Mary O’Hara describes herself as a “graduate of the welfare state”. Her father lost his job as a bricklayer when she was 10, because of health difficulties in the family, and never worked again. But O’Hara benefited from a council house, libraries, free school meals, “outstanding teachers and visionary schools”. She became the first person in her family to go to university, the first in her school to get to Oxbridge. “What is so rarely understood,” she writes, “is that the welfare state is not about dependency; it is about opportunity. Done well, it is a life raft when times are tough and a springboard to better things.”
But when the coalition took office in May 2010, it took an axe to the life raft. Against a backdrop of global recession and rising unemployment, the government determined that cutting the welfare bill was crucial to reducing the deficit. Reforms to housing benefit, cuts to disability benefits and child tax credits, harsher sanction regimes for Jobseeker’s Allowance and less generous uprating of benefits over time have hit some of the most vulnerable people in society, often several times over. At the same time, reductions in the local government settlement have placed a tight squeeze on local services.
In autumn 2012, O’Hara set out on a year-long journey to track the impact of these austerity measures on the ground. As the first round of cuts set in, she visited community centres, food banks, job centres and Citizens Advice Bureaux, and spoke to parents, charity workers, disability benefit claimants, homeless teenagers and employment advisers, among others. This book is the result, placing the voices of the people she met in the context of policy changes and wider commentary and analysis.
It is increasingly clear from household survey data and statistical projections that the burden of deficit reduction is being carried disproportionately by the bottom half of the income distribution. Stark figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies indicate that the income drop between 2011-12 and 2015-16 will be greater the lower one’s income was to begin with, while only the top 30 per cent will experience growth. O’Hara’s valuable contribution is to capture what these projections mean in reality for families struggling to make ends meet. The sense of desperation is palpable, as is the helplessness of job centre advisers under pressure to increase sanctions, and the anger and despair of community and public-sector workers. Both the immediate injustice and the waste of human potential leap from the pages of this book.
Perhaps the strangest thing about the current government is that many within it would maintain that they are passionate defenders of the welfare state as springboard. The Liberal Democrats, in particular, talk big on social mobility: getting children such as O’Hara to university despite bad luck in the family is just their idea of a success story. Alongside vicious cuts to welfare, they have developed the pupil premium, intended to ensure that additional school funding is spent on poorer children, and they are currently extending free school meals to all 5- to 7-year-olds. Do they really believe that these policies can be effective while families are coping with the immense financial anxiety and distress that O’Hara’s research documents? Let’s hope some of them pick up this book and think it through.
Austerity Bites: A Journey to the Sharp End of Cuts in the UK
By Mary O’Hara
Policy Press, 336pp, £19.99
Published 28 May 2014