This is What Austerity Looks Like

Joanna Mack, The Open University

 

The hulking, charred remains of Grenfell Tower stands as a symbol of the disastrous results of years of austerity, deregulation and outsourcing. When government ministers sit on warnings of the fire risk of high-rise social housing, when penny-pinching renovations involve unsafe cladding, when councils run inadequate inspection regimes, when warnings from tenants are ignored, then there is nothing accidental about the resultant loss of life. It is social murder.

 

Grenfell tower remains

Image source: ChiralJon/FlickrCC BY 2.0

 

While Grenfell has brought these issues into focus, it is just the tip of the damage done by the neoliberal agenda to decrease the size of the state and the years of elective austerity. In the Violence of Austerity, Vickie Cooper and David Whyte, and their co-authors, set out the depth and extent of this damage, the way the very fabric of society had been dismantled and people’s lives impoverished. The effects are being felt by everyone, but one of the groups that has been hardest hit has been families with children and, in particular, lone parents.

Back in 2010, the coalition government promoted their aggressive programme of cuts, justified as an economic ‘necessity’, as fair, as something we were ‘all in together’. It was only after leaving office, the then Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg – accusing the former chancellor George Osborne of taking the axe to welfare to boost Conservative popularity – admitted that the policies were designed to hit the incomes and housing security of the poorest households. And that’s what they did.

While the incomes of households without children on middle incomes rose between 2010 and 2015, those of the poorest two deciles fell by around six per cent. Before these cuts, adults in households with children were already over twice as likely to be in poverty as adults without children.  Lone parents – of whom, before the cuts, two-thirds were in poverty – saw the severest percentage reductions: getting on for ten per cent (around £2,000) for those out of work and nearly seven per cent for those in work.

And these households already had a hand-to-mouth existence, were already missing out on the most basic of contemporary needs. Before the impact of current changes to the benefit system had taken effect, the Poverty and Social Exclusion survey found that in 2012 more than two and a half million children, around one in five, lived in a home that is cold or damp. Over a million children, just under one in ten, missed out on an essential item of clothing. One in twenty households couldn’t afford to feed their children adequately, resulting in 600,000 children missing out on one or more of three meals a day, fresh fruit and vegetables each day, or meat, fish, or the equivalent, while 300,000 children went without two or more of these essential food items.

 

So, when the Coalition government opted for a programme of progressively harsher cuts to welfare spending of around £20 billion, the outcomes were entirely predictable – and predicted.  Back in 2012, the Institute for Fiscal Studies was warning that the absolute living standards of poorer households were declining and that as the welfare cuts began to bite there would be further pain in 2012–13 and beyond.

As a result, the UK’s child poverty record has slipped far behind many other nations with similar levels of economic development. Eurostat, which gathers comprehensive data across Europe, reports that in 2014 over 22 per cent of children in the UK lived in deprived households, taken as being unable to afford for three or more of a range of household items, compared with 14 per cent in France, around 12 per cent in Germany and a mere four per cent in Norway and Sweden. In 2007, before the austerity years, the UK’s rate was 15 per cent – well below the EU average. Now it is above.

Throughout childhood, poverty raises the risk of premature death.  The progress that had been made in the 1980s and 1990s in reducing child mortality rates, shuddered to a halt in this millennium with the result that the UK has fallen behind other European countries with similar levels of development. The BMA notes that if the UK had the same all-cause death rate as Sweden, around 1,900 children’s lives would be saved each year.

The UK infant (0 to 1 years) mortality rate, at around four deaths per 1,000 births in 2014, is higher than all but two of the nineteen Euro area member states. About half of these deaths are linked to short gestation and low birth weight, both of which are highly associated with deprivation.  Babies born into poorer families in deprived neighbourhoods are, as a result of many interlocking factors, more likely to die at an early age than children from richer families.

In addition, children born in poor areas have, as is well and long established, a shorter life expectancy than those born in rich areas and a much shorter period free of the limiting effects of illness and disability – inequalities that are increasing.

As well as the sharp reduction in benefit levels, the Coalition government also introduced a far more punitive regime, with more restrictive conditions for the receipt of benefits and tougher sanctions. These sanctions came with a new set of fixed-period suspensions of benefits ranging from four weeks to three years. Claimants are not allowed to appeal till two weeks after the decision. Combined with administrative delays in processing applications through over-loaded benefit offices, it leaves many desperate and penniless.

 

food bank queue- food poverty

Image source: www.foodpoverty.org.uk

 

Kayleigh Garthwaite, in her book Hunger Pains, talked to Gemma who was four days from giving birth when she ended up in a food bank in Stockton-on-Tees. She and her partner had had no money for three weeks as they waited for the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to process their jobseeker’s allowance claim:

 ‘I was crying on the phone to them [the DWP] telling them I am pregnant. I don’t want my baby coming home to a house with no gas or electric. We have laminated floor and it’s so cold.’

Allowing a pregnant woman to go without food in a cold, unheated home, is to compromise her baby’s life-chances. WHO defines ‘child maltreatment’ as an action that in the context of a relationship of power results in ‘actual or potential harm to the child’s health, survival, development or dignity’. If an individual takes such actions then they may be liable to prosecution. Yet if a political system results in such actions, it is seen as an inevitable, if unfortunate, by-product of economic necessity. This is not covert violence but overt violence.

 

After winning the 2015 election, the Conservatives announced a further £12 billion of welfare cuts, which included limiting tax credits to two children, a continued freezing of working age benefits and a lowering of the level of the benefits cap.  The poorest households were, again, the hardest hit; poor households with children were hit the hardest of all, set to lose up to 12% of their income.

The damage caused by austerity has been well documented. The United Nations has issued damning reports.  Claimants have told their stories. Advocacy groups have warned of the dangers and damage being inflicted.

All ignored.

 

en-austerity-now-march

Image source: Peter Damian/WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0

 

Instead, the government has blamed the problems of poverty on the poor themselves, the life styles of individual families and their parenting practice.  Thus the rolling back the state could continue and the state’s responsibilities to provide an adequate safety net be abandoned.

But, suddenly, this dominant discourse seems to be unravelling. In the general election, the Labour Party, campaigning on a clear anti-austerity agenda (in contrast with the 2015 election), far outperformed expectations, upturning conventional thinking on what is politically possible.  Last week, the High Court ruled that the government’s benefit’s cap is unlawful, illegally discriminating against single parents with young children. Delivering his verdict, High Court judge Mr Justice Collins said the benefit cap was causing ‘real damage’ to lone parent families, noting that ‘poverty can have a very damaging effect on children under the age of five’.

And Grenfell Tower has unleashed a wave of anger at the way in which the poorest have been treated.  The voices of the poorest have started to be heard.

But this should not be mistaken for the end of austerity. For all of the government’s sudden talk of a change in direction, all the planned cuts to benefits are still going ahead. The predictions of a sharp rise in the numbers of children in poverty remain in place.

To reverse austerity will need not just a change in direction, but a complete reversal. And even with that, it will take years to overcome the vast damage already done.  It will need a real commitment to the transfer of income and wealth from the rich to the poor. It will require a sustained challenge to the neoliberal ideology that has dominated for the last thirty years.

But, if there is a long way to go, the first cracks are appearing.

 

Joanna Mack is an honorary senior research fellow at the Open University and contributory author in the ‘Violence of Austerity’ where she writes on ‘Child Maltreatment and Child Mortality’.

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Austerity as Bureaucratized and Organized Violence

Vickie Cooper, Lecturer in Criminology

In July 2014, a member of the Disability News Service sent a Freedom of Information Inquiry to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), asking it to reveal mortality statistics on those who have died while in receipt of benefits and/or while serving a benefit sanction. Typically, Ian Duncan Smith, head of the DWP refused, claiming that the DWP does not review such cases. However, after mounting pressure, including an ongoing petition and pressure from within the House of Commons itself, it was subsequently revealed that the DWP carried out 49 – 60 reviews of people who died while claiming benefits. In a separate but recent review by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, the government claims that it found “‘no particular case’ in which a ‘benefit sanction alone’ had directly led to the death of a benefit claimant”, but conceded that in 33 of those cases, the procedure could have been improved. This review makes recommendations that the DWP should conduct a system for formal death inquiries where an individual dies ‘whilst in receipt of that benefit’. This system, it is recommended, should be comparable to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, where death inquiries are made upon public request.

This particular Freedom of Information request is critical for thinking beyond the poverty implications of austerity, as it forces us to think more about the violent and harmful implications. A sharp rise in suicide mortality across those economies most impacted by austerity suggests that these post-crash economies are having particularly violent and harmful affects. Here in the UK, reports of ‘benefits-related suicides’ are being brought to our attention thick and fast. Perhaps the most familiar benefit-related suicide, one that raised much media attention, was the suicide of Stephanie Bottrill, from Solihul, near Birmingham. Following a thirty-minute assessment, the housing authority concluded that Stephanie Bottrill would have to pay an additional weekly fee for her spare bedroom. In her suicide note, Stephanie Bottrill blamed the government for causing her such stress.

Accused of failing in its duty of care towards disabled people, a death inquest led to various speculations as to why Stephanie Bottrill committed suicide. As such, Stephanie Bottrill’s history of mental health issues were called into question and were used to undermine the political significance of her death – as though the harms of austerity are any less significant or political when they impact upon those with mental health issues. A spokesperson in defence of the council responsible for making Stephanie Bottrill’s assessment claimed that she was in a ‘situation’, living in a house,  ‘that the government policy said was too big so she would have to pay a spare room subsidy’. The coroner passed a verdict that Stephanie Bottrill committed suicide due to ‘stress and anxiety’ and no local authority or government official was reviewed and/or policy implementation revised. But the biggest twist in the tale is that Stephanie Bottrill may have been exempt from paying bedroom tax. According to the pre-1996 exemption rule, any adult or family member living in the property before 1996, are exempt from paying bedroom tax. Stephanie Bottrill had been living in her accommodation since 1995.

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Esther McVey and Chris Hayes during Parliamentary Inquiry into benefit-related suicides. Photo: screengrab, BBC Democracy Live

We know from Durkheim’s seminal study Suicide, that economic crises are often followed by a rapid rise in numbers of suicide mortality. However, the rise in suicide mortality is not as a result of encroaching poverty levels, but the extent to which economic crises disturb the ‘collective order’. And nothing quite disturbs a sense of order like citizens being evicted from their homes and further displaced from those communities they once inhabited. The psychological and physical responses to welfare policies in this post-crash period is not the fact that individuals and communities now find themselves destitute and on the margins, but the means by which it is done and the disorder that ensues.

While increasing suicide mortality is one way for us to think about austerity as harmful and violent, perhaps it is not indicative enough of the violent and harmful impacts of austerity. Durkheim reminds us that:

“those who kill themselves through automobile accidents are almost never recorded as suicides; those who sustain serious injuries during an attempt to commit suicide and die weeks or months later of these injuries or of inter-current infections are never registered as suicides; a great many genuine suicides are concealed by families; and suicidal attempts, no matter how serious, never find their way into the tables of vital statistics.”

The problem with relating suicide mortality with social injury caused by economic crises, is that many of the harmful and violent outcomes are hidden and multifarious: the suicides that are recorded are only the tip of the iceberg.

Austerity as Organized Violence

Another way to think about the harm and violence of austerity is to pay more attention to those bureaucracies and organizations challenged with the task of enforcing it. Since 2010, the welfare reforms have encompassed a whole range of assessments for determining new thresholds of eligibility, with the aim of removing people from their benefits entitlement. Benefit claimants have been forced to make the transition from old benefit entitlements, to new ones; with new rules, new measures of entitlement, new guidance frameworks and more strict sanctions for those claimants who fail to adhere to these new rules. In this transition, claimants have had to undergo new benefits assessments such as Personal Independence Payment (PIP), Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Spare-room Subsidy (bedroom tax) and Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA).

These new thresholds of entitlement and eligibility, and the volume of assessments they entail, should not be underestimated as we think about how austerity is violently enforced through bureaucracies and organizations. Putting these new measures of eligibility in motion, the government and local authorities have recruited a number of private companies to administer the new rules of eligibility. Companies such as Experian, A4e, ATOS, Maximus and Capita have all been recruited to assess and process millions of benefit claimants. Where authorities claim that these companies ‘improve the quality’ of their assessment process, individuals assessed by them would most likely claim the opposite. A government inquiry into the standard of assessments made by the company Atos, revealed that 41 per cent of face-to-face assessments ‘did not meet the required standards’. When A4e set unattainable targets to reduce the number of people claiming employment seeker’s allowance, staff members resorted to ‘numerous offences of fraud’ in order to remove people from their benefit entitlement. Such offences involved ‘tricking’ claimants into carrying out job-search activities that, as a result of learning difficulties, they could not complete and were subsequently sanctioned. Although privatisation plays a significant part in the violent enforcement of austerity, local authorities have also been reprimanded for conducting benefit assessments unlawfully.

So how we can we think of these bureaucratic practices as organized violence? Mainstream policy analyses frequently dismiss the political significance of administrators of eligibility and entitlement as technical systems that separate ‘the deserved’ poor from ‘the undeserved’. But history tells us a more compelling story about the role of bureaucracy and organizations for enforcing and legitimating a violent political order.

Systems of classification and eligibility have a long history in shaping society and political relations. At worst, repressive regimes have relied upon bureaucracies to enforce formal eligibility rules to disqualify and deny citizens access to fundamental rights  – often relegating them to ‘stateless’ and ‘non-human’ identities. The Apartheid regime in South Africa began with the classification and reclassification of race that enabled the state to organize the violent expulsion of certain racial and ethnic groups and deny citizens their most basic rights. Similarly, Hannah Arendt observed that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not atypical monsters, but mundane bureaucrats, as demonstrated in her analysis of the Adolf Eichmann trials.

These violent histories raise two key points for thinking about austerity as bureaucratized and organized violence. First, they reveal the manner in which violent political orders are legitimated at the bureaucratic level and second, how bureaucracies are necessary for reconfiguring socio-economic relations through systems of ‘entitlement’. These relations often include: property relations, race relations, class relations, family relations, gender relations, geographical relations and state-citizen relations.

And austerity serves as something of a peculiar model in this process. Austerity and the bureaucratic means by which it comes to be enforced is about reconfiguring social relations. Here, gender-relations and new benefit rules are a good case in point. With Universal Credit (which amalgamates six benefit and tax credits) claims are made on households, not individuals. The Women’s Budget Group argues that the design of Universal Credit – with its system of joint assessment, joint ownership and joint income – reshapes gender relations as it reinforces the ‘single breadwinner model’, a model that has disadvantaged women throughout history. In reshaping gender relations, Universal Credit is positioning women in harmful positions as it allows for abusive male partners to centralise and control household finance. Financial abuse is a common source of power and violence that is exercised over women and Universal Credit simply gives the abuser more money and more opportunity to control.  This comes on top of overwhelming evidence from Women’s Aid showing that the provision of domestic violence specialist services and hostel accommodation available for women, is diminishing directly as a result of local authority cuts.

Clearly, the government is failing in its duty to promote gender equality and protect women from harm and violence.

In this post-crash period, the war on the poor has resulted in various social injuries including debt, child poverty, evictions, homelessness, self-harm and suicide. Hell-bent on the idea that removing people from their basic entitlements can restore economic order, the government is throwing people onto unknown margins in order reduce the budget deficit.  But justifying this level of harmful and violent economic policy – as a means to an end, to reduce deficit budget – does not wash. Austerity is not a means to an end, but a long-term strategy by which governments are violently and legitimately disrupting the rights of citizens. As Hannah Arendt put it, violence is rarely a means to an end, but a power structure and political order that ‘outlasts all aims’.

It is worth paying closer attention to the rising levels of psychological and physical harms affecting young people as the next round of welfare reforms will disproportionately affect young people. With the new welfare reform bill, the Conservative government looks set on excluding young people between 18-21 years old from housing benefit entitlement (who are also claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance). Despite homeless charities ferociously ringing alarm bells showing how these policies will result in homelessness, the government wants young people to ‘earn or learn’. And bureaucracies will play a key role in enforcing these new rules as it begins to assess and remove approximately 20,000 young people from this benefit entitlement.

This blog first appeared at Open Democracy on 10 August 2015, at https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/vickie-cooper/austerity-as-bureaucratized-and-organized-violence