Wed, 12 October 2022 at 4:20 pm
There is a growing trend on social media of teachers sharing stories of hungry children. Told in fewer than 280 characters, they are dispatches from the frontline of Britain’s growing poverty crisis. A few days ago, I saw an account in which a primary school teacher noticed one of her 7-year-old pupils starting to cry during a fire drill at lunchtime. It turned out the little boy wasn’t crying because he was scared of a fire. His mum had told him there was no food at home. If he missed his free school meal, he wouldn’t get any food that day.
I thought of him as I watched the government continue to debate not raising benefits in line with inflation – a move that research shows could push 450,000 more people into poverty next April. A new study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) demonstrates the scale: at least one in five working-age families in most constituencies – including in Liz Truss’s seat – would lose out by hundreds of pounds on average if the move goes ahead, just as energy and food bills continue to rise. More parents staring at an empty cupboard; more children afraid they won’t get their tea.
We are now told that a final decision from the chancellor will not come until the end of the month, though it’s thought a U-turn is on the cards. It is a pattern we are already familiar with: the government leaks a horrifying policy, a backlash ensues, the government backs down.
It would be comforting to see this as success: that each U-turn is a win for progressives or at least common decency. But it feels increasingly like these reversals produce a false sense of security.
The term “U-turn” suggests a harmless change of mind that does not cause any real damage, like a driver caught out in a cul-de-sac. It ignores the fact that each time ministers discuss cutting benefits, it normalises the idea that this is necessary, placing discussion of whether hungry children should be supported by the state under the category of “legitimate debate”. That millions of people who rely on benefits must endure the anxious wait to see if they’ll be able to afford to eat next year only confirms the message: so-called benefit claimants are less human beings who deserve compassion and respect, more costly figures on a spreadsheet.
A U-turn also gives the false impression that the threat is over, as if the government has seen sense and changed direction. If Truss does not cut benefits in real terms, it will not be because she has chosen to do the right thing – it will be because she has not drummed up enough support from her party to do wrong. Nor would this mark a departure from her wider agenda. In this week’s PMQs, Truss ruled out public spending cuts, then rowed back almost immediately. With the Institute for Fiscal Studies calculating she will need to make cuts of £60bn by 2026 to fill the gap left by her unfunded tax cuts and extra borrowing – no matter what is decided with benefit uprating – other, larger cuts to the “welfare” budget could be on the way. Reports suggest ministers are trying to find double the £5bn that would be secured by not raising benefits in line with inflation, with touted measures including means testing benefits that are currently universal, or cutting housing benefit.
After a decade of stagnating wages and with benefits squeezed to a 40-year low, the families targeted have already been pushed into debt, poorer health, and dire housing. Austerity measures introduced by successive Conservative governments since 2010 – from the two-child limit to the bedroom tax and the benefit cap – are still quietly in force today. Only this month, an academic study found that more than 330,000 excess deaths in Britain in recent years can be attributed to spending cuts to public services and benefits introduced over the last decade. That some benefits may be saved from real-terms cuts this time will offer little relief to families pushed to the edge by multiple other “welfare reforms”. It is hard to see the significance of a car manoeuvring out of the cul-de-sac when you’re reeling from an eight-car pileup.
This is not to say that there is no point in celebrating a reversal on benefits uprating if it comes, or to ease off the pressure in the coming weeks: 450,000 people saved from poverty – even if temporarily – is not unsubstantial. But we must not ignore the wider scale of the damage caused to the poorest people in this country, or what it is exactly about our politics and media that means we keep coming back here.
The horror that we are now seeing is not new. It has been happening for some time, and if there is not real change to come, it will just continue. The struggle against cutting benefits in real terms is a battle that can be won – but it is not the war. Every child who does not have to cry from hunger is worth the fight.
- Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist