How quickly, easily and invisibly someone in modern Britain can fall through the cracks. If ever there was a time to stand up for the welfare state, it is now.
The voices of those directly affected by cuts and welfare reforms are rarely heard.
One million Britons will soon be using food banks according to the Trussell Trust. The most common reason to resort to food banks is delays in receiving state benefits.
A new report, Our Lives, was launched on Friday at the Riverside Community Health Project in Benwell, located near one of the UK’s biggest food banks.
Our Lives is written by a group of women who have lived and worked for decades with people in poverty. It tells the stories of 20 people across the UK who are struggling to make ends meet, to support their families and to retain their dignity and self-respect, in the face of hardship.
Their experiences are a painful and timely reminder of the impact that poverty and inequality has on ordinary families in Britain in 2015, made so much worse by the ‘skivers versus strivers’ rhetoric that demonises, blames and divides people. The report challenges the negative attitudes promoted by some politicians and parts of the media.
The poor are not to blame; they are grappling with complex issues, linked to lack of food and housing, disability, mental and physical health problems, low and insecure wages, that most would find daunting.
A woman who tells her story in Our Lives has been a care worker for the elderly for 20 years. Her latest post is a zero-hour contract going from house to house to visit different elderly people but not getting paid for any of her travelling time. She says: “The other Sunday I worked for six hours but only got paid for three, and this means I’m paid less than the minimum wage. At the end of most months our outgoings are now bigger than what is coming in.”
Tricia Zipfel, one of the authors, closed the launch by saying we live in brutal times with people “hanging on by their fingertips.”
In a letter in The Guardian on Friday, hundreds of mental health experts said austerity cuts are having a “profoundly disturbing” impact on people’s psychological wellbeing. This is no surprise to Pat Heron who was at the launch representing a mental health trust and a regional women’s network; she said domestic abuse is on the rise.
Cameron crows of a “jobs miracle” but most of them are insecure and low-paying. There are now record numbers of working people living in poverty. Does that sound like the economic success story? Despite recovery in the North East in recent years, typical incomes here are still the third lowest of the 12 UK regions because it started from a lower base than other areas.
The Journal reported the number of housing benefit claims in the North East has almost doubled since 2010 and men in Newcastle cannot expect to live to 60 in good health. It is verging on cruel for the government to now scrap a voucher support scheme to help families in Newcastle feed their children.
The poorest have seen the biggest proportionate losses from changes introduced by the Coalition. A clear link between the rapid expansion of food banks in the UK and cuts to welfare and other local services under the current government has been identified in a study for the British Medical Journal.
Labour peer Lord Beecham spoke at the Our Lives launch. He said government cuts and the onslaught on public services are grotesquely unfair with, already, a 48% cut to meet community needs. He fears for our children’s future if we do not redress the imbalance and create a fairer society.
A culture of individualism is gnawing away the fabric of society. We need to keep shouting at all the political parties. We need to mobilise for equality.
Jo Tunnard, one of the authors of Our Lives, said: “This report goes beyond election policy statements of promises or threats. Poverty affects us all – those who experience it and all who should be working to eradicate it. We hope that this report provokes indignation and inspires people to work for a better, fairer, kinder society – the sort of society we want to be.”
(Our Lives report http://www.ryantunnardbrown.com/publication/)