It is true that austerity may mean the future is starting to look quite different for some of the aspirational middle classes. But that is nothing compared to the quiet demolition of the lives of those at the bottom of society. In one of the richest countries in the world many people are now left with just a few pounds a week to survive after essential bills are paid.
Occasionally an event finds it’s way into the newspapers – such as the tragic suicide of Stephanie Bottrill who took her own life due to fears about the bedroom tax. More often though this silent holocaust goes unnoticed, even by those who are just a month’s pay packet away from falling prey to the onslaught, whilst the latte slurping classes are far too busy gossiping about the price of their next holiday.
It has been unemployed or disabled people, along with single parents and low paid workers, who have paid the price for austerity. And in too many cases that price has been their homes, their health, their futures and sometimes their lives.
The attack began with the hike in student fees and the ending of EMA, two moves which cut off any chance of escape for the young. Then came the Welfare Reform Act which laid the legal groundwork for the raft of cuts to in-work, unemployment and disability benefits. Alongside these brutal cuts came a hugely expensive package of state harassment of the poor, effectively wiping out any savings made. Degrading disability assessments, unpaid work (a term used in the legal system to mean punishment) and ever more ludicrous ‘conditionality’ for claiming benefits have only added to the grinding down of those who already had little or nothing.
The Housing Benefit cap, whilst only affecting a relatively small number of people, showed the direction of travel. Suddenly struggling tenants were being blamed for the huge rents charged by landlords. This has led to possibly thousands of people on low incomes forced out of central London and into the outskirts of the city.
But that was not enough. The overall benefit cap being introduced this month means that even the properties they moved to are no longer affordable. Some claimants will now have to move again as almost the whole of Greater London, along with several other cities, becomes unaffordable for low income families. This Government thought socially cleansing people from London was so good, they did it twice.
Whilst this was taking place the rules on social housing were being altered in a move which will see many properties even in the social sector become unaffordable for the poor. Fixed term tenancies are being introduced, so the days of a council house lasting until old age are disappearing.
Those who already have a council or housing association home are not being spared. If the bedroom tax doesn’t get them, then the changes to Council Tax Benefit or the combined impact of cuts to other benefits will drive tens if not hundreds of thousands of people who can’t afford their rent into homelessness.
There will be no safety net for those who no longer have enough money even to pay modest social housing rents. Homelessness hostels, along with women’s refuges are under threat from Universal Credit, whilst housing advice centres and Citizen’s Advice Bureaus are closing across the UK. The slashing of legal aid means that justice is one more thing that is to be denied to the poor.
The Benefit Uprating Bill has extended this attack long into the future as annual rises to benefits are pegged at 1% whilst prices rise. Housing Benefit is included in this measure so as rents soar, incomes will shrink.
Universal Credit may have begun with a whimper but will eventually prove devastating for those on low incomes. The overhaul of the benefits system will see single parents and part time workers facing the same Jobcentre harassment as those who are unemployed, unwell or disabled. This could be workfare, even for sick or disabled people, backed with the current weapon of choice, benefit sanctions.
Approaching a million benefit sanctions are expected to be handed out this year. Sanctions, which leave people with nothing at all, can now last up to three years. The Hardship Payments that some people may qualify for – currently around £41 a week – are being converted into loans. There will be no let up on the bedroom tax, or council tax payments owed, for those sanctioned. People with nothing will now be expected to borrow from the government to pay tax.
Many of these measures have been justified with the all too familiar scrounger slur. It has not been enough to impoverish people, they have to be slandered and dehumanised at every opportunity. But the nature of these cuts tells a very different story. They have not just been aimed at the economic traitors the Tories are convinced lay behind every closed curtain. Low paid workers who have come to depend on benefits to survive are having those benefits slashed just as ferociously as people unable to find jobs. This is not an assault on the so called and largely non-existent workshy as Government ministers pretend. This is an attack on the poor, whoever they are.
The list goes on and on. The bedroom tax, benefit cap, annual real term benefit cuts, Work Capability Assessments, Personal Independence Payment assessments, mass use of sanctions, workfare, the floundering Work Programme, the demolition of the social fund, wage freezes, the scrapping of Council Tax benefit, the axing of Sure Start grants, social housing phased out for the poor, pension agreements torn up, Working Tax Credit cuts and Housing Benefit cuts have all taken place against a backdrop of VAT rises, rent increases, rising food prices and soaring heating costs. Almost all of these cuts have been precision targeted at the bottom 10%.
We are not all in it together. It is only the children of the poor who are going hungry. Hundreds of thousands of people have seen already meagre incomes almost slashed in half. Thousands have been forced from their homes and the impact of these changes has barely even begun. Not one job has been created by these measures, the unemployment rate is just as high as it was in the depths of the recession.
None of this is about saving money, not really. Iain Duncan Smith may think what he is doing is morally right, but his mind is fogged with delusions of a neo-liberal utopia. This fake utopia requires turning the poor into a horror show, a threat of what might happen to those who won’t, or can’t, join the great cut throat competition of modern capitalism. Those already in poverty are being hung out to dry to make the UK more competitive, more selfish and more brutal. And the reason for this is not just to keep the rich in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed, but to make them richer.
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