Cruel and desperate: the new world of Scotland’s poor

Cruel and desperate: the new world of Scotland’s poor
David Donnison

Recently I attended two conferences which, despite their sedate titles, made it clear that the process of ‘welfare reform’, still only beginning to get into its stride, is creating scandals that will disgrace the UK and its Westminster-based political elites.

The first of these meetings was the annual conference of the Scottish Poverty Alliance, which discussed ‘Food Poverty in Scotland’. (‘Hunger’ they might have called it.) The second was a discussion of the impact of ‘welfare reform’ on lone parents, staged by the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, a widely-respected research institute. Academics, and staff of voluntary agencies, pressure groups and the public services attended both conferences, along with lone parents and others experiencing poverty. News media had been informed about these meetings but did not turn up.

Back to Victorian policies

These are the basic features of the story now unfolding. The Westminster government is convinced that poverty is a problem arising from the behaviour of poor people – their poor education, their early unmarried pregnancies, their destructive lifestyles, and a ‘culture’ of welfare dependency that afflicts successive generations of some working-class families. These problems, they believe, are exacerbated by a system of social security benefits and housing subsidies that encourages such behaviour. The solution is to get these people off benefits into paid work.
To achieve that, the level and the duration of benefit payments are both being reduced in various ways. Each step may sound innocuous, but their combined effects are devastating – except to the Treasury which saves a lot of money, and to the big banks the Treasury bails out with this money. Those claiming social benefits are subject to tougher interrogations about their capacities for work and their housing needs, offered brief training opportunities of various kinds, and obliged (unless they have proven disabilities or children under five years old) to make a dozen applications for jobs every week.

If they fail to jump through these hoops their benefits are severely reduced or cut off altogether. They can appeal against these decisions and often win reinstatement of their benefits by doing so, but the appeal usually takes months to be heard. Meanwhile they run up massive debts for fuel and other necessities, and may fall into the clutches of illicit money-lenders.

These punitive sanctions are now the most severe to be found in any European country. And in the coming months they will grow still more severe. But the more generous policies of other countries do not seem to lead more people to claim state benefits. The Danes have the same proportion of lone parents that we have; but they are not in poverty.
In the places where we have the largest numbers of unemployed people exposed to these sanctions, there are usually few jobs they can get. Transport services that would enable them to extend their search are often poor. There are few of the smaller houses that families subject to the bedroom tax are expected to move to, and few or no houses are being built.

Meanwhile, wages and working conditions at the bottom end of the labour market which these people are expected to enter are deteriorating. More workers are on zero-hours contracts that amount to a return to the casual labour of the 1930s. Others take unpaid work – sometimes euphemistically called ‘internships’. Thus more and more of those in poverty, as defined by long-established European definitions, are people in work: insecure, part-time and low-paid work that does not enable them to escape their poverty.

The hardships of the poor, whether in work or on benefits, mean that health inequalities between rich and poor are increasing. The numbers of poor people who describe their own health as bad are rising, as are the numbers with mental illnesses and the numbers of suicides.
But the rich and powerful continue to grow richer. The CEOs of the top 100 FTSE companies are now paid 185 times the average pay of workers in their companies – a gap that has steadily increased. The poorest tenth of our people have, on average, lost one tenth of their incomes since the recession began; the richest tenth have only lost 1%.
As for the story about families who have been welfare-dependent for two or three generations, we were given the results of major research projects in Glasgow and other cities with high rates of unemployment – studies which show that the numbers of such cases are vanishingly small, and always explained by illness or other handicaps. The great majority of poor people want to earn money by working if they get half a chance of doing so. The story of a ‘benefits culture’ is an urban myth, revived in changing forms through the centuries to satisfy the prejudices of comfortable people in search of reasons for denigrating and punishing the poor.

It began with the ‘undeserving poor’ of Victorian times, the ‘social problem group’ and the ‘submerged tenth’ of the interwar years, the ‘problem families’ of the 40s, and many others since then. Each formulation puts bread on the table for social researchers who find they can get money for studying the group that is supposed to exist. After 10 years they demonstrate conclusively that the whole concept is a myth and the term falls out of use; only to be replaced by a new phrase that serves the same purpose. A purpose that is essentially ideological and political.

The idea that the diets of poor people would be transformed if they were given education in nutrition, cookery and household management is another long-standing myth. The lone parents who spoke to us at these conferences knew more than anyone else in the room about these things. They have to. They told us how many seconds of cooking in a microwave oven each affordable dish requires; how many sausage rolls (20) you can buy for the price of a melon; and what percentage of your weekly food budget you will have to spend on the bus fare if you shop at the supermarket which sells better, cheaper food than the local corner shop.

Beatrice Webb knew all this 100 years ago. She recorded in her diary that she attended a demonstration, given to poor mothers by a charitable lady, who showed them how to make soup from fish heads which could be bought for a few pence in London’s street markets at the end of the day. Having finished her demonstration, the lady invited questions. After a long pause a woman at the back of her audience asked, ‘Who ate the fish?’.

The expertise of experience

I have focused on the research findings we were given at these meetings. But the most moving evidence came from people who are struggling to survive on social benefits: women who, honestly, simply – often shyly – described their daily lives. I have space for only a few of their stories.

There was the grandmother, looking after her son’s son when his marriage broke up. She suffers from chronic pain syndrome and became utterly exhausted. A social worker managed to get her a week’s free holiday; but this would include her signing-on day at the Job Centre, so she went there to ask if she could postpone signing on for a few days. The official at the counter cancelled her payments on the spot – including her housing benefit, without which she could not pay her rent – on the grounds that she could not be looking for jobs if she was going for a holiday. On appeal, her benefits were eventually restored. She has two sons in the army, serving in Afghanistan.

There was the woman living on jobseeker’s allowance who, for two days each week, eats only a few pieces of toast in order to give her children decent meals. She has lost two stones and is increasingly ill. When unable to go to the Job Centre to sign on she has to get a doctor’s certificate – for which he charges her £10.

There was the woman who is compelled, like all on jobseeker’s allowance, to show that she has applied for 12 jobs each week. This she can only do on the computer in the public library where she may have to wait 30 minutes for her turn on the machine. When her daughter was bitten by her neighbour’s dog she had to take her to hospital, which meant she could not do this, or get to the Job Centre.

She telephoned them to explain the problem. Coming a day or two later to report, her ‘advisor’ at the Job Centre said she had not received her message and cut off her benefits. Summoned later, at less than 24-hours notice, to go on a training course held at a distant place, she spent money on a bus fare to get there early. But they had called 20 people for a course offering only eight places, so sent her home again.

I could run on: each story harrowing, and shameful to us all. We are harassing and punishing our poorest people. No wonder one of these women said: ‘When I leave the Job Centre I feel suicidal’.

This session of our conference must have been painful for senior officials of the services on which poor people have to depend. But they responded honestly, explaining that they cannot change the rules and policies of the social security system because those are not powers devolved to Scotland. But a senior official from the Department of Work and Pensions undertook to review the training given to advisors and counter staff in the Job Centres. They should recognise that claimants with children to care for will sometimes have to give priority to their children’s needs and the rules must be interpreted in ways that make that possible.

What can we do?

Good people distressed by the suffering of their fellow citizens – the kind of folk who read the Scottish Review I guess – want to do what they can to help. Many support the growing numbers of ‘food banks’ distributing free food. That was the response of volunteers that was most actively discussed at the Poverty Alliance conference.

No-one should denigrate their efforts, which must sometimes save lives. But research shows that the food provided in this way is usually of poor quality – giving no chance of getting your ‘five-a-day’ – and is usually only available to a particular family twice a week. There’s not enough to go round. Some people cannot afford the bus fare to the bank. Some bring the food back because they cannot afford to cook it. ‘Food banks’, one expert said, ‘are a modern, manmade source of malnutrition’.

They are, at best, a fire-fighting response to desperate needs: a response which tends to reinforce the assumption that we are dealing with individual problems in a society whose market-based economy cannot be changed. If we go no further than food banks and some free school meals, the only lasting change we shall make is to provide a subsidy to employers who pay the lowest wages.

We should remember that we live in the world’s seventh richest country, which exports more food than it imports, and wastes huge quantities of it. We could ensure that everyone has enough to eat if we organised ourselves to do so. (We achieved that during the last world war – despite the U-boats’ best attempts to starve us out.)

Discussion at the Poverty Alliance conference turned increasingly from food to poverty and the steps that must be taken to reduce it: more jobs; more generous social security payments for those without jobs; more widespread acceptance that workers must be paid a living wage that is higher than the legal minimum; decent, affordable child care; provision of free school meals for all children, and – in poverty-stricken areas – free breakfasts too.

Before we were through, people were talking about inequality and its destructive effects on health, behaviour and human relationships, saying that we need to think about maximum as well as minimum wages, and to recognise that both come out of the same kitty – more for top earners means less for those at the bottom. We need to give the rich incentives to raise the wages of the lowest paid.

It was pointed out that our government spends millions on ‘promoting Scotland’ to attract investors and visitors, without recognising that a reduction in ill-health, disorder, addiction, homelessness, begging – all the signs of poverty and inequality – would do more to attract them than pictures of lochs, glens and whisky. Food poverty arises from poverty of opportunities and incomes. It is the product of social and economic systems, not human weakness, and can only be reduced by challenging and changing those systems.

Political responses

That’s easily said. But action of that kind will call for intervention by the state. How do we achieve that in a country where the Labour Party’s – even the Labour Party’s – shadow work and pensions secretary (Rachel Reeves) is saying that they will be as tough on benefit claimants as the Tories? Which is what her predecessor, Liam Byrne, was also saying. While her party has its eye, not on social justice, not on the truth about poverty and not on Scotland, but on the prejudices of a few swing voters in a few marginal, middle-England constituencies that is not likely to change.

Which, I guess, is why the media did not attend these conferences. Having no political resonance, they were a non-story. Journalists will doubtless receive brief summaries of the scientific evidence presented there – and bin them. They should be listening to the women whose voices we heard, interviewing them for their radio and television programmes, and telling their stories in the newspapers. Most of these women, I guess, do not vote in elections. ‘What’s the point?’ they would probably say. I’m not sure that I can find a convincing answer to their question.

Next day Alex Salmond, in his closing speech to his party conference, said the SNP would ‘seek a country where we make work pay not by humiliating those with disabilities but by strengthening the minimum wage…a country where business prospers but where the public are protected against the abuse of monopoly power…’ He went on to claim that his party would speak for Scotland’s working class. By revealing a glaring gap in Labour’s political agenda he might – just might – jolt the left into recovering its commitment to social justice, to Scotland, and to evidence-based policies.