The country faces a punishing new round of welfare cuts. We probably won’t know exactly how the Tories will take their pound of flesh from society’s most vulnerable until the autumn. This uncertainty is itself a huge cause of stress and anxiety for millions of people who rely on government help to feed their families and pay their bills.
What we do know is there are no easy options left: reducing child benefits and certain tax credits from the highest earners has already been done. We also know that the majority of welfare spending goes to those over pension age. This will not be cut for a mixture of good moral reasoning and appalling political gamesmanship. This leaves little room to manoeuvre and exposes several key areas: tax credits, housing benefit, child benefit, incapacity benefit and disability living allowance.
Cutting tax credits is politically fraught for Cameron because it takes money directly from the ‘hardworking families’ that we heard so much about during the campaign. Let’s remember, tax credits are claimed by people in work, like the majority of working-age benefits. People who work but simply do not earn enough to pay their bills each month, these are the working poor.
Cuts to housing benefit have the potential to do the most damage socially. All forecasts anticipate this continuing to rise to around £3bn or more by 2020. Why? Because wage growth is either static or lower than inflation and rents continue to rise above inflation - averaging 10% nationally over the past 5 years in comparison to inflation at 2-3%. So the only way to cut this bill is to greatly restrict access to housing benefits. Current options include capping household totals, increasing the bedroom tax for certain claimants and excluding 18-25 year olds from housing benefit altogether.
What happens when you are suddenly denied the money you have relied on to pay your rent? You are pushed into rent arrears and eventually homelessness, a situation whereby councils can then refuse to house people locally. Over 50,000 families have been shipped out of London since 2010, the same year that Boris Johnson stated clearly "you are not going to see thousands of families evicted from the place where they have been living". What now for Cameron’s ‘Big Society’? There can be few things as traumatic as losing your home and being forced to move hundred of miles, saying goodbye to your friends, job, schools: everything you know.
We also know that women and children will be hit hardest. Women receive between 80% of tax credits and 90% of child benefit, making it even harder for women to manage a family budget and navigate between work and family life. Whatever happened to ‘those with the broadest shoulders’ and us ‘all being in this together’? Another proposal will force single parents to seek work when their child is three years old instead of when they begin school, again disproportionately targeting women.
And incapacity benefits? The government has proved there are no savings to be made by exposing cheats. The ATOS ‘fit for work’ assessments comprehensively failed to reveal the millions of benefit scroungers ripping the system off we had been told about (and remember that over 40% of appeals against ATOS sanctions were upheld). Instead, expect cuts to sick pay, maternity pay, and dropping the criteria for being ‘fit to work’.
Spending has gone up dramatically on in-work benefits in the last 5 years because of the economy being re-aligned from safe, secure and contracted jobs to one of 1.4m people on zero-hours contracts, a large rise in the percentage of people earning the minimum wage, and tens of thousands of newly ‘self-employed’ people, many of whom who are simply sub-contracted back to their old jobs without the security of a contract. We have been told to expect up to 100,000 jobs cut from the public sector. This will result in another huge wave of people going from secure jobs into low-paid insecure employment and needing in-work tax benefits to survive.
We need to change the narrative: the current discourse isn’t about empowering ‘hard working people’; it is about demonising those who receive help. Instead, we need to start talking honestly about the growing numbers of working poor.
It is exactly because these cuts will hit the working poor - middle and low income families – and the young, the sick, the disabled and women disproportionately that we must organise. This election was not a mandate for David Cameron to dismantle the welfare state: he won through fear, division and crass personality politics. Cameron is not a stupid man. He knows that such brutal cuts will not hit the fictional scroungers he has planted so artfully in the minds of middle England, but instead the working poor, who are in large part the very people that returned him to Downing Street. He is betting that we swallow more of his ‘tough medicine’ on the promise of an economic El Dorado, forever just out of sight.
There is a moral obligation upon us to expose the human cost of such a drastic reduction in the welfare state and the implications for a cohesive society by doing so. We must do this by organising ourselves, spreading the word clearly and calmly, engaging in conversation day-by-day, and exposing the reality behind the rhetoric. We have to show this government - and those voters who endorsed them because of a politics of fear and division - that the recipients of welfare are overwhelmingly normal people who need help for reasons beyond their control and not the mythical scroungers and shirkers of Tory fear-mongering.
One million people are currently reliant on food banks, with the latest figures expecting that to rise to 2.2 million by 2016-17. This is the government that brought the bedroom tax but lowered the top rate of income tax, that tried removing tax relief from charities but refuses to even debate doing the same for the private schools that most of them attended.
The national demonstration on the 20th June is an opportunity to show our unity in opposition. We must reclaim politics from being framed as simply a question of cold hard economics and instead put questions of morality and ethics at the centre of the debate.
Article Written for The People's Assembly by Sasha Scott