On 17 May 2004, American comedian Bill Cosby delivered his famous “Pound Cake Speech” in which he castigated the “lower economic people” of the black race for their criminal behaviour, their clothes, their names, their poor parenting skills and their tattoos. Each acerbic attack by Cosby on poor African Americans was punctuated with the applause and laughter of the predominantly black middle class audience present at the event. In the aftermath of the attack, Professor Michael Eric Dyson, an American sociologist, criticised Cosby for his “Blame The Poor Tour”. He was also critical of the black middle class of America who were supportive of Cosby’s comments. A year later, Dyson wrote a book titled “Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has The Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?” which was a critic on Bill Cosby and the Black middle class condescending attitude towards poor African Americans.
A similar scene is playing out in the United Kingdom where David Cameron’s government is embarking on one of the biggest assaults on the poor since the introduction of the Poor Laws in 1834. Cameron and his government are not alone in their treatment of the marginalised of British society as he is joined by the so-called British middle class (white and non-white) who are supportive of his government’s policies against the poor. This article discusses the consequences of Cameron’s assault on the marginalised.
When David Cameron was elected in 2010 in the thick of the Great Recession, he was confronted with the task of solving Britain’s slowing economy, fixing its deteriorating fiscal position and reducing the nation’s debt burden. In using austerity as the weapon of choice to address the problems, Cameron applied a strange formula – despite the government’s claim that “We are all in this together”, the burden of pain was loaded onto the bent and broken backs of what Franz Fanon called the “Wretched of the earth.” There was a two-fold attack on the poor via words in the form of “scrounger” rhetoric and by deeds in the form of welfare reforms. In supporting his crusade against the poor, Cameron said, “Seeing these reforms through is at the heart of our long-term economic plan and it is at the heart of our social and moral mission in politics today.”
The government, with the support of the British media, developed a narrative which shifted the blame of Britain’s economic predicament from the financial institutions that caused the crisis to the poor and migrants. In selling its welfare reforms, government officials turned to the use of fables and myths about the poor as words such as “skivers” and “scroungers” began dripping from their lips. We began hearing time and time again about a generation of workless families; people pretending to be disabled so as to claim disability allowances; immigrants coming to the UK because of its generous benefit programme; huge families with hordes of children living on benefits and George Osborne’s much quoted phrase of the unemployed sitting behind the “closed blinds ….. sleeping off a life on benefits.”
Although Cameron’s policies have targeted a wide variation of people on the margins of British society, I will devote this section to its impact on the “infamous five”, comprising the hungry, the child, the disabled, the homeless and the foreigner.
The Infamous Five
As a consequence of the government’s “moral case for welfare reform,” there has been a rise in the number of people visiting foodbanks. Prior to Cameron’s premiership, foodbank usage was at 41,000; however since the implementation of his austerity measures, the number has increased exponentially to 129,000 in 2011, 347,000 in 2013 and is estimated to top 1 million in 2014/15. According to Trussell Trust, the food charity, almost half of the people who visit foodbanks have done so due to changes or delays in their benefits. What’s been the government’s response? It chooses to deny the linkage between its welfare reforms and the increase in foodbanks.
The government’s austerity cuts, though mainly imposed on adults, have also negatively impacted children. According to the Children Society, children are seven times more likely to be affected by benefit caps than adults. A government briefing on the impact of benefit cap noted that nearly 330,000 children from poor families would be affected. As a consequence of these cuts, child poverty is at elevated levels. Child Poverty Action Group argues that a total of a million children could be pushed into poverty by 2020 due to Cameron’s welfare reforms.
Despite these warnings, the government is in denial about the prevalence of child poverty. They recently discontinued the use of relative poverty as a basis for calculating child poverty even though Cameron endorsed the measure when he was leader of the opposition. The new approach downplays the contribution of low family income to child poverty. To top this off the government has also decided to completely eradicate the term “Child Poverty” from the political lexicon. For instance, the Child Poverty Act is to be renamed the Life Chances Act while the Child Poverty and Social Mobility Commission is to be renamed Social Mobility Commission. As at the time of writing, it was revealed that the government plans to scrap free school meals for infants.
One of the most vulnerable groups impacted by Cameron’s policies are people living with disabilities, many who have seen their disability allowances slashed. The government’s Work Capability Assessment programme, which was previously managed by Atos, saw people who were severely ill pressurised to go back to work. A coalition of disabled people’s organisations and charities noted that 78% of the 4,500 people they surveyed said their health deteriorated as a result of the stress caused by undergoing a work capability assessment for employment and support allowance. It should therefore come as no surprise that a number of claimants have died shortly after being passed fit to work. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) initially blocked the release of statistics showing the correlation between deaths and withdrawal of benefits while the Minister for Disabled People defended the DWP for ignoring the linkage between deaths and benefit withdrawals. When the report was finally released, it was discovered that between December 2011 and February 2014, 2,380 disabled people had died after being told that they were fit for work and another 7,200 died after they were informed that they might have to return to work in the future.
The homeless have also been caught up the government’s “moralising mission”. Homelessness is in the ascendency partly because councils have been pressurised to implement cuts. A research carried out by Crisis, the homelessness charity, noted that the government’s welfare reform was the main contributory factor to the increase in homelessness since the economic recovery. The cuts to housing benefits have also led to the displacement of the poor from communities where they have developed deep rooted ties such as in London, which is gradually becoming a “poor exclusion zone”. The demolition of council estates to make way for more unaffordable buildings (described as affordable by government officials) is also driving poor families out of London. Some councils have resulted to stealth measures to get rid of poor Londoners such as the Tory-led Wandsworth Council’s £7,000 offer to council tenants to move from London to Birmingham. According to Shelter, around 100,000 households could face homelessness throughout Britain due to the government’s welfare caps.
Under pressure to meet its immigration target, Cameron’s government has set its gaze on migrants. Government officials have demonised the migrant population through its description of refugees and migrants as swarms, marauders, benefit cheats and benefit tourists. Some people of colour have seen government sponsored vehicles ply their streets with the inscription, “GO HOME OR FACE ARREST”. The world watched in disbelief as the British government turned its back on refugees risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean in search of a safer life, only for it to make a U-turn after the image of a dead Syrian boy was flashed on the front page of the very newspapers that had previously joined the government in dehumanising refugees. In effect the government’s immigration policy has created a hostile atmosphere towards immigrants similar to the fifties and sixties when signs like “No Niggers, No Wogs, No Dogs” greeted black immigrants looking for accommodation.
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Ahmed Sule is a CFA Charterholder, Chartered Accountant, photojournalist and social critic. He also obtained a Certificate in Photojournalism at the University of Arts London. He has also worked on various photojournalism projects including Obama: The Impact, Jesus Christ: The Impact, and The Williams Sisters. He cites Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, Kwame Nkrumah and W.E. Du Bois as his major influences. Find him on Twitter @Alatenumo
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