The rise of absolute poverty in Britain
David’s Cameron’s threat to deny under 25 year-olds housing benefit is the latest severe attack on the poor after two years of Tory austerity has brought absolute poverty back to our streets.
To those living in larger cities across Britain, the shocking 16% increase in homelessness from the beginning of 2012 is a visible change. Homelessness in London has risen by 43% in just one year. And that is before this latest policy disaster cooked up by Downing Street has been implemented.
The austerity measures that are ripping into our society are exacerbating the problems that people already suffer from in any recession. A recent report by the Institude for Fiscal Studies discovered that 2.5 million children and 2.1 million working-age parents were in absolute poverty in 2010. At the current rate of growth this number will rise to 4.7 million working-age parents by 2020.
As a result of the government’s policies there are several areas where social deprivation is deeping at an even more alarming rate.
With the fast and ruthless removal of the safety net in rough times, it is horrifying and not surprising that the situation has reached crisis levels.
A third of Remploy factories – that employ disabled people – are closing down, and in their place, those who cannot work are being subjected to humiliating, and rigged, work assessments.
Atos Origin, the French IT company that has been brought in to reassess them in a lucrative contract, has attracted protest from anti-cuts campaigners as a result of its practices. Claimants are subject to an online survey biased against the claimant that has been strongly discredited by health professionals.
The situation is so bad that a sizable number of claimants are believed to have committed suicide as a result of the assessments, prompting questions in Parliament from left-wing MP John McDonnell.
The situation is not much better for those who are able to work, but cannot find paid employment as over 2.4 million compete over vacancies.
A few months after Tesco’s “JSA+expenses” advert on the Job Centre Plus website sparked outrage on Twitter, the scandal of 30 unemployed people forced to sleep under London Bridge whilst working on the Queen’s Jubilee Celebrations has again shown what this government is capable of.
The unpaid workers were supplied via Tory peer Baroness Stedman-Scott’s charity Tomorrow’s People that provides many large companies with workfare labour. The lesson is simple – those attacking the poor are getting rich from it.
In work poverty
A particularly alarming development is the rise in what has been called in-work poverty. This means people who are working but still not earning enough to feed their families.
For instance around 62% of children in poverty in 2011 were living in working households – the problem is that wages are so low for some people that they cannot make ends meet.
This particularly affects people working in sectors like the supermarkets where mega-corporations like Tescos pay their workers very little and keep many on part time hours. This means that Tesco workers have to subsidise their pay with benefits – effectively meaning that the tax payers are subsidng Tesco’s low wages.
But it is not just the private sector. For all the talk of public sector gold plated pensions, a lot of people working for local or central government are not on particularly high wages, some civil servants ear only around £18,000, but are now having to pay even more in pensions contributions which can tip people into financial insecurity.
The problem is made worse because the cost of living is sky rocketing whilst wages are relatively stagnant. The cost of food has increased by 30% in the last 5 years, and utlity costs have risen dramatically since 2005/06. Look at this table to see the changing costs in the last decade.
Without socialisation of the main energy producing companies and a militant campaign against low pay, these trends are likely to continue and deepen as more people are kicked out of better paying jobs and forced to find any employment that they can, which can often mean more poorly paid work.
Long term unemployment
Another worrying trend is the growth in long term unemployment. In May 2012 the number of out of work for a year was 880,000, whilst the number of people out of work for two years was around 430,000. The social consequences of long term unemployment go beyond simply being momentarily on the back foot, because it begins to affect peoples social well-being and the nature of the community itself. For instance around half of all unemployed young people in Wales reported feelings of self loathing, panic attacks and even self harm.
Tony Dolphin, from the IPPR think tank explained the psychological affects of long term unemployment; “Being out of work for more than a year can have a scarring effect, making it harder to get a job as well as having a negative impact on one’s health and well-being.
As a general rule, the longer someone is unemployed, the less likely they are to ever return to work.”
In a recent shocking example of how desperate people can become, a man in Birmingham (which suffers from some of the highest unemployment rates in Britain) was even driven to set fire to himself after not receiving a welfare payment.
Statisticians look at poverty in two general ways – ‘relative’ poverty, a measure which looks at those well below the median average of income (60% of income) – who cannot take part in the normal activity afforded by society. It is relative to the rest of society. But ‘Absolute’ poverty refers to a level of poverty beyond the ability to afford the essentials which we need simply to live and survive. People in absolute poverty cannot afford some of the basics and live in social exclusion. And it is this predicament that is the fastest growing type of poverty in Britain today according to research bodies such as the IFS and Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It will come as no surprise that when the IFS produced its report on growing child poverty, David Cameron’s reaction was to question the figures, rather than accept the consequences of his government’s policies.
Coalition policy changes such as those to unemployment and disability benefits – of which there are simply too many others to discuss here – are ripping up the vital ‘safety net’ that in the past prevented large numbers of people from falling into a spiral threatening the ability to survive.
And even charities, for many the last form of defence, are finding it hard to cope with the effects in the light of their government grants also being slashed. Birmingham’s Edgbaston district has seen the creation of a ‘food bank’ in the last couple of months specifically for pregnant women in the area who cannot feed themselves. The charity reports that it is a unique position to do so, having managed to maintain its government grants. But many other charities are not so fortunate, cuts to grants mean that many cannot provide the kind of social services that increasing numbers of people are relying on.
Charities across the country have reported similarly dramatic rises in those being unable to eat, shelter and live – and it’s generally those who have access to a soup kitchen that we get to hear about, not those who suffer in silence.
In wealthy countries like Britain, extreme poverty like this used to be a rarity. But over this year and next, 21.8% of children will be living in absolute poverty, and tha figure is likely to increase. How many survive is ultimately up to us and whether we can build a movement to stop the social decline.