Community Activists Network
Poverty is a disease that silences its victims. It is impossible to imagine a government or institution designing a programme to combat racism without listening to members of ethnic minorities or a new road without consulting the home and business owners it would disturb. The poor, however, never have a say. Society infantilises them. It deems them no more worthy of an opinion on the welfare state that rules and increasingly wrecks their lives than it deems schoolchildren worthy of an opinion on the national curriculum.
We will see the doleful consequences as universal credit rolls out from being a niche benefit forced on a few hundred thousand claimants in pilot projects to the essential living allowance for eight million people. In theory, it’s a lovely idea. Even now, critics always begin by saying: “Of course, everyone agrees the benefit system must be simplified but…” Or: “Iain Duncan Smith had noble aims but…” It is as if the mere presence of good intentions is enough to dilute objections; as if, not only conservative commentators but liberals and leftists have never heard of the road to hell – and what paves it.
Article by Nick Cohen in the Guardian on Universal Credit from September 2017:
In 2002, Duncan Smith arrived at the estates of Glasgow Easterhouse like a wide-eyed missionary visiting a savage land. The silent would at last have chance to speak, he said. The Conservatives would “listen and learn”.
In the event, the Conservatives did neither. Duncan Smith promised to make work pay. Instead of losing benefits at a precipitous rate when they found a job, claimants would continue to receive a portion of the help they used to collect. The Treasury was having none of that and universal credit has become another means of imposing austerity. Millions of working people will lose all support or find themselves significantly worse off.
The Peabody Trust and the Resolution Foundation say that many single mothers and one-earner families who want to become two-earner families will find themselves better off depending on the dole. Far from weakening the springs on the poverty trap, the government is tightening them.
That’s not the worst of it. Frank Field, the chairman of the Commons work and pensions committee, tells me universal credit will bring back destitution to Britain for the first time since the foundation of the welfare state. Not poverty, but real destitution, where our fellow citizens have no legal means of obtaining money. Bob Kerslake, chairman of the Peabody Trust, expands and predicts that homelessness, evictions, debts and misery will pile up as universal credit moves from being a fringe experiment to the new status quo.
The ignorance class division breeds, the habit of speaking of the poor but never to the poor, is creating an avoidable social crisis. The government insists that claimants joining universal credit must wait six weeks for their first payment. The delay is not caused by bureaucratic ineptitude – it is the result of a cold-blooded political decision.
To the middle-class mind, payment in arrears seems reasonable. The typical graduate receives their first salary cheque a month in arrears. As for waiting six weeks, middle-class families remember when they have had to tighten the belt, swap Waitrose for Tesco and “just about manage”. They coped when the children were young or the bonus didn’t come through. Why shouldn’t others?
If Duncan Smith or his successors had spoken to the men and women in Easterhouse and hundreds of estates like it, they would have learned that a large section of the working poor is not paid monthly but fortnightly, weekly or daily. If they had troubled to look at the real Britain, they would have learned that 16 million people can’t “just about manage” hard times because they have savings of £100 or less. Six weeks without money, which has lengthened to 12 in the pilot tests because of unintended, if wholly predictable, Whitehall incompetence, is not a challenge but a catastrophe. MPs asked whether all would be well because claimants would get their money eventually. Housing associations told them that evictions were inevitable because austerity had guaranteed the payments would be lower when they arrived.
Imagine if eight million homeowners were facing steep increases in their mortgage that could lead to some losing their homes or the government was preparing to jack up taxes on the top 20% of earners. You would never hear the end of it. Yet when the Observer revealed the alarm about universal credit last week, the story was met with silence from the rest of the media.
The ignorance class division fosters and “our assumptions about the people on the other side of the divide” are Darren McGarvey’s themes. His Poverty Safari(out in a few weeks) is one of the best accounts of working-class life I have read. Too many middle-class writers and politicians treat the poor as Duncan Smith did. They are missionaries or tourists, who are just visiting to spread their faith or have their prejudices confirmed. McGarvey is a rarity: a working-class writer who has fought to make the middle-class world hear what he has to say. He grew up in Pollok estates, not too far away from the Easterhouse Duncan Smith flitted in and out of. His mother was an alcoholic and he has fought his own battles with the bottle.
He is exasperated by how thinking about poverty stays locked in silos. If you are right wing, you emphasise family and self-reliance and don’t think about an economic system stacked against the poorest. So what if you have to go six weeks without money? You should have the moral fibre to cope. If you are on the left, you fail to mention individual responsibility, even though the determination to quit booze or drugs and stop harming and impoverishing yourself and all those around you can only be an act of individual willpower. McGarvey puts it better than I could: “The role we as individuals play in shaping our lives is sorely missing from discussions on the left. If I read one more think-piece about how neoliberalism is the root of all our problems, I might start drinking again.”
The argument about poverty has become an argument between the left and right wings of the middle class. Universal credit is the malign result of the failure to listen to working-class voices or develop the imaginative sympathy to understand the constraints on their lives. In no other area of public policy would we accept it, but with the poor we nod it through without a blush of shame.
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