The worst of times are just around the corner
The UK Government’s response to the rise in unemployment is a remarkable example of the triumph of spin.
Highlights include the central assertion that the “rise in employment and vacancies shows a stablising labour market“, the suggestion that 1,000 more young people becoming unemployed and 22,000 more full-time students looking for work represents “a more stable picture“; and the trumpeting of there being 11,000 more jobs in the economy while hiding the fact that over the year to December 2011, there were actually 21,000 fewer jobs available (in the footnotes).
But the most astonishing claim was that its welfare reforms are working. The UK Government used the fall in the number of people designated as economically inactive to point to its success (sic). The number of people claiming incapacity benefits – disabled people to you and me – fell by 43,000 while the number of lone parents fell by 84,000. Cheerily, the media release points to a further fall of 15,000 in the number of lone parents on income support for November 2011, “driven by welfare reform“.
What all this means is that in the last quarter of 2011, there were at least 150,000 more people chasing just 11,000 more jobs. Far from the picture being rosy, it is terrifying. There might be 476,000 vacancies in the economy but there are now 2.67 million unemployed people in the UK to fill them. You don’t need your Standard Grade in Arithmetic to work out the supply is nowhere near being able to meet the demand.
The UK Government also suggested that the number of people claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance (JSA) rose, partly because of the shift of people off of incapacity benefits and income support on to JSA. This might be true, but if there are only 1.6 million on JSA, it begs the question – what are the other 1 million unemployed people now living on?
Sorry, but however the latest Labour Force statistics are viewed, they are far from good. Unless, of course, you are a Conservative or Liberal Democrat and want to point to the impact of the toughness of your austerity measures in all their technicolour glory. They might see this all as very good news, but the rest of us can only watch from behind a cushion. It’s beginning to feel like we’ve been pushed down Alice’s hole and are now hurtling ever faster without any sense of how and when we are going to hit the bottom.
As Polly Toynbee pointed out in an excellent Guardian article a week or so ago, the cuts have barely got going yet. Only 6% of public service cuts have actually filtered through (it’s probably less in Scotland) and in benefits, 88% of already announced cuts and changes are still to come. April is going to be a bit of a shocker for many individuals and families, as reality bites. In fact, that moment for many came yesterday, when epistles from HMRC indicated an end to people’s entitlement to tax credits. The cut off point is £26,000 for joint and single incomes: a lot of families are going to hurt. My own hit is in the region of £50 a month. Still, let’s look on the bright side, there’s another budget looming – there will be more goodies coming our way from 2013 and 2014.
Everywhere you look, people really are starting to struggle. A recent Netmums survey found that one in four families are living on credit cards and one in five mothers regularly go without meals in order to feed their children. Anyone shocked at the latter finding shouldn’t be. Such behaviour has always been with us: I remember doing it too, a while ago. You wait to see what they leave before you decide whether or not to make yourself something to eat. More often than not, you make do with a half portion of food off of your child or children’s plates. It ain’t pretty but it’s survival and it makes sure that your children get what they need. The feckless poor and single parents huh?
The gulf between the haves and have-nots all across the UK has never been greater. What has kept the system of inequality in place, the demographic glue of it all, has been the existence and mobility of a big group in the middle. Folk shifting their status a bit, from lower middle class to nearly the top, by dint of a university degree, a decent berth, promotion, credit, fortuitous house purchase etc, with the prospect of more to come, particularly if employed in middle management in the public sector or the financial services industry.
They are the ones about to slide right back down the ladder, for whom the haves were tantalisingly in reach and are now still sitting pretty while they and their families suffer. The haves remain at the top, still untouchable in every way it seems.
Many, including myself, have been astonished at how calmly we have taken every insult and injustice thrown at us since 2008. Self-interest and self-preservation has played its part in ensuring that we have chattered and grumbled but shown no real outward sign of our pain and displeasure.
All that might well change from April. Middle income families – that’s people on between £15 and £45,000 per year – are about to get hammered. It’s a big pool but the Tories are keen not to discriminate for once; while people at the lower end of the band will face real hurt, the impact might well be most keenly felt by families at the top end.
A two parent family could lose one worker, endure another pay freeze, lose the tax credits and find the credit cards maxed out. Just like that. Such a scenario takes them from the top end of that income band into its lower steps but with all the trappings of greater prosperity – cars, mortgages, holidays, nursery fees. In the coming year, notorious lag indicators like homelessness and repossessions will undoubtedly start to rise.
The worst of times really are just around the corner – we might well be about to see deprivation creep in from the margins of our towns and cities and into suburbia. Poverty is bound to get more visible, more pervasive and it will be interesting to see if folk continue to seethe silently or become more vocal about it all.