawing want, enabled people to take responsibility for their betterment. That’s a difficult balance. The Coalition makes no apologies for weighting it heavily against dependence. 

Government claims that the ‘tough love’ of the benefit system, offering help and support back to independence, is ‘the right thing’ economically… and morally. Given the ‘supports’ and sanction-oriented ‘incentives’ now in place, those long-term dependent on benefits must be so through failures of responsibility, through laziness or indiscipline.

The principle is yet clearer with social housing. The Localism Act 2011 introduced ‘flexible tenancies’ with fixed (usually 2-5 year) terms. Again, the principle is that state support should provide a temporary leg-up for those in crisis. A secure social tenancy, unlike benefit-dependence, cannot lock tenants into poverty, but it is an unhealthy refuge from the higher rents and greater insecurity of the real-life market.

‘For some, state support no longer even stops people from going hungry.’ State assistance has been worn down to the point where many citizens in one of the world’s richest countries cannot even eat properly. What makes this extraordinary situation politically possible?  

Two forces: invisibility and hypocrisy.

Invisibility in benefits

The three main Parties seem to agree that the State owes a moral duty only to those demonstrably contributing to the social contract. Government holds that the distinction is easy to make. As the April Help to Work scheme explains, the jobs are there; the barriers to work can readily be identified and addressed; it is the claimants’ fault if they remain dependent. The welfare cap similarly benefits claimants by forcing them back to work. Read Mark Hoban’s story of Louisa, told in a Commons Committee. It is ‘simply not true’ that the disciplines of welfare cause suffering.

This picture once etched in our minds by skilful repetition, it becomes intellectually and emotionally acceptable to force compliance through ever-tighter sanctions. The centuries-old rejection of the ‘undeserving poor’ has been restored.

Invisibility in the Work Programme

Such arguments invalidate the moral and economic grounds for opposing benefit cuts. They render invisible those people who cannot escape poverty.

For whom do JobCentres Plus and the Work Programme work least? There are those technically well-served by the schemes because they get jobs: short-term, ill-paid, part-time (perhaps zero-hours) work which perpetuates their dependence on benefit/tax credit top-ups. Under Universal Credit, such support (including housing elements) will usually be conditional on job-search activities every time claimants fall below the equivalent of a 35-hour week at the minimum wage.

It is a life sentence: much job growth is of the insecure and future-less kind demanded by our ‘flexible’ economy [‘ONS survey reveals scale of zero-hours contracts’, Financial Times, 30/04/2014]. Government, by equating getting ‘off benefits’ with ‘into work’, ignores the problem. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has said in its ‘Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2013, ‘attempts to portray the workless as a breed apart are quite at odds with the evidence.’

There are also those who can’t cope with work-related activity requirements. In September 2013 Homeless Link, a major London-based NGO, found that ‘Although on average 3% of JSA [Job Seekers Allowance] and 2.7% of ESA [Employment & Support Allowance] claimants receive a sanction, …a third of homeless people on JSA and nearly one in five on ESA had received a sanction. We found that more young homeless people receive sanctions, as well as those with mental health issues, substance use issues and learning difficulties. For homeless people facing these challenges, it can be particularly difficult to meet the conditions of the benefits system….’ Meanwhile, legal aid to help claimants appeal sanctions and other decisions has been withdrawn, silencing many protests.

The Salvation Army, refusing to take part in ‘Help to Work’, explains: ‘If someone has not found employment within two years, the lack of work experience is clearly not their only barrier to employment.  Our concern is that the underlying issues need to be dealt with holistically...’

If people opt out, the state recognizes no further responsibility. As with the ‘less eligibility’ principle of the 1834 New Poor Law, those who can cope outside the workhouse don’t need it.

They become entirely invisible. What do they live on? From prostitution to bin-dipping to drug-dealing. It’s interesting to see that by quantity of drugs, small-scale class B and C dealing including amphetamines and anabolic steroids rose in 2012/13, though the overall (and headlined) figure on drug seizures records a fall.

Shifts in social housing

A parallel invisibility is appearing in social housing. Between the 1940s and 1980s, Britain was committed to affordable housing. The sell-off of council housing began in 1980. Households in social housing reached their 31% peak in 1981 with 11% in private lets. In 2011, social and private lets were both on 18%. The social sector continues to fall.

Meanwhile, the scope of remaining social housing is changing.

A core responsibility of local authorities since 1948, now under the Housing Act 1996, has been help to homeless people. The Localism Act 2011 allowed authorities to set their own social housing allocation policies, subject to the statutory requirement that ‘reasonable preference’ be given to certain groups including homeless people. It also permitted them to discharge their duty to statutorily homeless people by offering suitable private rented accommodation with a tenancy of at least a year.

Invisibility in homelessness

The homelessness duty is one that many local authorities have sought to avoid through ‘gatekeeping’ – turning potential claimants away without proper consideration. The Localism Act opened up more ways of excluding undesirable potential tenants.

London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham’s housing allocation policy excludes from its register most homeless people placed in long-term interim accommodation. Though a judicial review has been granted, the High Court ruled lawful this byzantine twist by which a local authority can debar from permanent social housing precisely those people whom it is statutorily required to help.

They can now be housed in the private sector. But LBHF’s policy may deter people from presenting as homeless for fear of ruling themselves out of eligibility for social housing. They may (subject to other criteria) be better off applying to the housing register, probably going meanwhile from bed to bed with family and friends. A growing number of overcrowded households and ‘concealed households’ (‘family units or single adults living within other households, who may be regarded as potential separate households that may wish to form given appropriate opportunity’) is recorded by the Homelessness Monitor 2013

Invisibility in social housing allocation

Allocation policies focusing social housing on those most ‘deserving’ rather than most in need are now common. All local authorities have criteria by which they prioritise those accepted as eligible to bid for their housing. It is standard for those already in rent arrears to be demoted or to be ineligible until they have consistently started clearing their arrears. Peterborough City Council operates the latter policy.

Understandable; but debt is inescapable for many low-income households. The debt charity Stepchange and Iain Duncan-Smith’s Centre for Social Justice’s ‘Maxed Out’ agree that (to quote the latter), ‘Low, reduced or irregular income is a major contributory cause of problem debt’; low-income households are ‘particularly at risk due to their lack of savings and financial vulnerability’. Despite all efforts to maximize income and reduce expenditure, many Citizens Advice debt clients struggle with negative-income financial statements. To exclude those who have fallen over the cliff is to turn one’s back on the problem.

Some local authorities push applicants up a band if they are contributing locally through paid or voluntary work. Manchester City Council has such an ‘additional preference’ scheme, defining ‘working households’ as ones ‘where at least one adult member is in employment or has been employed for 9 out of the last 12 months and have been working for a minimum of 16 hours per week’. This excludes many households identified by Stepchange and CSJ as most vulnerable to debt, including rent arrears. Such households are also those least likely to have energy or time for voluntary activity. Excluded from public assistance, they become – again – invisible.

Hypocrisy: the final solvent

What then of hypocrisy? We have a ‘welfare’ system increasingly designed to respond not to the most in need but to those deemed socially acceptable. Beveridge’s vision was to provide a sufficient income to all those either disabled or ‘willing to work’. By so narrowly controlling and defining ‘willingness to work’ and continually reducing the scope of State support, successive governments have moved us ever further from the reality of a welfare State while keeping its language in place. That is a carefully honed, skillful use of hypocrisy to make us accept the rejection of our most troubled families, those for whom the only hope of a future lie in the long-term re-evaluations suggested by the JRF above. Such re-evaluation is not in the interests of Pountain’s elite.

The hypocrisy is crude, but well-entrenched. Dependence upon welfare benefits is unacceptable. Dependence upon investment income, invested or ‘earned’, income is not. And ‘benefit scroungers’ are put in the stocks while tax avoiders retain respectability. Compare HMRC’s sober Reporting Tax Evasion page with DWP’s Benefit Thieves.

We are conditioned to this hypocrisy and to the invisibility of those excluded from concern. Such manipulations make it possible for our welfare State to be  restructured before our eyes, destroying the social cohesion which it purports to support.

 

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