Sanctions, Starvation, and Clawbacks in England’s Universal Credit

crowd files in early as 40 plus members and friends settled in for the show

Bristol      The “beast of the east” weather front roaring from Siberia to the United Kingdom was collecting front page headlines as it dumped snow on southern England, trapping some people in stuck trains for 12 or more hours and worse.  Coming from Paris, I had hoped to escape the storm, but waking up early I found a note that my plane was cancelled, and I needed to figure out a way to hop a train to get to Bristol.  The Eurostar under the Chunnel was pretty straightforward, but getting a train to Bristol had me standing open-mouthed in Paddington station looking at one train after another cancelled to Bristol Temple Meads, only solved by the Great Western Railway people having me – and many others – jump a train that was going through to Bridgend in Wales:  standing room only!  Snow everywhere, but it seemed to be receding, until we left the station, starving and popped into a huge Weatherspoon’s, one of the conglomerate pub operations, and found that they were out of food.  In fact, so was KFC and one place after another.  The beast had brought everything to a standstill.

The show must go on, and we had another packed house, approaching fifty ACORN Bristol members and supports at the Barton Heights Settlement House with a full complement of members handling tickets (47 presold with only 8 no-shows, so beast beware!), concessions, and production, no translation necessary.

getting set at the Barton Heights Settlement House

One of the most interesting questions came later at a curry house after the show, and focused on the emerging crisis for lower income families involving England’s new welfare and benefits scheme, “universal credit,” as it is called.  This has been in the making for quite some time, but in one pilot and rollout after another, the fierceness of this war against the poor, is being implemented, and Bristol in now counting the days when it is phased in here.  Without getting too far into the weeds on the policy prescriptions, universal credit, as argued by the government, seeks to consolidate all of the benefits into one check, while at the same time lowering benefits, increasing work requirements, and making receipt and continuation of benefits more difficult.

In talking with the organizers about how to confront this program and organize beneficiaries, two of its provisions already being implemented seemed more out of a Charles Dickens novel and the horrors of Victorian poverty, than modern England.  The first is the abnormal delay in receiving benefits once qualified:  six weeks.  Of course, you ask, how would anyone make it six weeks without money?  Here the punitiveness of the program becomes predatory.  The government allows you to borrow some from your future check, so that even once you are established the recipient is “paying back” their own benefit money.  Who thinks this stuff up?  Furthermore, since ACORN is a tenants’ union in the United Kingdom as well, we have been flooded with cases where the landlords triggered the forced “loans,” because they were unwilling to wait for their rent money until the tenant received their checks in six weeks.

organized signup and books table

It gets worse though.  Organizers were telling me about families who had gotten “sanctions” for even the most minor situations, like missing a case officer meeting or a work appointment with a sick child or their own illness.  The sanctions are no hand slap.  I heard of one for 6 weeks for a missed appointment, and another who was barred for two years.  No money, no housing subsidy, no nothing.  The entire policy seems designed to create homelessness and complete destitution.

The clawbacks are also amazing down to forced refunds and potential penalties if a claimant doesn’t report money from pawning something or selling an old couch in desperation.  Getting a little work to survive, means not only clawbacks, but even worse sanctions if discovered.

On this war against the poor in Britain, there’s going to be a body count, visible on the streets, unless we – and others – can organize recipients to demand basic human rights to life itself.

Bristol ACORN even had snacks and treats just like a real cinema

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Breadlines: The Impact of Budget Cuts on Citizen Wealth

Growing Poverty in London, picture from Breadlines Series in the Guardian

Toronto   If anyone really wants to know what the impact of Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget proposals, Tea Party harangues, and Republic policy propositions would be for working people, it might be worth taking a look at the impact of the current austerity program in Britain under the conservative government there.  A friend in Toronto sent me a note about the “Breadlines” series currently running in the Guardian, which is a sad and tragic eye opener about what happens when politics of cutbacks is implemented.

Make no mistake, these measures are frontal attacks on the efforts of working families, albeit making lower wages, to build any citizen wealth or income security.  Statistics released last week in the USA indicate that family wealth has now fallen to a bit over $100,000 per white household, around $7500 for Hispanic households, and hardly $5000 for African-American households:  a 20-1 gap racially!  No small part of this has been the unaddressed loss of home value which is the key factor in citizen wealth for the majority of working families.  Given the ongoing housing crisis this should not be a surprise, but it still is a shock for those living there, and more pain is being proposed.

In the attack on working families, Britain has already “been there and done that.”  An article in The Guardian series lays out the problem:

The last year has been one of the most difficult in living memory for Britain’s households. The economy continues to falter, and few have enjoyed a pay rise – which, with the spike in the cost of living means millions of wages have fallen in real terms. Employers try to avoid sacking employees by cutting their hours instead – sometimes pushing workers below the requisite number of hours at which they can claim tax credits – and the government has introduced an £18bn programme of welfare cuts.

Living standards have plummeted for many but, say charities, the group that has been particularly hit are those in low-paid or insecure employment. Those on benefits see their income rise in line with inflation but last week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed the sharpest one-year fall in middle incomes since 1981, reversing five years of growth in a single year.

Outnumbering the 5.5 million working-age adults already living in poverty in the UK – officially defined as households with incomes of less than 60% of the median average – those suffering in-work poverty include couples without children who have a gross annual household income of between £12,000 and £29,000, and couples with two children on £17,000 to £41,000.

18 billion pounds in welfare benefit cuts is a huge blow as well.  Amazingly, it is based on something called a “work capability assessment” to see who qualifies and who doesn’t.  For some reason the British contracted that task out to a French outfit, and the process is caught in constant appeals over denial of benefits in what is now a draconian system:

At the centre of the controversy is the work capability assessment (WSA), the test carried out in the UK by the French healthcare firm Atos that is designed to identify people on incapacity benefit who are “fit for work”. Critics say it fails to pick up complex and fluctuating conditions such as mental health. It is widely feared by vulnerable claimants – and for those who are found fit for work, it can trigger a long, stressful cycle of appeals.

What a nightmare!  Coming to a home near yours soon.

Job Centre in London

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