What is happening to our world? Where has our sense of justice and justness gone? It seems like Brexit and The Donald are sounding the death knell of solidarity. They did not cause it; they are, rather, the dead canaries alerting us to seeping poison in the air.
The calamitous election of The Donald (for I shall refer to him in no other way) overshadowed other horrendous and equally calamitous news from November 8, 2016. There was this important report from the World Meteorological Organization on the frightening state of our climate. And there was Theresa May’s introduction of the next stage of the Tory government’s plan to help people receiving income supplements to “do the right thing and move into work.” The ‘help’ on offer is a reduction of housing benefits by £3000 per year in London, and £6000 elsewhere in Britain.
The repercussions of this cut are enormous, but first I want to expend some fury on an analysis of the justifications made for this cut. As presented in the policy’s official impact assessment, these cuts are couched in the individualistic language of ‘behaviour change’ that has become so popular in advanced liberal democracies today. The document makes multiple references to ‘increasing work incentives,’ ‘enhancing fairness,’ and ‘transforming lives.’ The policymakers present the benefits of employment, with no consideration for the systemic barriers and other constraining factors that people face in finding and maintaining work. In fact, rather than being presented as a constructive position from which to begin asking what the barriers to work might be for people who rely on housing supplements, the benefits of work are presented as support for a cut to them. The Tories seem to think that we must not encourage idleness and indigence by aiding people; rather, we must make these people see the value and goodness of hard work! The harms of unemployment and poverty (for children, especially) are given as further justification, instead of as a consideration that might give the government pause. In order to avoid these negative outcomes, people must make the appropriate changes in their behaviour. Essentially, evidence that I find provides compelling reasons not to cut housing benefits to unemployed low-income people is presented to support the opposite position.
Any number of things could cause this difference in interpretation, but I suspect that at least one factor centers on empirical questions of the effectiveness of housing supports. While I am totally convinced by evidence that it is not only just, but necessary and cost-effective to provide secure shelter to people in order to enable them to find work, recover from illness, and/or start their lives over after disaster has struck, Tory policymakers in Britain think you can only motivate people by taking everything away. If you give people the necessities of life, then they will never strive, they seem to think. So, we agree that work makes people feel happier, feel a stronger sense of self-worth, and feel healthier. Yet rather than understand that getting people into secure employment requires providing (at least) secure housing when they are in need, Theresa May and her government have chosen to reduce support to struggling people. This isn’t a motivational switch of a stick; this is battering people within an inch of their lives.
It is with a heavy heart that I provide an overview of the effects of this cut. I’m not able to summon anger, because I find it too devastatingly sad. Estimates say that between 250,000 and 500,000 British children are now at risk of homelessness. People will face extreme choices as a result of last week’s cut to housing support. They may be able to find (more) work to cover the gap in their income that will be created and pay their rent, though they’ll require work that permits them the flexibility to do school runs, meal preparation, and overnight care for their dependents. People may have to rely on emergency funding from local councils, if it is available. They may have to rely to a greater degree on food banks, and accept the negative impact this reliance has on the quality of their diet. They may even have to move to distant areas of the country, away from their established (and crucially important) social relationships and supports.
Forcing people to move seems to have been one of the goals of this project to cut housing support. It seems that the Tories decided that it was not fair to Londoners that so many poor families were living in London, while fewer poor families lived in the North-East of England. The impact assessment argues that this places an unfair burden on London. The cut to housing support will result, it states, in “a more equitable distribution” of families, presumably because they will be forced out of their current boroughs, and into the ‘more affordable’ parts of England. However, the £6000 reduction of supplemental income to those already living outside of London doesn’t just make it difficult to move to or live in the capital; it makes it difficult for people to live in England’s next-largest urban centers that have previously been considered affordable, such as Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds. In addition, this cut will suddenly price small cities like Peterborough and Coventry out of the reach of people needing support.
The now-affordable parts of England, the north-eastern counties mostly, are themselves economically depressed, and, as the Brexit vote demonstrated, are racist and nationalist strongholds. The racial, ethnic, religious, etc., make-up of the group of families who stand to be hardest hit by this housing cut is unclear, but since London is the most diverse area of the country, there is reason to believe that moving away from London would entail, for some, moving away from important cultural support systems and into areas that are potentially more hostile. This may further put parents in the position of having to weigh moving to places where they could afford to live against the real possibility of exposing their families to cultural isolation, social exclusion, or violence.
The problem of finding work and a place to live may also put families in a ‘chicken-or-egg’ situation. People may not be able to find work close to where they live; the Northern, non-urban places where they could afford to live are not places that have ample employment opportunities, generally speaking. The opportunities for work are mostly in the large urban areas of Britain, and especially in London, and now it is not clear that families will be able to afford to live there in order to secure those opportunities.
Clearly, Theresa May’s government does not care about reducing child poverty. And further, it does not care about the quality of children’s diets and reducing rates of childhood obesity, nor the quality of their education, nor their mental health. Because let me just state it outright, none of these things are compatible with the cuts to income support that have been made over the last two years. It is not possible to take money away from low-income people that results in them and their families being insecurely housed, and also expect them to cook meals with fresh ingredients, participate in active lifestyles, sleep well at night, pursue meaningful social involvement, and do well in school and work. This cannot be any clearer. The ongoing execution of the Tory agenda to cut income supports is disastrous for low-income families, and without a doubt, for Britain as a whole.