NOTthe following month, universal credit will be reduced by Â£ 20 to its pre-pandemic level. A policy which – according to the government’s own internal analysis – is likely to cause “catastrophicSuffering, pushing 800,000 people into poverty.
The reduction has been described as unprecedented, but it is yet another contraction in the shrinking British welfare state for a decade. The room tax penalized tenants of social housing for alleged “under-occupationâ, In practice the mooring accommodation benefits some for the crime of needing space for oxygen cylinders. Changes to the child tax credit drew help from some of the poorest children, as women who had been raped were asked to prove their abuse in order to earn their benefits. The reduction in the employment and support allowance took Â£ 30 per week people too sick to work, targeting the “inflated bill for benefits” of a former nurse with Parkinson’s disease.
Every policy was met with outrage at the time. Each went ahead anyway, and is still in effect today. We don’t need the universal credit cut to take effect for children to go hungry because of the UK state. This is happening already, and it has been happening for some time.
A new to study by Action for Children shows this quite clearly. The charity found that even if the increase were sustained, due to other social security changes over the past 10 years, those same families would still be struggling with an average loss of Â£ 750 per year.
The cut isn’t even the only Social Security cut right now. The 2 million people on ‘inherited benefits’, such as those who are too sick to work, have never been eligible for the Â£ 20 markup, despite even higher costs during the pandemic as many were protecting themselves. Research by the Disability Benefits Consortium shows the brutal impact: One-third of disabled claimants report having trouble getting to medical appointments because they can’t afford the cost of the bus or gas.
This kind of standardized suffering isn’t a quirk of the system – it’s the system. When Rishi Sunak claims the cut is a ‘reset’ moment where benefits align with pre-pandemic rates, it really is a promise to ‘reset’ a social security system that can leave people behind. suicidal. It’s worth asking what exactly is the UK policy that allows this to happen, if only because uncomfortable thinking is our only hope to stop it.
This is in part due to the gap between those who make the policy and those who live with its effects. Just as Sunak makes this cut, it is reported that the Chancellor is building a swimming pool and a tennis court for its own home. The ease with which ministers can withdraw Â£ 20 from the poorest is at least in part due to the fact that they can never imagine a life where Â£ 20 counts. What’s the weekly shop for some, it’s a glass of merlot for others. After Johnson’s reshuffle last week, 65% of the cabinet are former students of private schools. It is surely time to start working on a representation suitable for a modern democracy.
No minister could dismantle social security without the support, and bluntly, of the right-wing press. This relationship has long allowed conservatives to define the dominant narrative around benefits, creating a world where the sick or the low paid could pay the bills if only they made the effort. As my colleague Andy Beckett recently said: The job just doesn’t do as many storytellers on its end. The left can and should use the pandemic to tell its own story, one that takes on an era in which more people than ever experience the benefit system, and builds a collective sense of purpose.
A winter in which millions of people experience the reduction in universal credit just as energy prices soar could be a turning point. But progress is an uphill battle. The first research shows that the coronavirus crisis has not yet given rise to the hoped-for relaxation of mentalities vis-Ã -vis social security: half of the public think coronavirus applicants are more likely to be “deserving” than pre-pandemic applicants.
In a strange way, the nature of the pandemic – shocking and unique – created a misconception that the need was somehow temporary. And yet, crises are pervasive, even when they don’t make the headlines. People are getting sick. Employers go bankrupt. The bills are going up. These are ordinary parts of life, and those for which the social security system is made.
For the whole Westminster debate around universal credit, the explanation is really quite simple: each of us could have a hard time, and when we do, we deserve decent support. If we are to withstand more cuts, and with it more suffering, this is a story we must keep telling. It is a small country that sees its citizens already in difficulty and knowingly causes them more pain. Britain would do well to remember this during the next unexpected crisis.