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Universal Cruelty: How austerity orchestrated the demonisation of the poor

Updated: Nov 24, 2019

Austerity was devised to dismantle the welfare state and as a result, a remarkable rise in poverty has manifested in our rich economy.


On December 12th we have a once in a generation opportunity to change our society for the better.


Let’s vote for change; for a manifesto that seeks to change the toxic culture of the last nine years and one that encourages us to treat those in difficult circumstances with empathy and compassion.



The Origins of the Welfare State


The welfare state created in 1945 is an economic safety net to protect a country’s citizens in times of need. To enable opportunity and equitable distribution of wealth for the social well-being of people who cannot provide this for themselves, essentially preventing inequality and the gap between rich and poor from widening.


Unless you're born into guaranteed, inherited wealth, you never know when you might fall on hard times and require the assistance of the state.



The Road to Austerity


In 2008, as a result of the financial crisis, (remember when the banks gambled all our money away?) the UK Government bailed out the banks at a cost to the tax payer - us.


The country was economically on its knees. People lost their homes, jobs, livelihoods, businesses and life savings.


The Government’s bailout, in the wake of the financial crash, paved the way for the narrative that we had no money. The narrative that later won the election for the Coalition in 2010. As a country, according to David Cameron, we were broke.


Cue: Austerity.


Defined as “difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure”. In other words, the books needed balancing.



Persuasive Coalition


In May 2010, Cameron’s One Nation Conservatism, propped up by the Liberal Democrats were given the green light to power. The Tories were back with a freshly polished programme of sorting the country out from the mess Labour had allegedly left it in.


The persuasive talk? “We’re all in it together” as “one big society”.


Working class people who’d never voted Tory in their lives had lost everything and were suddenly voting Blue. Who could blame them?


Lies weren’t necessary: Cameron’s Conservatives told the public that cuts were going to be made and that we all needed to tighten our belts.


People were ok with that, because it was described as an economic necessity and that we were all in it together. The country would heal together.



The Undeserving Poor


Since the beginning of political time, marginalised groups have been scapegoated for multiple purposes, usually to manifest power and greed to those who already yield the most power, reinforced by a political narrative. From immigrants to the disabled to the poor. This new political climate of austerity was no different.


What better way to drive a stake through the heart of the welfare state than by convincing those who’d lost everything, and been met by their greatest fears of instability and future financial turmoil, that those on benefits were scroungers who received money for nothing.


The media's portrayal of benefit fraud, implying that benefit claimants and fraudsters were one and the same, whilst failing to report on the true cost of tax evasion, provided the breeding ground for people to resent those on benefits. It became the demonisation of the poor.


The undeserving poor.



The Welfare Reform Act 2012


The Act implemented seismic changes, invoking some of the biggest cuts the economy had ever seen, whilst the Government maintained that those who most needed the safety net, would continue to be supported.


In reality though, this cost cutting exercise saw some of the biggest victims of austerity: the sick and the disabled. This group of people showed the least resistance and had the least resources to fight back. They were an easy target.


From replacing Disability Living Allowance with Personal Independence Payment (PIP), resulting in life long disabled people losing their benefits, to the human tragedies of outsourcing the work-capability assessments, to the roll-out of Universal Credit and its multiple systematic failings, reports describe that these cuts were made at an untenable human cost.


The safety net now with gaping, near-irreparable holes only serves to harm the most vulnerable.


Unremitting evidence spanning years of research, shows that the majority of benefit assessment decisions are deeply flawed with 75% of appeals being successful recorded for the first quarter of 2019. This figure would be consistently higher if people had the access to justice they deserve.



Universal Cruelty


The introduction of Universal Credit (the benefit for people in and out of work) accelerated the hardship that people faced, on an unprecedented scale. It has universally impacted on groups within society that extend far beyond those deemed part of the historic benefit dependency culture, hence it is now aptly known as Universal Cruelty.


With stagnant wages, job insecurity, and the rise of inflation, people’s reliance on the welfare state has never been greater. But due to the ideological nature of Universal Credit and its underlying intention to reject people who need the state’s assistance, it has increased poverty, food bank use, and homelessness to record levels.


The guidelines for claiming Universal Credit say that the wait for a first payment is five weeks, but many people have waited up to nine months. The process causes immediate rent arrears and evictions.


A significant number of Universal Credit claimants are extremely vulnerable, and are often subject to sanctions lasting up to three years. In addition, the introduction of the benefit cap and the notorious bedroom tax are all part of this harsh and punitive welfare system, often making it impossible to navigate, pushing people into destitution.


Working people say they’ve never been poorer.


Furthermore, child poverty is at its highest since 2010 – a link that can only be made to the implementation of Tory austerity. This, coupled with nurses and veterans reportedly using food banks are examples of how far this cruelty extends.


The burden of poverty has disproportionately affected the most vulnerable groups in society - the poor, women, children, single parents, people from ethnic minorities, and the disabled.


In 2018 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights wrote a scathing report comparing Tory welfare policies to 19th century workhouses.



Vote for Change


Punitive measures don’t incentivise people to work their way out of poverty. Instead they cause debt, stress, poor mental health, destitution and profoundly impact on a child's ability to thrive. Families are falling apart.


After nine years, people are finally realising that the benefit claimant is not the enemy and that the “news” peddled in the media nine years ago, was lies. That the wealth inequalities are wider than ever and when the poor became poorer, the rich became richer.


People understand that the culture of demonising the poor and the disabled needs to change, and that within our communities we can change our attitude towards people less fortunate.


People see that one day they may need the safety net.


In a bid to return the welfare state to its important function within a healthy society, The Labour Party has promised to scrap Universal Credit and implement an overhaul of the culture of the Department for Work and Pensions, to redirect the country from toxicity and hostility towards compassion and empathy.


Let’s repair the gaping holes of the safety net and make us a country that once again prides itself on caring for each other in times of need.


Let’s vote for change.

Kate Anstee is a Social Justice freelance trainer and consultant, and anti-poverty campaigner. Debates and consultancy on the issues discussed in this post, the impact of austerity, and welfare reforms can be arranged through this website. Contact here for more information.

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