“Cost of living crisis”? No – it’s a social emergency that will define who we are | John Harris

Iexie lives in rural North Wales. She is disabled and her husband recently lost his construction job. The heating and hot water in their social housing is oil-fired, and the price of 500 liters of fuel oil has just risen from £235 to £480. They have also just discovered that their annual electricity costs drop from £1,851.15 to £2,564.33. Their four sons are between 8 and 18 years old. They haven’t turned on the radiators in their house since last November.

I first wrote about Lexie — not her real name, but the one she used to write journal entries for a research project called Covid Realities — in January. About 10 days ago we had another conversation. She talked about squeezing multiple meals out of the cheapest ingredients (she’d managed to get five dinners out of a bag of 11 pieces of frozen chicken), washing with hot boiled water on the stove, and traps endless finances that she and her family must now somehow try to avoid.

Lexie has a mobility vehicle provided as part of her disability benefits, but the skyrocketing cost of diesel means it must be used mainly for the school trip. Lately, her husband has been offered a few job interviews, but finds that the impossible cost of travel has put them off: local public transport is scarce in the area, and anyway, the nearest bus stop near is three kilometers from their house. Visits to the supermarket must be carefully rationed, but this involves buying the basics at the local convenience store, where everything is more expensive. Lexie is most worried, she says, about her youngest child, who has asthma. His coughing spells are sometimes so strong that he vomits. “It’s because he’s cold,” she told me. “I know he is. But I can’t do anything. I can’t extract heat from the air.

The kind of longing and suffering that Lexie’s family suffers from can seem to place them on the fringes of society. The truth is, there are millions of Britons just like them, and those numbers are growing fast. A striking measure is the UK’s absolute poverty level, which is defined as household income below 60% of the 2010-11 median income level, adjusted for inflation – a measure that does not generally increase than in times of recession. The Resolution Foundation predicts that over the next year falling real incomes will mean that 1.3 million more people in the UK – including 500,000 children – will be pushed into this category, bringing the total number to 12 ,5000000.

Has the scale of this social emergency already been taken into account? Last Friday was the day the costs of some of life’s most basic things – from gas and electricity to social housing rents – soared, well over a 3.1% increase % benefits. As food prices continue to rise, energy bills are expected to rise further in the fall. Ongoing cuts to local services, accelerated by inflation, mean that the last resort help so many need – social support for children, advice on housing and debt, and much more – is in a more precarious state than ever. As Lexie’s experiences show, almost a third of people with disabilities live in poverty, an aspect of the story that gets far too little attention. Abstractions such as “the cost of living crisis” do not do enough justice to the growing sense of dread of 2022; nor is the cliché that people have to choose between heating and eating, when many people soon won’t be able to afford it.

Across the country this weekend, protests erupted against a new economic calamity imposed on the poorest people, and there will be more to come. The government, meanwhile, seems torn between indifference and paralyzed panic. Although Rishi Sunak’s spring statement did not offer any significant action, the ensuing backlash has sparked speculation that help may come late as things get worse. But Conservative politics is still largely locked into this grim narrative that divides people into workers and plain seekers, even as the sheer number of lives upended by the rising cost of living undermines its twisted logic. Labor unquestionably has good intentions, but also tends to stick to a “working families” centered script, probably for fear of scaring off swing voters whom it sees as self-judgmental. -saying well-being. It leaves too many people out of the political conversation and vulnerable to the nastiest policies.

One thing we seldom talk about is when and how fundamental difficulties began to become so unavoidable. In the much-maligned 1970s, when unions were powerful and the welfare state was entering its final years as a reliable safety net, income and wealth inequality were at historic lows – and although poverty being a problem, she had not yet be allowed to run rampant. Then came the reinvention of conservatism under Margaret Thatcher. In 1979, about 13% of children lived in relative poverty; in 1992, this figure was 29%. It steadily declined under New Labour, before rising again after 2010. Thanks to David Cameron and George Osborne, ‘welfare’ rhetoric reached a new nadir, and politics followed the same trajectory. At the same time, the type of precarious work that locks people into poverty has been allowed to increase dramatically. The basic story was quite simple: the UK was once again moved away from any lingering affinity with European-style social democracy towards the market-oriented individualism of the United States, and the idea that it is better to ignore poverty or treat it as a character flaw.

But there has always been a tendency in the opposite direction, towards solidarity and collectivism rooted not so much in ideology as in basic morality. Beyond Westminster, this view is now evident in the wider culture, thanks to voices such as footballer Marcus Rashford and cook and anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe. Public opinion seems to have shifted, thanks in part to the pandemic which has familiarized more people with the benefit system and exposed stark inequalities. In the annual British Social Attitudes Survey 2011, 77% agreed that benefits for the unemployed were ‘too high and discouraged people from getting jobs’, as opposed to saying they were ‘too low and caused difficulties”. But in the latest survey that figure had fallen to 45% – the first time since 2000 that he was the least popular of the two views. This, perhaps, underlines why Sunak’s indifference has become a much bigger topic of discussion than he anticipated.

In the midst of a new crisis, we are about to find out who we are now: either the nasty, tough country that many politicians still believe in, or a society that is moving in a more compassionate direction. Who will decide? I wonder about Tory MPs representing newly won seats in the old Labor heartland, whose constituency workload must increasingly be filled with real hardship; there must also be plenty of voters who have long thought they were seated away from the poorer sections of the population, but now see those distinctions disappearing. There is both bleak hope and yet another injustice here – because the people who should surely have the loudest voices are those who have suffered for years and are now facing a level of need that is almost at beyond words.

Julio V. Miller