In December last year I was asked to write a comical assessment of Austerity for the Real Review magazine, which can be purchased here.
I decided a comical assessment was not appropriate or right for me to do- instead, I chose to analyse the United Nations (UN) special rapporteur's report on Poverty in the UK.
It is not like my usual writing at all, but many of you have expressed interest in reading the article, and I want to make it available to as many as possible.
Enjoy and hopefully see you at CHIFFCHAFF next week at the Omnibus Theatre.
Writing about austerity is up there with other fun hobbies such as a full body wax and ice skating in bare feet. Though a crucial subject to talk about, it is not a joyful one. At the start of a New Year, you want to write about something optimistic, not about the increase in homelessness, child poverty and the growing unease that ripples across the country as Leavers and Remainers perplex on what will happen come March.
Austerity kills pretty much everything it touches: conversation, dirty talk, people, our society as a whole.
In December I was on the tube - a microcosm of every age, race, demographic - a beautiful symbol of the UK’s diversity. At one stop, a man, clearly homeless came on and sat down. His objective - to travel, be warm. Another human, another facet of our society. The reaction to him was not a heartwarming one. It is not one Dickens would be proud of. The smell of his destitution made those appalled - but not for him, at him. There was scorn, disgust, overt body movements and loud statements of ‘SHOCKING” as people moved to other carriages. This man, was made to feel, not like a human, but a trespasser. This is one of the ways that austerity has come into our day to day life and cut at one of our greatest societal strengths: empathy.
If we imagine our ability to empathise as an economy - the UK’s emotional economy is flatlining. We cannot let Austerity kill it yet.
We have a growing and dynamic economy in the UK but it is imbalanced. To give you an idea of how so- here are some fun numbers to quote at a party. We are immune to hearing about millions and billions, but to put these in context of scale, to reach one million seconds takes 12 days, to reach one billion seconds takes 32 years. Out of the UK’s 22 million households, 3.6 million of these have wealth of more than £1 million. Only China, USA and Japan have more. We have over 134 billionaires who chose to live here, usually in London. On the other side of this, 14 million people, one fifth of our population, live in poverty, four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line. 1.5 million are destitute. How can these numbers exist side by side, within one country, with a population of over 66 million?
To clarify, we do not have “extreme" poverty in the UK. Extreme poverty is earning less than $1.25 a day, and is a global issue, but we DO have absolute poverty. One in five people in the UK is in it - with working poor, homelessness, food banks, child poverty and destitution. Absolute poverty means not having enough for the basic needs of life.
Poverty is not a new issue, but it shot to attention again in November, following a report on poverty in the UK by the United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, following his visit here. It was opportune time for such a report, as last autumn was the tenth anniversary of the 2008 global financial crash that almost brought the world economy to its knees. Following that crisis, we didn’t waste any time or money in bailing out the bankers and the financial system - showing that when we are hit with a crisis we can put our minds to it to sort it out.
The UN report was emotive reading. Alston critiqued our government for being in 'denial' about the ‘social calamity and economic disaster ‘ of poverty in the UK. But, what many wanted to know about the UN report was, is it really as bad as Alston writes?
Unfortunately the tone of the report did not add credibility to the message. The message and the messenger become one and the same. The report was discarded by many, criticised for lacking acute analysis, being one sided and suspected as being politically motivated. It overlooked crucial issues such as population increase, and lack of investment in social housing. Crucially, he measured in relative poverty rather than in extreme poverty, suggesting the scale of the problem was ‘bigger than it was’.
Trouble is how to measure poverty is a perennial issue, and in the UK the tendency has been to look at relative poverty, which measures how much you have relative to everyone else. Relative poverty has been criticised by some as is a poor metric as it is based on median earnings . The reality is there is no perfect measure and this one can overstate the problem as it fluctuates constantly. Currently there are two in five people in the UK in relative poverty, but this could all change due to the ups and downs of the economy. If we had a boom - relative poverty could increase, despite how our overall earnings would be better. If we had a bust - relative poverty might even decrease, despite how more of us would be working poor, as you can be lifted out of relative poverty if those around become poorer. This is not a stable way of reflecting on a country’s economy and the lifestyles of the people within it.
James Bartholomew said on the radio recently that “When we use the word ‘poverty’ for someone with a phone - what do we have left?”. We cannot overlook what we have in comparison to countries that do not, but Poverty is a multi-faceted creature that exists in every curve of the UK. It is a stealthy pervert that extends out and gropes people subtly. Many don't speak up about it and many don’t spot it. Many don’t see it as poverty as the way we measure it mutates depending on our value systems. Typically I don’t measure our development as a society in relation to other countries. I reflect on the country I have grown up in and what has come before. However, this is where relative poverty becomes a useful metric and where the UN Report nicked the nerves of many. The UK is one of the top economies in the world and one of the most forward thinking countries in the West. But, what relative poverty does, and showed in the report, was that in relation to other major economies like ours, we still have too much poverty - and austerity takes much of the credit.
Austerity doesn’t work. Nobody likes it. It is a constrictive binding knot. One foul move can morph Austerity from a grumbling old goat into a machete wielding sociopath. Nobody wants them to come to the party. They cause unrest, family breakdown, put The Smiths on and they never bring a bottle. The risks outweigh the rewards of getting to know Austerity. Post Crash, George Osborne, the government’s version of King John was praised for doing the best in a bad time where there was infamously ‘no money left’ . But as the famous economist John Meynard Keynes made clear back in the 30’s, government’s finances are not the same as a household’s. While ideally a government should save (and not overspend) in the good times, if they don’t (and unfortunately none of them do) then they should not cut back in the bad times (when growth is weak and when the economy needs a spending boost). Two wrongs do not make a right.
This is where Alston’s report is interesting. The messenger was problematic, the message, was not. We in the UK have an imbalanced economy, where austerity is able to help exclude or wipe out a section of society from getting involved, ’locked into a cycle of poverty for which most will have great difficultly escaping- like District 13 in the Hunger Games.
He highlights how mistakes such as the Department of Work and Pensions complete mess up of Universal Credit caused vulnerable people to being treated like ‘guinea pigs’ , pushing people into further debt and hardship. This was an example of an Austerity binding knot and was, you guessed it, down to Osborne and his inability to fund it properly, enacting policies not in the national economic interest. Even Ian Duncan Smith, the architect of the policy, resigned over the lack of funding for it and suggested in his resignation letter back in 2016, when he left government over the issue, “There has been too much emphasis on money saving exercises and not enough awareness from the Treasury, in particular, that the government's vision of a new welfare-to-work system could not be repeatedly salami-sliced”.
This government's austerity approach punched down. The Government safe guarded spending on some areas (health, pensioners for instance) but not in others and these so called non-ring fenced area were the ones that took the hit - local authorities, policing, law and order to name a few. The consequences have been profound.
We have become a ‘Versus' society. City versus Rural. Urban versus Suburban. Leave versus Remain. Us versus Them. Inner London versus the rest of the country. Skilled versus Unskilled. Owners versus renters. Even old versus young. For example even in my ‘liberal’ world of the arts there is a problematic snobbery towards ‘regional theatre’, with actors refusing to do work outside of cities, and focus and funding going mainly towards the capital. Comedians move to London in flocks as that is where the market is perceived to be. For my industry alone, which is about uniting the people through laughter, this isn’t a great sign of an inclusive, open society.
We have many “cold spots” in the UK -places that once you are in them , you can’t get out - and this static nature is not just down to lack of work. Lack of infrastructure - good transport links, lack of connectivity between the regional areas and the cities - preventing those from actually being able to physically move OUT of poverty. However, once you are able to move out of your area, it doesn't stop there. Poverty is not only about the material. The U.K is generating lots of jobs, but with high living and travel costs, in many areas you are still going to be living hand to mouth. Jobs are no longer a guarantee of a great escape out of poverty. Too many people in the UK live on a precarious ‘one day as it comes’ ethos, waiting until the next pay packet arrives.
On top of that - there is NO HOUSING. This isn't an austerity issue, this is just a complete overlook. In the 2010s we have seen the fewest new houses built since the Second World War. In the 1960s there was one home for every 14 people over the decade, in the 2010s, it is now one to 43. Labour and Conservatives take a united bow. Take into account our unprecedented population growth, the fact most owners are either borrowing up to their eyeballs to buy somewhere and many young people are spending the bulk of their income to have a roof over their head, we need to sort out our housing crisis now.
From lack of investment in infrastructure, in 2019 the government needs to improve the provision of public services ensuring our reliance on the digital does not ostracise those we need to help. At the moment the world economy is in its early stages of a fourth industrial revolution - with the development of Artificial Intelligence, robotics, tech and enhanced connectivity. Amazing, but unless we educate everyone on how to move with it, we will end up with an even more dislocated society. Social services and benefit systems are now becoming digital by default. Technology is resulting in the evaporation of intimacy and human connection, leaving the elderly and the vulnerable behind. As Alston said: ‘we are witnessing the gradual disappearance of the postwar British welfare state behind a webpage and an algorithm. In its place, a digital welfare state is emerging. The impact on the human rights of the most vulnerable in the UK will be immense”.
When Ofcom reveal that only 42% of those who are unemployed and 43% of those on low income do banking online, with the amount of people from low income backgrounds who do not have access to a computer - we need to think about how many people are being kept in relative poverty due to digital exclusion. Think about it, when was the last time you handed in a C.V in PERSON? Exactly.
One aspect of the UN report, often overlooked, was its suggestion of using technology to improve the provision of public services, that makes sense, as the government not only needs to end austerity but it needs to ensure it spends the taxpayers' money properly too.
Oscar Wilde said ’What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’? It seems apt to quote the words of an infamous provocative poet who was ostracized from his society and ended up dying in destitution. We are becoming too cynical and suspicious as a society and our government are may be able to quote statistics, claim to ‘know ‘ what is going on, yet seem to show no real understanding, experience or trust to listen to the stories of the country many are living in.
Our government for has had a trial by error approach for a long time- with high stakes and inefficiency. More and more people are becoming reliant on private philanthropy, but there must be balance.
Like the homeless man on the tube, we cannot look down on him and hope someone else will fix the problem. We must collaborate to understand the country we live in and the issues people face. One part of the UN report that was criticized the most was for the 'on the ground' research Alston did. How so much was taken not only from statistics but from what he saw.
Whether or not we agree on the scale of the problem described in order to actually make positive progress we have to accept that what is happening is unacceptable and not inevitable. Although relative poverty will always exist, in the UK absolute poverty shouldn’t. We need a pro growth policy that will hopefully kill Austerity, rather than letting it kill us.