Inequality and insecurity in UK households
This is the first in a series of ten SPERI Comments on the theme of rethinking recovery. In this introductory post the authors warn that measurements of, and debates about, economic recovery in the UK have tended to overlook deepening inequality along the lines of class, gender, race, ability, age and sexuality.
Whether the UK has ‘achieved’ recovery or not depends on whom you ask, how you phrase the question, and what is at stake for them in providing a particular answer. To say that the very nature of recovery is contested is a rather large understatement. For some, recovery has been achieved because the growth rate of GDP has been restored, although even here less sanguine commentators have pointed out that growth still relies heavily on debt-driven consumer spending, house price inflation and asset bubbles.
For others, a continued dependence on finance-led growth is not recovery because there has not been a rebalancing of the UK economy away from its dependence on finance and services toward manufacturing, nor a revitalisation of sectors of the economy dominated by small and medium-sized enterprises. Indeed, the sheer variety of perspectives and variables used to measure recovery highlights the difficulty of discerning whether the UK is moving out of – or into – a prolonged stagnation.
Largely ignored even by such critical accounts is the reality that political and economic policies associated with ‘recovery’ in the UK have deepened inequality and exclusion along the overlapping lines of class, gender, race, ability, age and sexuality. Sweeping welfare reforms, for instance, are disproportionately targeting women and low-income couples with children, with particularly dire consequences for single mothers. The newly imposed ‘bedroom tax’ – which has reduced housing benefits for thousands of tenants, while requiring many thousands more to transfer to smaller homes – has had especially devastating consequences for disabled tenants, who have lost homes adapted to support their disability.
One key reason that these social, financial, and emotional costs of recovery remain hidden is that the typically narrow focus on national level of debts, deficits, taxes and expenditure tends to overlook changes at the micro-level of the household and daily life. It is here that the human costs and broader social challenges of recovery become apparent. For many, rising hunger forces individuals and families to choose between heating and eating; employment has become so precarious and poorly paid that even those with jobs are struggling to pay bills; and still others are trapped in abusive forced labour relations, which have become endemic in certain UK industries.
In short, the UK’s economic ‘recovery’ has come at a high social, emotional and financial cost for those who can least afford it, while leaving the wealthy to stockpile ever-larger sums of cash. We can expect these tendencies to become even more pronounced under the deepening austerity agenda of the new Conservative government, unless a counter-narrative can elucidate the true human costs of this growth model and inspire action towards an alternative.
We believe that an important starting point in developing a coherent critique of austerity lies in documenting and analysing the growing insecurity and inequality spurred by policies designed to achieve economic recovery. This series of posts will contribute to this urgent task. Grounded in an analysis of recovery’s hidden costs at the level of everyday life, it will hone in on the profound shifts that austerity is sparking in UK households and in the UK labour market. It is linked to, and supported by, an Economic and Social Research Council seminar series grant, ‘’From REcovery to DIScovery: Opening the debate on alternatives to financialisation’.
The first half of the series – launched today, and proceeding via four weekly instalments to be published over the next month or so – draws together posts investigating the impact of austerity on households, including pieces on the gendered impact of universal credit, intergenerational inequality, and how the companies in the ‘recovery industry’ are profiting from deepening poverty and inequality.
The second half of the series will resume in June 2016, again with five weekly instalments, and will tackle the impact of recovery policies on the UK labour market, including posts on forced labour, the impact of recovery policy on wages and working conditions, and deepening gendered and racial inequality within paid and unpaid labour.
The overall aim of the series is to move the political project of economic re-imaginations forward by capturing and analysing everyday consequences of austerity, exposing differentiated experiences of it, and drawing attention to the driving forces of these hidden costs in national and global economic and political policies and logics. The series will enable us not only to understand the scale of developing economic and policy contradictions but also the crisis dynamics themselves and the social and political struggle over the direction of recovery.
Finally, we hope that the series of posts will begin to chart new ways of thinking and even develop some new mid-level policies that move us beyond the failures of austerity. These will include policies that address corporate and labour market governance, as well as wealth redistribution, and will seek to stimulate UK prosperity in a more equitable way.