The decision trailed last week by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, to increase working-age benefits in line with earnings (5.5%) rather than inflation (around 10%), would amount to the largest-ever real-terms cut to the basic rate of support. New analysis from the Legatum Institute, a rightwing thinktank, showing that the move could pitch another 450,000 people into poverty – more than half of them in families including a disabled person – should strengthen the hand of all those trying to convince the government to change course. The scale of this threat to living standards means that a U-turn cannot come soon enough.
Increasingly, concern from experts is focused not only on the number of households in relative poverty, defined as 60% of the median income, but also on those in deep poverty – for whom affording essential items such as food, clothes and energy is a continual struggle. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation calculates that the number of those living on less than 40% of the median income has increased by more than a fifth since the early 2000s – with large families standing out among the most severely affected. These are the homes from which children are mostly likely to turn up at school hungry. For far too many, making ends meet has become impossible.
Pressure on the government from its own backbenches, including senior figures such as Penny Mordaunt and Nadine Dorries, offers hope that the leadership’s harshest instincts may end up being restrained. But it is disturbing that such a cut is even being considered. Just a few months ago, anti-poverty campaigners inside and outside parliament were fighting for the £20 universal credit increase introduced in the pandemic to be made permanent. Having lost that battle, they are now struggling against an even more brutal cut. With pensions protected, and some disability benefits pegged to inflation by law, yet again it is working-age adults with children who face the greatest threat. Research by the Child Poverty Action Group suggests that 200,000 children – almost all of whom have at least one parent who is working – will be pushed into poverty if the cut goes ahead.
The facts about in-work poverty are hardly secret. Low wages, a lack of social housing and rising prices are the reason why so many people find living within their means so hard. A recent survey of NHS bosses found that nurses are among workers who can no longer afford basic expenses. More than a quarter of trusts run food banks for staff. Evidence suggests that the public increasingly recognises this, and that Tory as well as Labour voters would support more generous payments.
But the toxic legacy of the Cameron-Osborne austerity programme lingers – along with the rhetoric of “scroungers” in which it was dressed up. Measures such as the two-child limit, benefit cap and bedroom tax were meant to capitalise on feelings of unfairness and of being taken advantage of – and shore up Tory support. Because social security is more complicated than other public services, such as healthcare, the myths surrounding it are harder to dispel. Individuals such as the journalist James Coney, who wrote this week about benefit payments for his disabled son, can challenge the stereotypes by speaking up about their experiences. But the damage done to the national conversation about social security over the past decade has been deep. Much of it remains to be undone.