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The war for the poor

In the run-up to next year’s general election, poverty is back at the heart of political debate. In

Not long ago, I accompanied a group of teenagers from one of the most deprived areas of South Yorkshire on a day out. A local charity had invited the youngsters to go orienteering and rock climbing. It was a lovely, sunny day, and most of the dozen or so kids threw themselves into the activities. But there was one boy, Daniel, who didn't seem to fit in.

Daniel was pale and obese, and arrived clutching an inhaler in one hand. He wasn't sure whether he could cope with outdoor pursuits, because of his weak ankles and a badly bruised foot. He said that he lived with his disabled mother, who had run him over on her mobility scooter during a trip to Tesco.

No one seemed particularly surprised by Daniel's health-related misfortunes. He lived in a once prosperous pit village that had floundered since the mines closed. As joblessness had become endemic in the area, so had ill health. A fifth of its working-age population was on incapacity benefit - four times the proportion that was unemployed. An older generation that had inherited trades and work ethics from its own parents had been left with little to pass on but health defects.

The links between poverty and sickness are well documented. Children from the poorest families are twice as likely to die before the age of 15 as those from the wealthiest, and are two and a half times as likely to have chronic health problems. Less well documented, however, is an alarming trend in the number of young people on disability benefits. The statistics are stark. While the overall number of those on disability benefits has dropped by 2 per cent since 2003, the number of claimants under the age of 25 has risen by two-thirds, from 80,000 to 134,000. A similar pattern has appeared across Europe - in the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland, as well as in eastern Europe and Scandinavia.

Why is this? Surely Labour's attempts to alleviate poverty should have led to corresponding improvements in health? Although the government's pledge to halve child poverty by 2010 will not be met, approximately 600,000 children have been lifted out of poverty. And health statistics tend to show the nation generally, and children in particular, getting healthier. Yet the number of young people claiming sickness benefits continues to rise.

The deprivation map

My initial attempts to make sense of this conundrum led to confusion and even denial. Lurking in the background of every conversation seemed to be the feeling that even to talk about the issue could amount to an admission that claimants were lazy, feckless or dishonest. My approaches to organisations that dealt with young people's rights elicited little response, or simply a refusal to recognise that such a phenomenon even existed. "Government policy is to put pressure on claimants to come off of sickness and disability benefits," wrote one welfare rights worker. Another added: "We are, of course, in the midst of a recession, so the numbers claiming all benefits would be likely to increase."

This last correspondent did seem to have a point. The numbers of young people on Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which is for those with long-term care needs or poor mobility, had been increasing steadily and had doubled since 2003. But the pattern among those on incapacity benefit, for those unable to work, was different. It had dropped for several years, but began to rise rapidly in the autumn of 2008 - just when the recession hit.
So, was the increase in the numbers on sickness benefits in some way related to youth unemployment? Could benefits advisers even have been encouraged to push claimants towards incapacity benefit or its recent replacement, the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), to keep them off the unemployment statistics?

I visited Lancashire. Its welfare rights service was rightly proud of its efforts to ensure that those entitled to benefits got them. One problem, they said, was that both the poorest and the wealthiest were reluctant to claim. In Chorley, a pretty town with only slightly more than its fair share of discount shops and mobility-aid stores, I met Joe Wilson, a welfare rights worker with a quarter of a century's experience under his belt. "That's a depressing thought," he remarked, as he ushered me into a tiny, windowless room.

Wilson, who was about to hold a benefits advice session, thought there were several possible reasons for the rise in young people on sickness benefits. A major factor, he said, was that Jobcentre Plus staff were offloading applicants to other departments by sending clients to get sick notes and apply for ESAs. "If you're working at the Jobcentre and you're overrun, there's an incentive to get them on to the ESA because then their file is off your desk," he explained. Most are judged fit at their medical, but continue to receive the benefit while they wait months for an appeal hearing. Eventually, they go back to claiming Jobseekers' Allowance.

Yet such mechanistic explanations didn't explain why the numbers of young claimants were rising so much faster than the numbers of older claimants. Even though unemployment had risen fastest among the young, the number on these benefits had risen faster still.

Sitting in on Wilson's advice session, I began to sense the complexity of the issue and the deeper social change that was contributing to it. First up was Mary, who had moderate learning difficulties, worked in a supported job in a factory and claimed a low level of DLA. She had been in special schools and in care as a child. She had no family and struggled with daily life.

Then came Colin, who sometimes felt anxious, and occasionally had a bad back. He had been on incapacity benefit, but it had been stopped. He was appealing. "My doctor has no problem giving me sick notes, but the benefits people don't seem to believe me," he explained. "I don't think I was in the medical more than ten minutes."

Neither Mary nor Colin was incapable of work. "Colin would have worked in a warehouse, moving stuff around. Or in construction," said Wilson. "When there used to be a manufacturing sector, there were low-grade labouring jobs for people with mild learning difficulties. You needed someone to sweep the factory floor. Those jobs don't exist any more."

What next?

A picture was beginning to emerge that made sense. Were young people with mild disabilities becoming stuck because the labour market just didn't have a place for them any more? Growing up in areas where traditional industries had died, did they find the route into incapacity benefits clearer than the route into work?

Jim Dickson, head of Lancashire's welfare rights service, agreed that something of the sort was probably happening and that it certainly related to levels of poverty in the area. "If you took the deprivation map of Lancashire and put it alongside a map of DLA claimants, you'd be looking at a mirror image," he told me. "In the old days, the disabilities were work-related. Joiners had arthritis, nurses had bad backs. I don't think that's so strong now."

Instead, there were the conditions of the jobless - depression and anxiety. The proportion of sickness-benefit claimants with mental health problems had been growing, particularly among the young. And there were other modern-day conditions too - ADHD, Asperger syndrome, asthma - all found predominantly among the young and often among the poor.

After my visit to Lancashire, I spoke to Frank Field, the MP for Birkenhead and a former minister for welfare reform. Field, a leading proponent of the view that benefits should help people into work, argued that within Britain's poorer communities, it was not only sickness that was being passed down through the generations. Communities were also passing on their knowledge of the benefits system. "We are healthier as a nation, so there can't be a terrible, plague-like epidemic among those on benefits. There's something else going on," Field said. "There are different groups of young people. Some of them are struggling. Others have no intention of working, but the system accommodates them."

The rising levels of sickness benefit among the young required attention from the government: "These figures are very challenging, and the government has to look at them seriously," Field continued. "It isn't in a young person's interests to be on incapacity benefit - it affects their life chances."

I wondered what would become of Daniel, who was growing up in one of Britain's poorest areas with the odds stacked against him. He had almost every risk factor - he did not have any qualifications, he had been dependent on benefits from an early age and he already had health problems. When I met him, he was about to embark on a course for vulnerable youngsters at his local college. But after that, what next? Would an employer be willing to give him the support and encouragement he so obviously needs? Or would he end up, like his mother before him, with little to look forward to but a life on disability benefits?

Some names have been changed.
Fran Abrams is a journalist and author.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood