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Just Managing?

Mark O'Brien
Paul Kyprianou

Part III: Just managing? Perspectives on poverty

8. Liars, Thieves and Honest Scousers

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1The emotional spectrum of these interviews was wide. In some, the dominant note was one of deep frustration; in others, it was one of stoicism. Some families found talking about their situations upsetting, whilst for others it appeared to provide some outlet for them to express how they felt. There were moments of despair certainly; but there were also moments of determination that the family would not be dragged under by sheer circumstance. Often the discussion would alternate between these different moods within the same interview. Many of the interviews however, were characterised in places by one very striking emotion: anger.

2Anger is not necessarily expressed angrily; and it is not always loud. Anger can be in the force of what is said; in the logic, rather than the outward expression; and in the inference, rather than what is heard in the literal statement. This was the kind of anger apparent here. It occurred most often when the families came to the question of ‘Who’s to blame?’ On this subject, time and again participants protested the manifest unfairness of what was happening to them and their families, in relation to what they saw in society around them.

3The unfairness of the austerity measures instituted by the 2010–2015 Coalition Government and intensified by the 2015 Conservative Government, has already been described. We have seen that the effects of what those governments led the electorate to believe were the ‘deficit reduction’ measures of responsible and fair administrations, were in fact grossly unfair and disproportionately detrimental to the least well-off in society. This is demonstrable in monetised terms. However, it is how these measures have played out in the lives of real people and their families that is captured in this study.

4The impact of low pay was described in many ways and with respect to many different interview themes. We will revisit a few of these here. Low pay of course meant a constant struggle to make ends meet for all the families. It also meant debt for many, the stress of managing that debt and constant worry about debt-collectors, bailiffs and repossession. With low pay, usually come long hours and multiple jobs, the results of which are all too predictable: constant tiredness and fatigue; irritability at home; insufficient time for children and family life; becoming ‘rundown’; health issues, mental and physical; a monotonous routine; and so on.

5Insecurity of various kinds adds to the toxic mix of detriments that create downward cycles of social and psychological malaise. Insecure work contracts, insecure tenancies and insecure finances all conspire to make life worrisome and unpredictable for those whose lives are defined by these realities. Renting a house—that may need long-waited-for basic repairs, that is cold and that is unsuitable for a disabled child or lacks the adjustments required for an elderly dependent for example—can bring its own life-limitations and difficulties. The combinations of these and other problems of life are punishing for the health and well-being of adults. They are even more so for children. Children who do not see enough of their parents are emotionally deprived; children who rarely have new clothes bought for them are materially deprived; children who have few days out and never get to have a holiday, have little to look forward to; children who are cold get sick; children who are sick miss school; and so on. This litany could be extended considerably. The point here is that the unfairness that pervades this entire topic is even more cruelly apparent when we consider the lives of the children and young people who were born into, and are growing up in, the economic, social and cultural poverty of ‘austerity Britain’.

6The political logic used to justify government action that has produced such constant struggle for these families, also calls for careful consideration. We have seen that UK government domestic policy has not been ‘fair’ as purported. However, the intention, the electorate were informed, was that welfare spending would be reformed with aim of concentrating support upon the ‘most vulnerable’ in society. Quite how cuts to the Disability Living Allowance, the abolition of a swathe of emergency services and crisis support payments, the introduction of a new and draconian regime of benefits sanctions and cuts of 68 percent of the budget for local services in the most deprived English city (Liverpool) could be seen as protecting support for the ‘most vulnerable’, is impossible to fathom. The underlying logic itself however, does not bear the slightest scrutiny. Concentrating support upon the most vulnerable, means withdrawing support from those who are merely ‘vulnerable’. With support withdrawn, the families who are vulnerable will quickly join the category of the ‘most vulnerable’. Refocusing the definitions of need upon which vulnerability is indexed, to keep the numbers small and the service demands within departmental budgets, in turn means that the thresholds of need used to trigger state support are repeatedly raised. The result is a vicious policy cycle of ever decreasing state support in which families that are in need (though not yet the ‘most needy’) are pushed over the edge and into crisis. Such is the logic of ‘welfare reform’ in the UK.

7The families who took part in the study were vulnerable in the sense that little or no slack existed in their week-to-week finances. The low incomes upon which these families had to rely, meant that no amount of careful planning could protect them from an unexpected demand upon the family budget. A benefit overpayment that must be repaid, a delay in money that is due, a higher than normal heating bill, the costs of an illness of a working adult or a poorly child, a cut in hours and so on are the kinds of unforeseen events that could (and did) push family finances all too easily out of control. Where money is so tight, no reserves exist to buffer households against contingencies that often arise because of that very circumstance. The effect is that families live constantly on the edge of an inexorable downward slide into situations of accumulating debt, inability to pay bills and rent, dependence upon loan sharks and the prospect of eviction.

  • 1 McGuinness, F. (2015), Poverty in the UK: Statistics. Briefing paper 7906, 6 November. House of Co (...)

8All the families were surviving: just. Yet each of these families also conveyed a palpable sense of the fragility of their situations, and the closeness of the line between ‘just about managing’ and financial collapse. None were destitute and all had homes. It is increasingly apparent however, that destitution is no longer a haunting memory from a bygone era, a signifier of ‘how much has changed’. In the era of foodbanks and the return of child hunger, it is a real and present threat to many families living on insecure and restricted incomes and with a disappearing safety net beneath them. This throws into new relief the meaning of ‘absolute poverty’ as distinct from ‘relative poverty’. In the language of public policy these terms have precise technical definitions. Currently, whilst ‘relative poverty’ is defined as household income of 60 percent or below of the median income, ‘absolute poverty’, as a basic and unchanging minimum is defined by the UK government’s Department of Work and Pensions as household income of 60 percent or below of the 2010/11 median.1 However, in its more popular usage ‘absolute poverty’, conjuring up the image of the family living in penury and utter desperation, has made its return as a frightening spectre. This was not the reality for these families. However, to different degrees, its possibility represented a blackening cloud under which they were living.

  • 2 Jones, O. (2016).
  • 3 Ibid., p. 217.

9All the families had at least one working parent. That was the basic criterion for their inclusion in the study. All were reliant upon that income, even where some element of state support existed. What was also clear however, were the levels of commitment to working that were repeatedly expressed in many of the interviews. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that a strong work ethic characterised the family testimonies on this subject. Owen Jones (2016) in Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class2 points out that despite virulent tabloid stereotyping of benefit claimants and especially single mothers, as seeking to avoid work, most single parents want to work.3 For some of the families, this commitment to working was about maintaining a sense of connection with the world. For others, it was about being economically self-reliant, and so materially and psychologically independent. For still others, it was about not having to endure the increasing indignities and irrationalities of the benefits system. For many, it was about providing an example to children. The reasons varied; all however were rooted in a desire not to ‘go under’ by having to resort to state support that would only come accompanied by a bullying culture and whole new types of stress.

10These families, in the attitudes they expressed towards work and the wariness they obviously felt towards the benefits system, were behaving exactly in the ways demanded of them by the crusading agendas of the Coalition Government of 2010–2015 and its Conservative successor. As we have seen some had set up their own small businesses, entirely in line with government exhortations. Far from moving forward with a new and rising prosperity however—and having conformed to the expectations required of them by government employment policy, because of increasingly restricted options and tabloid hectoring, but also by choice—they were now being punished by constant worries arising from the insecurity and unprotected nature of their economic and social situations. To indulge for a moment the proponents of the morally prejudiced and entirely bogus distinction between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor, these families would clearly count as ‘deserving’ in the sense that has been peddled over the years by home secretaries, centre-right think tanks and right-wing newspaper editors. Their reward however, was a life of constant struggle, trapped on low pay with no way back, up or out.

11It is this last aspect, that of the entrapment of working families on low incomes, that reveals the true effects, and even intentions, of the austerity policy regimes of the governments that came to power following the 2008 banking collapse. The ‘bunching’ effect whereby the wages of workers become stuck at or close to the national minimum, has been shored-up by the erosion or removal of important state protections, the introduction of new caps and conditionalities for benefits, pay freezes, the introduction of fees for adult education courses and trends towards casualisation, hourly-paid status and self-employment. It is the extension and intensification of low wage dependency then that is the real achievement of recent government welfare reform and incomes policy.

12As we have seen, in many interviews participants expressed their view that government ministers were ‘out of touch’ with realities of life for those coping on low incomes. Since 2010 the popular perception of the socially privileged background and status of political elites has hardened into a firm consensus. The gap between the social position of many government ministers and that of the people whose lives they have comprehensively harmed, has never appeared so vast. However, as we have argued here, this is not simply a matter of privilege and social position. The very methodologies by which the impact of government policy has been predicted and tracked were skewed from the beginning. The tendency for example to produce impact assessments for separate policies in isolation from one another, means that the combined and cumulative effect upon communities, families, social groups and individuals is eclipsed. Repeatedly, these families talked about the ways in which their problems piled up from the whole range of pressures upon their budgets and available time. The demands of work, routines for child-care, school costs, bills, and debt repayments along with health problems for some, difficulties with landlords and unpredictable hours created a punishing cycle that was clearly pushing many to the edge of being able to cope. It is the full complexity of these problems of life that government impact methodologies fail to capture. The result has been that legislative processes have not been informed by evidence that is genuinely reflective of the lives of the poorest in society. The ‘out-of-touch’ character of government in the UK over recent years is not simply the result of social blind-spots. It is wilful.

  • 4 Mendoza, K. (2015), Austerity: The Demolition of the Welfare State and the Rise of the Zombie Econ (...)

13The ‘thing’ of course, with which UK governments since 2010 have been in very close touch, has been their own agenda of the realignment of the structures of class in British society. The rolling back of the welfare state has been one major project that was inaugurated by the 1979 Conservative Government led by Margaret Thatcher, and launched into a new historical phase by the 2010 Coalition and 2015 Conservative governments.4 Now, considering the draconian departmental budget cuts for public services, long-term falls in the provision of social housing and leaps in rates of eviction as well as the spectacle of foodbanks in one of the largest economies in the industrialised world, comparisons with the British society of the 1930s no longer seem far-fetched.

14The comparison with which we began was to that of British society of over a century ago. The circumstances of the working poor of course are separated from those of today by time and by many types of social-historical change. As we have seen however, they also resonate with one another over the intervening generations between them. One crucial point on which they connect is that of insecurity. Indeed, throughout our discussion the sense of these families being at a ‘tipping point’ has emerged from the obvious fragility of their circumstances; from an awareness that one more financial demand or one more challenge in life, can push carefully managed arrangements over into unmanageable chaos. The Lambeth families of the 1913 Round About A Pound A Week report recognised this constant possibility in their own lives. So too did these Liverpool families.

  • 5 Dangerfield, G. (1997), The Strange Death of Liberal England, Serif.

15The notion of a ‘tipping point’ can have another meaning however. The historical period of the Fabian Women’s Committee study was one of strife and political, social and economic conflict. Revolts of ‘the Irish’, ‘the women’ and ‘the workers’5for example were as much part of that historical era as were the indigence and squalor of the working-class districts. It is noteworthy now, that amongst these families, when the matter of ‘blame’ arose, it wasn’t aimed at the familiar targets offered daily by tabloid columnists for the venting of social ire: immigrants; refugees; Muslims; benefits claimants; and so on. Rather it was celebrity culture, the establishment, cabinet ministers and the wealthy generally.

16The merchants of austerity should take note. It is not just family stability that can be ‘tipped’. So too can the willingness of those who are ‘just managing’ to put up with it all.


1 McGuinness, F. (2015), Poverty in the UK: Statistics. Briefing paper 7906, 6 November. House of Commons Library.

2 Jones, O. (2016).

3 Ibid., p. 217.

4 Mendoza, K. (2015), Austerity: The Demolition of the Welfare State and the Rise of the Zombie Economy, New Internationalist Books.

5 Dangerfield, G. (1997), The Strange Death of Liberal England, Serif.


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