The coalition has stigmatised welfare users – we need a return to compassion and solidarity

George Osborne has said a further £25bn spending cut will be coming after the next election, much of which will hit disabled people

 

Over the past five years, we have been forced to watch the systematic slashing of our welfare state. The coalition says ‘we are all in this together.’ The reality has been an austerity agenda where the disabled, the lowest-wage earners, and the chronically ill have taken the biggest hits.

Policy after policy has put the burden on the people who can least afford it. Cuts to council tax support have seen what’s effectively a new poll tax on millions of the poorest working households. The abolition of Disability Living Allowance and the Independent Living Fund are seeing basic dignity dubbed as too costly. Employment and Support Allowance has been riddled with conditionality, delays and outright failing, as thousands die after private companies find them ‘fit for work’. The bedroom tax has pushed thousands of the poorest people into rent arrears, penalising the disabled for needing a box room to store oxygen cylinders.

Worse, a climate has been built that says this is entirely right. The coalition has orchestrated a demonisation of need, where someone struggling on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) has been recast as the feckless workshy and a person too sick to work is a scrounger worthy of suspicion.

Right-wing media and ‘poverty porn’ television have simply fed a fear that our own government has started. Benefit fraud is less than one per cent. The biggest part of social security spending – 53 per cent – actually goes to pensioners. Listen to Ian Duncan Smith and you would think the disabled were living in gold houses and the unemployed bathing in diamonds.

The sanction regime is characteristic of the distortion of a compassionate, fair safety-net. Jobcentre staff report being given targets for stopping people’s benefits, whether that’s a claimant who’s five minutes late for an appointment or someone with chronic illness who’s too sick to get out of bed. Meanwhile, workfare schemes force people on JSA to work for free or be sanctioned. This is not only about removing benefits but the principle behind them. Social security as a universal entitlement is being attacked.

A major tool in this has been the stigmatisation of people needing benefits – part of a wider attempt to make the public see things in terms of workers versus claimants. But the facts show this is an entirely false division. A job market characterised by unstable hours and low wages has pushed working people towards benefits. Housing benefit figures alone show the number of people in work needing help to pay the rent has increased by almost 60 per cent under the coalition.

Britain is getting poorer. This government’s choices – both benefit cuts and tax changes – have made more workers, more children, more disabled people struggle. 13 million people now live in poverty in this country.

It is charity that has been left to pick up the pieces. Half a million people have had to go to food banks to feed themselves over the past six months – most because of benefit delays and sanctions, others due to low wages. This is part of a disturbing retreat of the state, where private companies and local volunteers fill the gaps left by failing government.

Taking back the welfare state is a fundamental issue of this election. The stakes could not be higher: the right to a life without poverty and a system where we help each other. As Class set out in their election guide, we must restore social security as a permanent, humane part of British society.

Judgement and punishment must be cast out for solidarity and compassion. Workfare, low wages, a gender pay gap, and propped up high rents, need to be replaced by a living wage, stable jobs, gender equality, and affordable homes. The people unable to work due to ill health or disability, currently enduring nominal income and arbitrary testing, must get bespoke assessment and support to live comfortably.

We know what’s already been done in the name of austerity is just the beginning. George Osborne has said a further £25bn spending cuts – much of it from the welfare budget – will be coming after the next election. If the Conservatives keep hold of power, Britain will find itself halfway through a near-decade of cuts. The disabled, people struggling to find work or living hand-to-mouth on low wages are easy targets. The welfare state cannot afford another five years of this.

Frances Ryan writes for the Guardian and New Statesman, covering austerity, disability and feminism. Follow her on Twitter

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