The twisted logic of making the poor poorer

Ministers seem genuinely to believe that fear and stress are the keys to lifting people out of poverty.

Lord Freud thinks we have a “dreadful welfare system”. No surprise there – the peer has been trying to tinker with, pull apart and generally undermine the benefits system since the partially-implemented 2007 Freud Report – but this time, he’s getting his way with the introduction of Universal Credit. Freud’s answer to the problem of those who don’t have enough is in reach, and it’s a counterintuitive one: what those who already have little need is … even less.

Sound confusing? I’ll let Freud explain in his own words to House magazine: “We have, through our welfare system, created a system which has made [people who are poorer] reluctant to take risks.” Single parents, those with disabilities, the long-term sick – according to Freud, you’ve all just got too comfortable in the “lifestyle” that welfare has afforded you. But lucky for you, Freud’s going to help you hit rock bottom so you can bounce right back up again.

Thanks to Freud’s comments, the incoherence of Universal Credit starts to look like some sort of plan. Over the last few weeks, organisations including the Chartered Institute of Housing and the Joseph Rowntree foundation have issued warnings about what they politely suggest might be the unintended consequences of Universal Credit.

According to the CIH, Universal Credit will leave 400,000 of the UK’s poorest worse off in 2015 than they were in 2010. Families with a weekly household income of £247 will have less; lone parents, whatever their income, lose out.

Meanwhile, the JRF points out that small financial gains will be wiped out by transport and childcare costs under UC, and the withdrawal of benefits such as free school meals and free prescriptions creates a “cliff edge” – incomes will simply drop off once they pass a certain point. And all that assumes the system even works, which seems optimistic given the disaster that accompanied the roll out of Working and Family Tax Credits. With no clear plans for stand-by arrangements in case of failure, the JRF warns that recipients will be forced to start their UC claims in debt.

One might suspect that this financial hammering of those least able to take it is a clerical error, the sort of terrible disaster inflicted by careless meddling in a complex system. But Freud makes it sound as if this is exactly what he planned in the first place. The more stretched your resources, the more Freud sees a moral imperative to thin them down still further until, with nothing left to lose, you might as well risk it all. 

It’s hard to imagine what kind of “risks” Freud imagines a household with less than £247 a week should take. Moving away from established support networks of families, school, friends and social workers to live wherever the council decides you can be cheaply shuffled is one risk. Moving back in with a violent ex because you can’t sustain your children alone? That’s another risk Universal Credit will force people into making. Sofa-surfing, shoplifting, streetwalking: all these are the kind of risks open to a person with nothing to rely on. Risk taking (the positive, speculate-to-accumulate kind that Freud wants you to think of when he says “risk”) is something you do when you have a surplus.

If you have barely enough, of course you live cautiously - not because your luxurious £247 a week has pampered your capitalist instincts into submission, but because if any chunk of that £247 goes to the wrong place or fails to arrive one week, you and your family go under. It’s almost as if Freud doesn’t understand the economics of risk at all; and given that he previously worked in the City, making him an industrial affiliate of those bankers whose desperate miscalculation of risk helped to demolish the world economy, it’s entirely plausible that he really doesn’t.

But there’s at least one person who won’t be risking anything under Universal Credit: Lord Freud. He promises that he’s been listening to feedback, taking advice, keeping himself covered. “I don’t skinny dip, I always have my trunks on,” he promises, summoning a hideous image of him diving into a pool full of benefit claimants and rubbing his Speedo area all over them. You can be certain that many of the worst off will do worse still under Freud’s Universal Credit: they’re the ones being left to take their chances.

The benefits 'lifestyle' is holding people back, says the architect of government welfare reforms. Source: Getty Images

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

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

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