Cuts bite deep in poverty Britain

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In the United Kingdom, the seventh richest country in the world, 3.5 million children – nearly a third of all children – live in poverty,1 a figure expected to rise by another million over the next six years. Up to a million people have needed emergency handouts from food banks in the last year, while 28% of all adults say they regularly skimp on food so that others in their households can eat. These stark facts, highlighted in a recent Oxfam report,2 reflect the growing destitution imposed on the working class by the Coalition government. Like the four horsemen of a capitalist apocalypse, hunger, poverty, debt and insecurity stalk the land. Cat Wiener reports

Poverty’s perfect storm

Even before the raft of punitive measures introduced in April 2013, living standards for the working class in Britain had been declining. The largest ever UK-wide study of poverty and deprivation,3 shows that by 2012 the number of households falling below the accepted minimum standard of living had increased from 14% of households 30 years ago to 33%. Even before the current tranche of cuts and reforms:

  • 18 million people could not afford adequate housing conditions;
  • one in three were unable to heat their homes in winter;
  • 12 million were unable to engage in ‘common social activities’;
  • 5.5 million people lacked essential clothing;
  • 21% were in arrears over utility bills and/or mortgage and rent payments.

With so many working class households already struggling to make ends meet, the current combination of benefit reform, growth of a low-wage, casualised workforce and the soaring cost of living have been devastating. The line between work and unemployment has been virtually eradicated, with those in working households (6.7 million people) now making up the majority of the 13 million – or one fifth of the population – living in poverty in Britain today.4 Two-thirds of children living in poverty are in a household where at least one adult works.

Contrary to Coalition declarations, in austerity Britain work does not and cannot pay for an ever-larger section of the working class. More than a third of employed adults (35%) are trapped in a cycle of low-paid, casual work; 1.4 million people are on zero-hours contracts, with no guarantee of minimum hours, no paid holidays, sick leave or pension rights. At least half of the ‘in-work’ poor work 40 hours a week or more. With 21% of the workforce paid less than the Living Wage of £7.65 (£8.80 in London),5 it is no wonder a quarter of the million people using food banks last year were in work. The Oxfam report gives the example of one woman at a food bank in Tower Hamlets, whose partner was only paid in term-time but whose benefits were calculated on the basis of a year-round wage: over the summer, the family – who had a young child – received income support of just £6 a week, their entire household income after housing costs.

The corollary of low-paid, temporary employment is the ratcheting up of the sanctions and workfare regimes imposed by job centres. A useful means of massaging the unemployment figures, sanctions are also a whip to drive the unemployed into any job, however badly paid. Claimants are forced to take on work that, after transport and childcare costs are taken into account, leaves them unable to pay essential bills. A recent survey by the housing charity Shelter pointed out that a third of the population is currently only ever ‘one pay cheque away from losing their home’. Sanctions on benefits, arbitrarily imposed by a target-driven culture within job centres, can leave claimants with no income for weeks, months or even years. The Coalition government has long attempted to deny that there is any direct link between the exponential rise in the use of food banks – up by at least 163%, according to the Trussell Trust – and benefit reforms. Perhaps, suggests the outgoing Education Secretary Michael Gove, the poor should just learn to budget better; Welfare Minister Lord Freud (who once remarked ‘If the rest of the country knew what we were being paid, there would be tumbrels on the street and heads on pikes’) notoriously put it down to no-one being able to resist a free lunch (he should know). But a long-withheld report commissioned by government agency DEFRA confirmed in February what those working in food banks have said all along, that rising demand is directly linked to delays in benefit payments and sanctions; it also cited shrinking incomes, low pay and rising food prices as factors.

Death by a thousand cuts

In addition, the imposition of the bedroom tax, the removal of council tax benefit and the introduction of the overall cap on household benefits are driving increasing sections of the working class into unmanageable debt and insecurity; many face losing their homes, especially in London. By autumn 2013 – just six months after the introduction of the bedroom tax – a DWP report found that more than a third of tenants affected had already been issued with formal eviction letters. One social landlord quoted in the report told researchers: ‘Our customers are in severe hardship through this reduction in housing benefit and many are needing vouchers for food banks after making rent payments… customers are distraught and telling us they cannot cope and we are dealing with regular threats of suicide.’

244 councils now require all households to pay some council tax – on average £151 a year, out of already stretched budgets. In London alone, 300,000 people have been summonsed to court for non-payment, adding the burden of court costs to their arrears; 16,000 cases have been referred to bailiffs.

Rising costs

All this comes at a time when the cost of living has risen, while benefits and wages have been frozen. Rents are rising at twice the level of earnings, with the average weekly private rent in London now 50% of average local wages (the UK average is 40% of wages). Energy costs, according to the Citizens Advice Bureau, have risen eight times faster than average wages, and food prices have risen by nearly 13% over the last six years. Those in the bottom decile of the population spent 28% more on food in 2012 than in 2007 but purchased 6% less.

The government says that up to two-thirds of its cuts are still to come, with Prime Minister David Cameron describing the onslaught on state welfare as ‘a moral mission’. A report in The Lancet medical journal in May showed five out of every thousand children in Britain are dying before their fifth birthday – a higher rate than any other western country except Malta – and a figure directly linked to poverty. Some ‘moral mission’. The Labour Party is no better, with its commitment to maintain the Coalition’s austerity measures and, if possible, bear down even harder on the unemployed. These ruling class parties have nothing but contempt for the poor. Their attacks are intolerable and must be resisted. Bring out the tumbrels.         

1. Poverty is defined as a household income of less than 60% of the national average (mean).
2. Below the Breadline: the relentless rise of food poverty in Britain, Oxfam et al, June 2014.
3. ‘Policy and Social Exclusion’, presentation to Third Peter Townsend Memorial lecture, June 2014.
4. ‘The New Poor Laws’, FRFI 237, February/March 2014.
5. Living Wage Commission, February 2014.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 240 August/September 2014

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