by Mary O’Hara
When I began travelling the country in October 2012 as part of a Joseph Rowntree Foundation/Locality project aimed at documenting the impact of austerity I knew already that the government’s cuts drive was hitting people hard. How could I not?
Barely a day had passed since May 2010 after the coalition government came to power when there wasn’t a report of cuts to public services, to jobs, to the benefits upon which so many of our most vulnerable citizens rely.
We were told time and again by government – and to an extent the Opposition too – that the financial pain was necessary, that we were “all in this together” and that the government would aim for fairness in how it implemented its austerity programme. Of course what we now know – and what became clearer with each visit I made to a number of organisations all over the UK in 2012 and 2013 – was that austerity policies were not fair, did not affect everyone and, put simply, were wreaking havoc on individuals, families, communities, and the voluntary groups often left to pick up the pieces.
From Hull to Glasgow, to Sussex to Northumberland and beyond I spoke to people at the sharp end of austerity policies. A number of things struck me – not least of which was the growing hardship confronting people as they took hit after hit from policy after policy. From the now infamous Bedroom Tax to the loss of Sure Start programmes, to council tax benefit changes and benefits sanctions the list of dire outcomes just grew and grew. Debts were piling up, families were buckling under the pressure of less money to live on, disabled people were reeling from a series of measures including back to work assessments that saw thousands wrongly – and stressfully – classified as ‘fit for work’.
Visit after visit the misery mounted. People all over the country were increasingly living in fear of what each new policy brought. At the beginning of 2014, as I was finishing the book based on my austerity journey and the talk from government was of the economy finally turning a corner, it was apparent that it was a ‘recovery’ for the few while millions remained unemployed, under-employed, on low-pay in ‘Zero-hour’ contracts, and denied vital benefits. For those reliant on social care the savage cuts to local government funding still in the pipeline as 2014 dawned induced a whole new level fear. Indeed, as organisations such as the Centre for Welfare Reform were pointing out, with austerity tightening its grip it was clear that local authorities were running out of options to protect ‘frontline’ services. Disabled people, elderly people – indeed anyone needing access to social care – were doubly fearful of what the future might hold.
During my journey I spoke to many in the voluntary organisations helping people affected by cuts and welfare reforms. They, along with campaigners, were doing an incredible job to highlight the pain being inflicted and were challenging the toxic narrative that those who were in difficulty as a result of austerity were ‘scroungers’ or skivers’. Now, one year before the 2015 general election critical questions hang in the air: Does the wider public fully grasp the damage austerity has unleashed? And what are they going to do about it?
Mary O’Hara’s book Austerity Bites: A journey to the sharp end of cuts in the UK, published May 2014, is available with 20% discount from http://www.policypress.co.uk.
Mary O’Hara is a Fulbright Scholar and award-winning social affairs journalist. She regularly writes for the Guardian newspaper.