Guest post by Emma Cox, Geography undergraduate student, University of Reading
Austerity has been a buzzword surrounding the UK’s economy for many years; in 2015 it was even named Cambridge Dictionary’s Word of the Year. Back in 2009, David Cameron announced the beginning of an “age of austerity” which characterised the punishing reductions and changes to government taxation, spending and borrowing after the long recovery from the 2008 recession. The government endorsed austerity measures in the hope that it would stabilize the situation and end the government deficit of 10%. This was meant to be completed over a period of five years, but it’s now thought that the cuts will span at least three parliaments.
In his Autumn Statement, Philip Hammond announced , yet more cuts to welfare measures that were originally intended to ameliorate social and economic hardships, injustices and inequalities. Instead, families will now continue to suffer, facing decreased benefit payments, reductions in the community services and organisations that help them, and real wages not increasing for a decade. I would argue that the lives of many modern British households encompass the alternative definition of austerity; living without unnecessary things or comfort and with limited money, goods and resources.
Households Bear the Brunt
The series of severe austerity policies implemented in the UK have had an irrevocable effect on families all over the country. In 2010, when these austerity measures were first introduced, The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed concerns about the impacts on the rights of poorer groups. Although the Autumn Statement of 2016 pledges to improve the economic well-being and lives of these working families, by raising the National Minimum Wage and banning renters fees I believe austerity measures will continue to harm the poorest and most vulnerable households. During this time of reduced economic growth, excessive unemployment and increasing poverty, the introduction of more rigorous welfare entitlement tests will present challenges for the six million working families with incomes of below £34,000 a year that are “just about managing”.
At the beginning of November, the British Government placed a new £20,000 cap on the total amount of benefits that most people aged 16 to 64 can get; this included child benefit, housing benefit, income support, maternity allowance and universal credit. The cap has been imposed to stop the welfare dependency which is considered to stagnate national prosperity and economic growth. It is expected that in excess of 116,000 of the poorest families in the UK will be harmed by this £6,000 decrease in the maximum benefit payment. This austerity measure, being irrespective of the number of children in the family, will impact large families significantly. To add to this, support given through Child Tax Credit, Housing benefit and Universal Credit, will be restricted to just 2 children from April 2017. Families who have subsequent children born after this time will not be entitled to any support, meaning young families could lose three major areas of financial assistance.
The UK government’s austerity drive endeavours to raise public support for the reductions, and even withdrawals, of welfare entitlements through promoting frugality and fiscal restraint. Politicians have long regarded fiscal discipline as the solution to the recession, having integrated this theory across the country’s policies, culture and media. The efforts to control the rise in social spending through austerity measures have impacted welfare systems, especially with regard to family life. If the government continues to limit major benefits until 2020, poverty and financial insecurity may well intensify as inflation and the cost of food, housing and childcare increase simultaneously.
Community Systems Suffer
However, I feel that the wider community also suffers detrimentally from these welfare reforms. Government austerity measures can cause, or increase, drug dependence, troubled families, anti-social behaviour and crime in the most effected neighbourhoods, impacting on their quality of life and social relations. Benefit reductions have also increased the gap between rich and poor which, in 2014, was at its highest level in 30 years, meaning deprived communities now also exist in what were once comfortable areas. Consequently, more people are starting to rely heavily on the 161,000 registered voluntary organisations operating in the UK for support. Most of these organisations are involved in social services, such as child welfare, family services, services for the elderly and self-help organisations, with others providing services surrounding economic well-being, natural environment conservation, community safety or food security services.
Food banks are one community organisation that are being used by increasing numbers of families during times of economic struggle. The Food Foundation estimated in May of this year that about 8.4 million people in the UK were living with severe food insecurity, and researchers have linked this increasing use of food banks with the financial cuts and reduced entitlement rights for benefit claimants. Trussell Trust food banks operate all over the country, but are not available to any member of the public. Households must obtain a voucher from a health visitor, doctor or social worker, who identify people in the worst crises. Food banks open in neighbourhoods experiencing large cuts in spending on local services and welfare benefits.
However, like the families themselves, community organisations and voluntary services are under pressure to deliver services with reduced income. Many organisations are forced to downsize and make staff redundant while, at the same time, cope with increasing demands for their services. UNISON found that only 40% of community organisations felt they were providing their full service to their users. Members of the community will rely on numerous institutions to help and support them, but these organisations are facing rationing their services; they have to choose who can access the services and what becomes the priority.
Understandably, the poorest, or so-called “troubled”, households should take priority for these organisations. However, with reduced financial support, it seems that British citizens are being increasingly alienated from the political decisions that dominate their lives and, without assistance, large, young or poor families, could continue to spiral into poverty and financial insecurity. Perhaps Theresa May needs to rethink how she achieves her promise of a country that works for all…
This blogpost was written as part of the second year undergraduate module, Culture, Identity & Place, taught by Ruth Evans and Sally Lloyd-Evans. The views expressed in this blogpost are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the University of Reading’s position.
Contact: Dr. Ruth Evans, Participation Lab Leader
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