On Monday, we published ‘’Everyday Insecurity: Life at the End of the Welfare State’’, which paints a bleak picture of the impact that the new austerity – the combined impact of the recession, cuts and welfare reform – is having on people in some of England’s most deprived communities. Ironically, next week also marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the welfare state. At a time of unprecedented cuts to public spending, I have found myself wondering what our public services will look like in 2020.
To date we have seen proposed public sector cuts of £81 billion and cuts in welfare spending amounting to £18 billion, with a further £10 billion proposed this month by George Osborne. More is to come, of that we can be certain. But what do these numbers really mean for people and communities? Our research tries to get beneath the figures to find how people are living through this experience.
Many core public services, such as housing and social care, are facing huge reductions in spending, leading to the tightening of eligibility criteria and cuts in services. In 2005 thirteen of London’s local authorities provided social care support to people with ‘moderate’ care needs. Now only four local authorities provide this and in the others you won’t get any support until your needs get significantly worse. Youth services, which local authorities do not have statutory duties to provide, are seeing cuts of up to 90%.
While vital services are in retreat, welfare is also changing, making many groups more dependent upon the very services that are being swept away. We’re seeing the conditionality of benefits increasing, a more punitive benefits regime developing, tighter eligibility and reduced overall funding for individuals and families. This will result in millions of people on the lowest incomes seeing their economic resources decrease at a time of rising costs of essential goods and services. Early signs of this are already showing, and a bitterly ironic article published today revealed that a Norfolk based food bank has been awarded £5,000 from Norfolk Council’s Big Society Fund to expand its efforts to provide emergency food supplies to people being affected by this new austerity.
What’s the long term impact of these changes and how might they change all of our lives?
The reductions across public services, and particularly in housing and social care services, mean that people will not be able to access support unless their needs are more intense and acute than at present and therefore much less easily preventable. In housing, for example, we are already seeing dramatic increases in the number of families being placed in temporary accommodation and a rising number of people who are homeless. This costs more and substantially reduces people’s quality of life.
As social care services are cut, and benefit reductions take their toll on people’s health and well-being, demand for NHS services will increase. Indeed, it is likely that the NHS will be hit hardest by the cuts in the long run. From cuts to respite services for carers to reduced benefits and insecure housing, all these things take their toll and GPs will be the first port of call. The increased demand for services will be largely driven by more acute needs, more stress and an increased burden of caring and material deprivation. Mental ill health, already reaching crisis levels, looks set to escalate even further as the material conditions that shape people’s lives change over the coming decade. The demand for health services may increase so much that, without radical reform, costs will spiral out of control. We may be told that we can no longer afford a universal health care service at all.
Though I suspect the NHS faces the biggest hidden threat, it doesn’t stop there. By 2020 we are unlikely to have many youth services at all in England. Have you ever needed help with managing debt or resolving a financial dispute? Well, access to Legal Aid will be a distant memory and so with it any notion of equality of justice. Got a debt problem or need financial advice? Depending on where you live, you may have to begin queuing at 6am to see someone, or you may have nowhere at all to go and get advice as Citizens’ Advice Bureaux across the country see their funding slashed.
Changes to housing benefits mean that many of those who are on a low income and rent their home will be forced to rent in the private sector and see their incomes stretch to breaking point, or move out of the area they live in, widening social inequalities. Some 50,000 families are currently accepted as homeless, a number which has risen by almost 50% in the past year. If this trend continues, we could expect many hundreds of thousands of families likely to be living in temporary accommodation by 2020, with devastating consequences for the lives of those individuals.
Through this complex combination of cuts and welfare an entire layer of infrastructure and support is being taken out the state: your needs have to be more acute to access support, and the safety net of support for when times are toughest is starting to develop some gaping holes. What is more, we are only two years into at least five of sustained cuts in public funding. Some projections suggest that austerity is here to stay for at least a decade, and in the past few weeks we have heard of a further £10 billion in Welfare reductions. By 2020, will we have any safety net left at all?