Shortly before George Osborne set out his alarming vision for public expenditure, James Meek asked whether government welfare and housing policy is a war on the poor. He begins his LRB article Where will we live? with the case of a 60-year old woman in Tower Hamlets, struggling to pay the bedroom tax, who has also been hit by loss of her incapacity benefit as she’s now judged fit to work. As Meek says:
What’s being done to her is happening quite slowly, over a period of months, and is not the work of a gang of thugs breaking down her door and screaming in her face, but is conducted through forms and letters and interviews with courteous people who explain apologetically that they’re only implementing a new set of rules. At the age of sixty, having worked for thirty years before being registered as too unwell to work, Pat Quinn is effectively being told that she’s a shirker, and that the two-bedroom council flat where she’s lived for forty years and where her husband died is a luxury she doesn’t deserve. She’s been targeted for self-eviction. Essentially, the government is trying to starve her out.’
Red Brick readers are familiar with such cases, but Meek’s description cuts to the quick. He concludes, ‘the government has stopped short of explicitly declaring war on the poor. But how different would the situation be if it had?’ Here I beg to differ with him slightly: while the attacks on the poor haven’t yet quite been described as a war, they certainly look very much like one. As Ken Livingstone said about Thatcher’s assault on trade unions, in which three million unemployed was a price worth paying: ‘Thatcher’s great friend Augusto Pinochet used machine guns to control labour, whereas Thatcher used the less drastic means of anti-union laws. But their goal was the same, to reduce the share of working class income in the economy.’ Or to put it in Meek’s terms, Osborne hasn’t actually sent in a gang of thugs to drive Pat Quinn out of her house, but the goal is the same. It’s to squeeze spending on welfare benefits, at least for non-pensioners, out of the economy.
Another parallel occurs to me, and this time Labour shares part of the blame. Both the current and previous Home Secretaries effectively believe that ‘asylum seeker’ is another name for an illegal immigrant and that, while still paying lip-service to UN conventions, life should be made so uncomfortable that they will stop coming here or go ‘home’. The same panoply of weapons was used in the war against asylum seekers as is now being used against welfare claimants: placing negative stories in the media, cutting financial support to levels on which it is almost impossible to survive, vastly increasing the bureaucracy they have to cut through to get any help at all, moving them around so as to cut any community ties they may form, and finally handing over their accommodation to the likes of G4S and Serco.
OK, so the latter hasn’t yet happened to welfare recipients, but the government has already resurrected the idea of outsourcing housing management and it will certainly do this if it gets the chance in the next parliament. We might also add that asylum seekers were prevented by the last government from getting jobs and supporting themselves, which made them easier to demonise. Osborne hasn’t prevented the poor from working, of course, but by saying they could work when either realistically they couldn’t, or there aren’t jobs available, or the welfare system penalises them if they only work part-time, he achieves the same demonising effect. There’s even a direct link to immigration in the weaponry deployed by Duncan Smith: benefit scroungers who won’t work mean that employers look for immigrants who will. So as well as wrecking the economy, benefit claimants are also responsible for immigration.
There are now of course tens of thousands of cases like Pat Quinn’s, many involving stomach-churning hardship. Osborne and IDS cannot be unaware of the damage they are causing, so the obvious conclusion is that it is not just a ‘price worth paying’ to squeeze welfare out of the system, but is actually an intentional part of the process. If poor people can be made to suffer sufficiently, some will indeed move into low-paid jobs; but most (like asylum seekers) will live on the margins of survival, even if a few will regrettably turn to crime, end up sleeping rough, commit suicide or simply die. Squeezing welfare out of the system isn’t just about saving money, it’s about changing minds. Welfare claimants have to learn the hard way that relying on the state is no longer an option, because the state is no longer interested in their survival.
To legitimise this cruelty, claimants are made to look like they’re crooks or worse. As we saw in response to the Channel Four programme Benefits Street, there are plenty of real thugs with baseball bats (or at least with Twitter accounts) who’d love to sort Osborne’s problem out for him. It’s difficult to disagree with Pat Quinn’s conclusions, based on her own plight: ‘I’m sure if they had their way they would kill us. I really believe that.’ Even if you think that she’s exaggerating, you can’t deny that Pat Quinn and other claimants are getting Osborne’s message.