Two Britains: a gulf separates the poor from the "squeezed but safe". Photo: Phil Noble/Reuters
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Life after crash: why have hard times made us harsher?

In contrast to previous recessions, after Lehman Brothers crashed the belief that excessive benefits bred indolence spread. This view was endorsed by 61 per cent by 2009. 

George Osborne caps some benefits, time-limits others and invites inflation to eat into them all for years ahead. It amounts to an assault on the welfare state defying all precedent. Despite the recovery, the effect is evident in London’s resurgent rough sleeping and the preponderance of food banks in market towns.

Where Margaret Thatcher hesitated to tread in the 1980s, the polls today suggest that the right is carrying all before it. Why? Because, as I argue in my book Hard Times, the Great Recession has shifted most voters’ calculation about where self-interest lies.

This may seem like a paradox. The collectivist postwar institutions now under attack were put in place in response to the Depression. Back then, fear of a storm that could lash anybody ensured that solidarity rose as the economy sank.

The pattern held into the late 20th century. As unemployment soared by a million between 1990 and 1993, working voters reasoned that “there but for the grace of God go we”. The British Social Attitudes survey found that the proportion suspecting that benefits were “too high and discouraged work” fell to less than a quarter. After Lehman Brothers imploded, in contrast, the belief that excessive benefits bred indolence spread; the view was endorsed by 61 per cent by 2009. Why have hard times got harsher? In essence because, after 35 years of rising inequality, the old understandings about shared risk have ceased to apply.

First, there is the spectacularly unequal incidence of redundancy. After 2008, already inflated unemployment rates for the unschooled, for ethnic minorities and dead-end towns increased more rapidly, often rising twice as fast.

In some disadvantaged subgroups, such as young black men, joblessness exceeded 50 per cent. Meanwhile, the luckier segments of society – white, middle-aged graduates, for instance – were almost immune.

Redundancies occur in every recession; the more distinctive hallmark of the recent downturn – and the current recovery – is unreliable and insecure jobs. These, too, are concentrated among the already disadvantaged and barely affect the middling majority.

The people of Middle England are further protected by property. It provides a substantial cushion against adversity for ordinary homeowners, whose path through the slump was eased by super-low interest rates that did little for renters.

Put it all together, and the chief victims of the recession emerge as almost preordained. The rest can be forgiven if they conclude that hard times hold few terrors. To be sure, most people’s pay packets have been squeezed, but a few years of getting by without a rise is no disaster if you were comfortable before. It does not trigger recourse to the safety net; indeed, the most reliable way to ease the pinch might be to vote for lower taxes even if that leads to lower benefits. Self-interest has a way of warping perceptions, and so this line of thinking slides into suspicions about those who do rely on the state.

The Great Recession has bequeathed Britain two political nations. Among those substantially hit by austerity, 62 per cent told YouGov last year that they rejected the coalition’s cuts as too hasty; among those not much affected, a similar majority of 65 per cent felt that the cutting should be maintained or stepped up. Britons directly affected by the downturn said the government was “too harsh towards people on benefits”; those unaffected said it was “too soft”.

The most vulnerable minority has grown more supportive of state assistance, while the rest have become more inclined to leave victims on their own. Given that the latter are in the majority, the overall drift is rightward.

Saving social security depends on appealing across the economic gulf that separates victims of the recession from the “squeezed but basically safe”, few of whom expect to need the safety net any time soon. A pitch rooted in naked self-interest is not going to work as it might have done in more equal times, but it does not follow that social security cannot be made legitimate to the majority.

New Labour’s tax credits channelled money towards cash-strapped families simply because they were poor, and thereby failed this test. Instead, we must shore up the foundations of economic shelters in working life. This entails, first, looking beyond state benefits, and regulating or nudging employers to do more for their vulnerable staff on security and pay. Second, it entails reinventing social insurance. It would be costly to find funds for, say, a higher rate of Jobseeker’s Allowance for those who have “paid a stamp” or contributed to the community in some other demonstrable way. But doing something explicitly extra for unarguably deserving victims could break us out of the Benefits Street discourse.

The squeezed but safe could coldly conclude that it would be better to go uninsured than pay premiums to cover others. But if they are assured that those being bailed out deserve it, opinion would surely shift. Faced with a welfare system that nobody bothers to explain or defend, those who don’t need help are bound to do the selfish calculation and vote for cuts. The left should take its cue from Franklin Roosevelt’s defence of a “legal, moral and political” right to contribution-based benefits. It might just find that most of us still understand that bad things can happen to good people.

Tom Clark is the author of “Hard Times: the Divisive Toll of the Economic Slump” (Yale University Press, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.