On a bitterly cold day in the winter of 2013 I was sitting with a group of women from the Croxteth area of Liverpool. In no uncertain terms they told me of the harm the government’s austerity programme was doing to people across their community. “As far as I’m concerned if you have to go to a church and ask for food it’s going back to Victorian times,” one woman, Debbie declared in relation to the unprecedented surge in demand for food banks that was sweeping the country. “It’s begging for food! And its not just people on benefits who are struggling, it’s people who are working.”
Debbie and the other women she was with segued from one point to another often without a specific question being asked such was their sense of urgency about what was happening under the banner of austerity. From low wages and Zero-Hours contracts, to the lack of secure full-time jobs, to the Bedroom Tax, to caps and cuts to benefits along with the increasing use of punitive sanctions, to the constant accompanying (and extremely potent) political refrain that people in need of any assistance from social security were ‘scroungers’, the women raised a plethora of issues.
There were concerns about the impact on the mental health of individuals struggling to cope on less money and about the resilience of their communities as more people were forced to “heat or eat”. There was a clear view too that politicians of all hues were failing to understand the impact of austerity policies and a belief that Westminster was woefully out of touch with the lives of average citizens.
The women were angry and they were fearful. That anger and fear was replicated everywhere I went across the country during 2012 and 2013 when I was asked by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to travel the UK and interview people at a grassroots level about the effects of austerity and government cuts – in real time – as policies were being implemented. This is how another woman, ‘Anne’ from Newcastle who was struggling to find a place to live after fleeing a violent partner, summed up her take on the rapidly altering political, social and economic landscape. “They live in a bubble. All of them,” she said of the politicians in Westminster. “They all sit down there in the House of Commons with their subsidized food and drink yet people like me can’t get emergency crisis payments. The mental strain is unbearable at times. Now I have to rely on food parcels. It’s a miserable, hideous existence. It’s not living: it’s existing. And this is going to get much worse.”
For disabled people who were among the worst affected and often by multiple cuts at once, the sense of despair and fury was palpable. Talking about the combination of reforms to disability benefits – including the controversial Work Capability Assessment and the abolition of the Independent Living Fund – one young disabled blogger, Amy Jones described what many people said they felt. “I really believe [government policy] is about ideology. They say it’s about austerity but that doesn’t make sense to me. People don’t seem to understand the difference disability benefits make to someone’s quality of life. People think benefits are easy to get, as if it’s all people defrauding the system. Well they have never been easy to get. I have always had to fight for every scrap of help.”
The more locations I visited and reported from – 18 in all across the whole of the UK over 12 months ranging from inner city London to the Northumbrian countryside and the Welsh Valleys – the more it became apparent that this was no ordinary time. The economy was struggling to bounce back from an extraordinary economic catastrophe brought about by failures within the international banking system followed by an enduring slump – or ‘Great Recession’ as many commenters and economists referred to it. In the aftermath some of the most marginalized people in society including disabled people and lone parents were clearly grappling with the fact that they were on the frontline of the government’s decision to implement a brand of austerity centered around cutting public spending rather than through raising taxes on the better off. Reports were piling up about how the poor and vulnerable stood to be disproportionately affected. This, from the New Economics Foundation’s report ‘Everyday Insecurity’ was typical. It concluded: “The burden of reducing Britain’s deficit is falling predominantly on people who get vital support from public services and welfare: the unemployed, low-income earners, the very elderly and the young – and perhaps most of all – disabled people.”
Throughout 2012 and 2013, as I was travelling the country, charities and activists were scrambling to critique and resist the cuts and what would turn out to be the most fundamental shakeup of the welfare state since its inception. Local government budgets were slashed and it was made clear that billions more were in the pipeline for years to come. Policies were being rolled out so quickly and were so complex and wide-ranging that in fact it was difficult for anyone to keep track of their individual never mind their cumulative impact.
It was against this backdrop that I began the orginal project commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It needs to be noted that I was not researching as an academic would – I’m a journalist and observed, enquired and reported as such. I reported on what I found every few weeks with audio, video and written work appearing online. This was the clear brief I was given. My book, Austerity Bites, emerged from these original reports because I felt that the reportage I was conducting warranted further analysis and contextualization – not least because of the unprecedented nature of what was occurring.
The central thrust of the work was to bring into the public domain the voices and views of those at the sharp end. Also, the rapidity with which various austerity policies were being rolled out required a different kind of approach. Local community groups and charities helped facilitate, often at short notice, interviews with – and this was very important – people directly affected by austerity policies but also with community organisations and individuals trying to help them cope with fallout ranging from debt counselors to employment advisors. From the interviews I conducted – some one-on-one but many with groups and often for hours at a time – I built up a body of first-hand accounts about the impact of various austerity policies. Distinct and overriding themes emerged that included fear, insecurity, stress, disillusionment with mainstream politicians, hunger, debt, bewilderment that taxes for the well-off were cut while benefits were being slashed and, as many studies have also indicated, a rising unease about the accelerating gap between rich and poor. There were also concerns within the voluntary sector that organisations were being increasingly overstretched because they were having to pick up the pieces where the state was no longer providing a safety net.
Most of the people I spoke with weren’t those going on anti-austerity marches or campaigners or policymakers. They were individuals, families and groups silently surviving as they tried to cope with one cut after another and a relentless cycle of welfare changes. They were crying out to have their voices heard and to have their experiences recorded in some way. This was summed up in what one person said towards the end of a group interview in Northern Ireland: “I hope whoever in power reads this or hears what we have to say is really listening. Because this is people’s lives we’re talking about.”
What has astonished me is the degree to which, since conducting the initial research and writing the book, everything I recorded is as relevant today as it was at the beginning. If anything, the fact that the deficit reduction which was used to justify austerity in the first place has not happened – in October it was confirmed to be even higher than at the outset due in part to reduced tax receipts because the recovery has generated mainly low-paid jobs – endorses the view of people bearing the brunt but also many leading economists, that that the austerity project was one of enormous folly.
It remains to be seen how the coming months and years will pan out. A lot rests on which party is in government. But what appears to be being made clear in the run up to the 2015 general election – if all the parties are true to their word – is that the UK is set for billions of pounds worth of additional cuts until at least 2018. That these (many of which will be in social care and other local authority-funded services) will most detrimentally impact on people who are poor or on modest incomes, are old or disabled because they rely more on public services to help them get by has been well documented. The people I have interviewed – and I continue to regularly report on austerity through my journalism – consistently comment on two things they hope for: an end to austerity and the demise of political rhetoric that reinforces the vilification of people in receipt of social security. Debbie in Croxteth sums up what I found time and again.
“If Mr Cameron thinks he’s getting away with this he’s got another think coming. It may take people to hit rock bottom, but we’ll fight him. We can’t constantly let him do that to us. We are good people. We’re nice people. We want our children to have the best. We bring our children up with good values. None of us is lazy. If he thinks he’s getting away with it he’s not. End of.”
Mary O’Hara is a Fulbright Scholar and award-winning social affairs journalist. She regularly writes for the Guardian newspaper. Her research an austerity was supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and her book, Austerity Bites, is published by Policy Press.