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11 December 2014

Hard Times review: how the crash made our society more unequal

The central tenet of Hard Times is that the economic slump of 2008 and its aftermath have augmented the schisms already present in two rich, but profoundly unequal societies: the UK and the US.

By Lucy Fisher

Hard Times: the Divisive Toll of the Economic Slump 
Tom Clark and Anthony Heath
Yale University Press, 304pp, £18.99

The robust growth of Britain’s economy is poised to continue for the next two years, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development trumpeted last week. It was the latest round of positive news that fuelled triumphant headlines, amid talk of high levels of consumer spending and business investment in the UK. But although the British economy is on course to expand by more than 3 per cent this year, few people aside from the financial elite have cause to start popping champagne corks.

The widely touted “recovery” has yet to manifest itself to most ordinary workers, who are forced to accept increasingly precarious, ill-paid and unreliable jobs. Meanwhile, the “progressive disease” of unemployment, and underemployment, not only damages the psychological and physical health of the affected individuals, but is corroding the very fabric of society.

This is the central tenet of Hard Times – that the economic slump of 2008 and its aftermath have augmented the schisms already present in two rich, but profoundly unequal societies: the UK and the US. While the Great Recession of our times may not have cut as deep as the Depression of the 1930s, it has wreaked damage more selectively, whacking those at the poor end of the socio-economic spectrum hardest.

The authors Tom Clark, a Guardian journalist, and Anthony Heath, a sociology professor at the University of Manchester, draw on data collated over five years by a transatlantic team of scholars, examining the societal effects of the slump and comparing the UK’s solution – what the government termed “expansionary fiscal contraction” and everyone else called spending cuts – with the US stimulus package.

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Their analysis proves that the system was already failing to benefit ordinary workers during the boom years at the turn of the millennium. The rewards of growth had ceased to trickle down from the towers of high finance even before wages fell off a cliff in 2008. Apart from the top 10 per cent of society, British workers have less in their pay packet than a decade ago. The young, those living in the north and “dropouts” from the education system have become particularly susceptible to zero-hours contracts, unpredictable shifts, low pay and unemployment.

Some of the demographics identified as vulnerable come as a surprise. Against the received wisdom that it is usually women who suffer most in economic slumps, the data shows that men are worse off. And despite the inflamed racial tensions in the US, black and other ethnic-minority citizens have fared worse in the UK job market, itself painted as a “dystopic ideal” boasting a “culture of utterly commoditised labour”.

This is important, we are told, because hard times are inexorably bound up with unhappiness. Using a number of indicators, including anxiety, health and even optimism about sex life, the authors show how unemployment and deprivation affect individual well-being, and how, “even in a rich society, shattered expectations, insecurity and want of purpose will convert economic into psychological depression”.

The plight of affected individuals has had a knock-on effect in their social circles and the wider community, too. Familial relations and friendships have typically been weakened; bickering (often over shifts) and bullying have increased in the workplace; and social capital – the ties that bind communities – has declined severely among those most hurt by the slump.

Personal interviews are interspersed among the data. Several of the characters face such extreme and specific instances of hardship (the woman from Luton, who has lost a leg, and her husband, who is blighted with advanced cancer) that it is difficult to draw universal truths from them, though their emotive weight attests to the psychological toll of poverty.

The authors take a strong line against the Conservative government, pointing out, fairly, the cynicism of its mantra “We’re all in this together”. They assert: “Look across any dimension you like – race, sex, age or class – and you see that some of us are very much more equal than others wherever joblessness is concerned.”

The authors provide more insight when they stick to social science; the public policy chapter appended to the end is best skipped. More jobs, fairer distribution of the proceeds of growth and a decent safety net are worthy, if woolly, goals, and the kind likely to be approved by centrist politicians of all stripes. Yet the concrete proposals offered to achieve them – simply raise expenditure on jobseekers’ benefits using funds reallocated from, say, the UK’s nuclear deterrent – seem amateurish and ill-thought-out.

The authors draw out deep-rooted problems with liberal market capitalism, yet it is a shame that the merits and drawbacks of other versions of capitalism, such as those employed by Germany, the Scandinavian nations and Japan, are left unexplored. This is a sobering, data-driven examination of rising inequality and the overarching tone is one of pessimism; that trend looks set to continue into the foreseeable future. 

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