Absolute poverty, as in having no money at all, is all-encompassing, meaning it is almost impossible to think about anything else and it impacts on every area of life. Relationships with family and friends fracture, self-esteem is demolished, emotions range from stark terror to utter despair. Poverty removes the freedom to act rationally and assess situations in the long term and so creates its own vicious trap. The entire pay day loan industry is based on the fact that people with nothing will agree to any terms to get cash in their pocket and food in their bellies.
Having no money can lead people to borrow from friends and family with no idea how they will pay it back or commit – and get caught for – crimes they would never normally consider. Such is the psychological anguish of long term poverty that some people will spend money on drugs or alcohol rather than food just to block out a few hours of their life. Poverty therefore leads to more poverty, ill health and increasing isolation. As people are systematically demolished by need and want their problems multiply and become more acute. Poverty leads to family breakdown, which leads to homelessness, to addiction, depression, self-harm, poor health, mental illness, criminal records and so on and so on until the individual is shattered beyond repair.
In a society where there is no common land, a scarcity of housing and money is the only way to have basic needs met, it is a form of torture to deliberately inflict this state of being on anyone. Even the most ardent supporter of cut throat capitalism must, if they have any humanity at all, accept that to consciously reduce people to begging, sleeping in the streets or attempting suicide is a cruel and degrading punishment. We do not treat the vilest of child killers like this in prisons, yet to be poor, and unable to find a job, is now to face the full force of state inflicted economic terrorism.
Punishing Poverty is a report published last week by Citizens Advice and which is based on a national survey of those who have had benefits stopped or sanctioned for not meeting the endless ‘work related activity’ conditions imposed by Jobcentres. Hundreds of thousands of claimants have faced sanctions varying in length between four weeks and up to three years. These sanctions are often imposed for the most trivial of reasons and as this report exposes, quite often for circumstances that are entirely beyond the claimant’s control. It is not just unemployed claimants who face sanctions, but increasingly sick and disabled people and single parents with children over the age of five.
The results of the survey portray a truly horrific account of the destitution and human misery that this regime – introduced by Labour and then enthusiastically expanded by Iain Duncan Smith – has inflicted on people. Stories of families ripped apart, pregnant women left without food, those with dietary needs due to health conditions becoming sick, mental health deteriorating, suicide attempts and people forced to beg or go through bins to find food.
These stories are not the inevitable consequence of economic crisis, the UK is still one of the richest countries in the world. They are not even the necessary end result of austerity, belt-tightening can take place without the poor being driven into the ground. Benefit sanctions barely save the tax payer a penny such is the cost of policing and administering the system. They are an ideological weapon – a scorched earth attack on the individual which reduces them to dust in the name of terrifying the rest of us into accepting the low wages and insecurity that neo-liberal ideologues demand is necessary for the future of capitalism.
As the Citizens Advice report reveals you do not even have to be guilty to face a sanction. There are countless tales of benefits being stopped due to a mistake by the Jobcentre, or because a claimant faced unavoidable circumstances such as travel delays, hospital appointments and even job interviews which caused them to be late to an appointment with their advisor. It is the widespread, seemingly haphazard nature of the regime which forces all claimants into a state of perpetual fear. The threat of the dreaded brown envelope through the door from the DWP is a feature of life on all benefits, a daily reminder that you are only ever a heartbeat away from complete destitution.
Whilst this report is a welcome intervention, Citizens Advice make a moral and tactical error in their conclusion. The report states that sanctions should only be used as a ‘last resort’, as if the horror show they’ve just revealed is acceptable in some cases. Few would argue against an administrative check, such as fortnightly signing for those on mainstream unemployment benefits, being a necessary condition for continuing a claim. But beyond that benefit sanctions must be brought to an immediate end with no exceptions.
The welfare state is not a political weapon to stigmatise or scapegoat people, force down wages and pursue a work makes you free ideology. It should exist as the opposite, to empower, provide dignity and even act as a force against poverty pay – saying to grasping employers that there is an alternative for people if all you’ve got to offer is shit wages. The money is there in the present system to pay for this. Billions of pounds are being paid to private companies to inflict sanctions, workfare and bogus health assessments on claimants, whilst even the most brutal benefit cuts such as the Bedroom Tax are not likely to save any money in the long term.
To call for an end to ‘bad’ sanctions only, or for better administration and access to appeals, is to endorse their existence – an acceptance that sometimes people need or deserve to be treated this way. This is a politically weak position and an immoral argument, dividing those on benefits into deserving and undeserving claimants. And even if you accept this position, it is naive to believe that a bureacratic monstrosity like the DWP can ever achieve the dexterity necessary to tell the difference between the two.
Every single one of Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms has been a disaster and they all have to go, without exception and immediately. If the architects of this regime escape being put on trial then we have given away too much. We should celebrate every small victory along the way and use those concessions to chip away at the greater whole. But we must never frame our demands based on their terms and leave some of us abandoned in the process.
UPDATE: There is now a petition on 38 Degrees calling for all sanctions to be scrapped. Please sign/share etc: http://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/benefit-sanctions-must-be-stopped-without-exceptions-in-uk
The full report can be downloaded at: http://sdrv.ms/1c48ECq
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