1. As Tories arrive in Brum, 5 reasons to take to the streets this Sunday

    1. Rising child poverty now standing at 34% - and it’s going to get worse

    In a report submitted to Birmingam City Council this September, the Birmingham Voluntary Services Council (BVSC) presented evidence from 17 local charitable and non-profit organisations that changes in benefits will mean another climb in child poverty. Low income families are being hit from all angles, including cuts to tax credits for those in employment, high unemployment and job cuts, and cuts to the services which improve health such as sports facilties, free school meals, and Sure Start Centres. While tax cuts at the top mean even more spare money for the elite our coalition support to spend on their children, Birmingham has more children in poverty than any other local authority.

    2. Youth unemployment at just under 50K - with cuts to education, youth housing and jobs

    Youth unemployment in Birmingham currently stands at just under 50,000. While there is much talk of improving chances for young people, the opportunities in terms of education and employment are shrinking. In education, low income students are being hit by the removal of EMA in FE, and here as elsewhere the introduction of £9k per year fees in higher education are shutting working class young people out of the system. Changes to housing benefits mean vulnerable young people are being put at risk - I spoke to LGBT activists at this year’s Pride who reported they are hearing from a number of young LGBT adults who fear being forced to return to abusive family homes as a result of the changes, which will strip the right to independent housing from under 25s. There has been a 32% increase in homelessness in the city over the last year, with 4,574 young people reporting as officially homeless.

    3. Foodbanks reporting pregnant women skipping meals, and huge rise in working poor coming for help

    Earlier this year, Gateway Family Services, a local non-profit organisation,reported how bad conditions are getting for families they work with - with pregnant women skipping meals because they cannot afford to eat. Birmingham foodbanks are finding big increases in the numbers of people forced to rely on this kind of support just to get by. For some, the service provides a lifeline in a time where we have high levels of unemployment, household debt, and escalating costs of living. Many people coming to charities are actually employed but still struggling under coalition cuts which have seen low income households hit hard, with worse to come as we move over to the Universal Benefits system. Meanwhile, huge multinational organisations are getting cheap labour subsidised by the tax-payer in the form of low waged staff, with massive profits and bonuses for those at the top.

    4. Cuts to domestic violence services mean local women’s lives are being lost

    Birmingham has been hit hard by the national 30% cut to domestic violence spending. Earlier this year I attended a conference at Birmingham University where DV organisations reported on the impact austerity is having on local women (and men) - and the picture is very very bleak. Anyone who works in domestic violence can tell you that one of the most difficult issues support workers face is in helping survivors to make the decision to leave an abusive partner. What we have in Coalition Birmingham is a situation where survivors who make this decision are being turned away. In April, Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid reported that waiting lists for services have nearly trebled from 100 to 270 since 2010, with only half of women who seek help able to get space in refuges. The cuts to DV services are being compounded by cuts to other services including the police and social services. As well as a cut to support, the increase in poverty and unemployment is correlated with increased violence in the home - so there are more survivors seeking help.

    5. Government attacks on the disabled, including ATOS quack assessments, cuts to benefits, and the closure of 3 local Remploy factories

    This April, a Birmingham man, Paul Turner, died of a serious hear condition: just weeks after being deemed fit to work by ATOS assessment. He is just one of a huge number of disabled people whose lives have been lost in the ongoing ESA reform process, which has seen the terminally ill stripped of benefits and massive ignorance about mental illness which I believe will lead if it continues in the long term to increases in institutionalisation. Birmingham charities and non-profit organisations warn that changes from DLA to PIP will have a huge detrimental effect on local disabled people, leading to decreased mobility, more social isolation, loss of financial autonomy which increases the potential of abuse, fuel poverty, inability to finance care in the home, and increase in mental health problems as a result of stress. At the same time as this is taking place, the same governemt which seek to stigmatise the disabled as “workshy” and “scroungers” through their policies and the media are axing 3 Remploy factories locally - effectively getting rid of the biggest local provider of employment designed around meeting the needs of disabled people.

    Children, young people, the working poor, domestic violence survivors and the disabled: Our government is attacking the weak to keep the money flowing in from the powerful, and the picture in Birmingham tells us the devastating impact these policies are having on people. It it time to stand up against austerity. Join the demo in Birmingham this Sunday to tell the Conservative Party we do not accept what they are doing to the vulnerable, we do not accept the ongoing failed economic policies of neo-liberalism, and we do not welcome them to our city.



  2. Return of the breadwinner: how government reforms are attacking social autonomy

    If there is one thing this government really does not and has made no effort to understand, it is the concept of autonomy.

    What is autonomy? The concept of independence, freedom, the right to make decisions about yourself and the things which happen to you. It has been totally overlooked in changes to disability benefits which seek to make people financially dependent on carers - totally blind to the possibility that abuse is a human demon which may be aggravated by poverty but which cuts all the way across the class system. Certainly blind to the idea that a disability should not be something which takes away your power to make decisions about your life: that as well as being physically dependent on others in terms of mobility you should not also be deprived the capital to make choices on a day-to-day basis.

    In a similar way, the ending of universal child benefits may seem fair in the sense that it does not give to those who already have a great deal of money at the expense of spending funds elsewhere. However, this should also be viewed quite critically - not just because universal benefits encourage popular support of welfare, but also from an equality point of view, it may represent a cutting off of agency for women who, while we may see them as pampered, still represent part of the equality battle in terms of what society teaches about access to control of resources.

    As has been pointed out elsewhere, huge amounts of reform which are taking place at the moment are subtley (or not so subtley) pushing us backwards as a society towards norms of male breadwinners and dependent housewives: whilst the child benefits cut off will impact at the top, the big reverberations of the changes will happen strongest at the bottom, where poverty and cultural hoplessness in the face of mass unemployment cut off access to education and the empowerment it brings. Changes to working tax credits - which it has been revealed have unsurprisingly not resulted in employers magicking up extra hours to push part time staff up to the 24 hour cut off, leaving 200K low income families worse off - are seemingly totally oblivious to the idea that a family where paid employment is shared amongst partners is a situation far more conducive to equality in terms of access to capital and therefore decision making than a push back to a dominant earner model.

    A society which regresses to a model of supporters and the supported - pushing access of capital from a state recognition of need to a domestic choice of allowance - is not a society which encourages social participation, citizenship, or ultimately progress. A society which denies autonomy denies equality, and denies freedom. It is a sad indicator of the value we put on human existence, equating worth to usefulness to the powerful. It is something we should be watching very carefully, and something which is going to lead to some very big battles.

  3. 350k children to lose school dinners while elite dine in luxury

    The Children’s society have today warned that benefits reform will mean that around 350K children will no longer be entitled to free school meals: those where the household earns over £7500 a year.

    This demonstrates a further smack in the face for the UK’s working poor, in the sense that it will mean an increased weekly shop (or meals cost) in a time of high VAT and a rising cost of living. The coalition talk the talk of rewarding the UK’s working families, but the reality is that this move will actually make it more beneficial to take an hours cut or a pay cut, which is nonsensical. Cameron wants to show millions of working class voters that in spite of his privileged upbringing he understands their needs and wants to give them a society which gives a fair return for their work ethic. But what is he actually doing to prove it? He won’t raise minimum wage to a living level, because it is easier to placate big business and keep people in the position of believing they have to bow to the hand that feeds by putting money in the context of benefits (tax credits etc) rather than actual return for their labour in the form of wages. Osborne may have raised the bottom tax bracket (which did nothing for those already under it, and has to be interpreted in the context of inflation, loss of public services, benefits cuts etc to be assessed fairly), but now it seems they are going to attempt to claw some of the money used to pay for the raising tax threshold designed to publicly show increased fairness for this group.

    Whether children come from the families of the working poor, or from the unemployed (and it has to be remembered that in the current economic climate many of these are the result of austerity policy rather than the generational benefits culture the right wing press like to emphasise), they are already being treated as undeserving as a result of their parents economic status and position in society. And whilst right wing psychological analysis likes to dwell on the role of “entitlement culture” to support the idea of taking benefits away, there is no logical evidence to suggest depriving children of what is statistically their most nutritious and sustaining meal of the day will do anything to encourage them into social mobility. Even if you believe that the low paid and unemployed are entirely responsible for their lot, and need to be kicked away from dependency to become “wealth creators”, there is no logic whatsoever in assuming a child should go without a nourishing meal as a result of their parents  actions. Yet again, the youngest are being used as pawns in a political strategy to reinforce the narrative of the undeserving poor which keeps the current inequalities in place, and while it happens, our public school elite continue to dine in luxury. 

    Please sign the Children’s Society petition for free school meals for all children in poverty here: http://action.childrenssociety.org.uk/page/signup/fair-and-square-free-school-meals-campaign

  4. Four Big Problems with the Big Society

    As evidence from charities such as Save the Children grows ( http://goo.gl/sNQha ) that relative and absolute poverty in the UK are on the rise, I’ve been thinking about this Big Idea of the Big Society: the plan that in the face of austerity cuts, our collective love for one another as a species would step in and fill in the gaps. I think the problems with the concept in terms of its usefulness in developing us positively as a society can be grouped into four main issues.

    1. The concept of Big Society is psychologically incompatible with the neo-liberalism it seeks to supplement

    The idea of Big Society is based on the idea that humans have a great capacity for coming together and helping one another, sharing skills and resources. I believe this to be true, but it is not encouraged by the dominant ideology of neo-liberalism and the impact this has on the psychological mindset of the people needed to put in the social labour for it to work. In overt and covert ways, we are encouraged to be individualistic, a trait which has been on the rise since at least the days of Thatcher. This ideology is supported in at least three ways:

    • Firstly, in our socialisation process, which rewards competitiveness far more than collective behaviour from early on in the classroom and raises us to view ourselves as primarily consumers and workers.
    • Secondly in terms of the messages given out by the government about the need for valid contributions to be in place for a person to be deserving of support or care: this is implicit in the welfare reform which has been taking place and is also written into the language of mainstream political dialogue.
    • Thirdly, in the explicit language of the tabloid press, which uses the terminology of “benefits scroungers” “bogus asylum seekers” etc in a way in which valid needs are dismissed and need itself is programmed to be associated with selfishness in the collective consciousness.

    2. The “Big Society” label is just terminology rather than action planning, and refers to social labour which was already in place

    The concept of the Big Society is really just middle (or upper, considering its origins) class language for social labour and exchanges which were already in place prior to the arrival of the coalition. It is a nonsense to assume that people did not already give their time and resources to look out for others within their family and community others, and the sticking on of a new label to this process without serious consideration of what needs to happen (which as above should look at the rise of individualism if it is going to be thorough) to encourage those who don’t help others is just going to put more labour on to those who are already providing it, without giving them any extra time or money to do it with. As a business model, it is a nonsense.

    3.The Big Society is at best a gap filler and will prove a false economy in terms of the long term social problems it will lead to and the financial impact these will have on society

    By cutting the funding for social and care related labour in the community we are removing the experience and skills of existing providers and the impact these can have in terms of long term social change. Where charities and community groups and members are stepping in, they are doing so at a stretched point where they have to concentrate on short term need rather than being able to build for social change. An impoverished community which is delivered food parcels can survive, but for the individuals in the community to have the skills and opportunities to grow out of poverty, they need more, and stretched and sometimes untrained providers are not able to give it to them.

    4. Big Society is implicitly Anti-Equality, and so hinders rather than building for a meritocracy

    Big Society is implicitly anti-equality in at least two ways.

    • Firstly, it is regressive, an ideological step back which devalues traditionally feminine labour (care, provision of food, nursing, counseling) as something which people should be obliged to give as a (often gendered) social responsibility rather than a valuable skill which should be paid accordingly.
    • Secondly, the reliance on charity is a big issue in that it frames social care needs as “naturally” low priority: it is implied that funding for military defense programs, tax breaks for business  and other state spending priorities are in some way “essential” where as social care is an add on for a functioning society and something we can make our own minds up as individuals about whether to contribute or not. This culturally specific funding decision reproduces existing power imbalances within society.

    Both of these issues are bad news for social equality, which is in turn bad news for the realisation of a meritocracy (where people fill social roles, professional positions etc according to their abilities).

    The Big Society is proving to be a Big Waffle and essentially has only functioned to distract from the compassion still lacking today in modern conservatism.

  5. Birmingham Food Crisis: unseen absolute poverty sees pregnant mothers missing meals

    We were really struggling. It really did get to the point where we just didn’t know how we were going to cope. It was literally pick one thing and do that, a case of either stay warm or eat.”

    (Michaela, a Birmingham mother helped by Gateway Family Services Pregnancy Outreach Team, talks to ITV news, Wednesday 11th April 2012)

    Usually when people talk about poverty in the UK they are referring to relative poverty. A person classed as relatively impoverished is significantly below average in wealth, meaning they are economically unable to participate fully in society. High levels of relative poverty indicate high levels of social inequality, which as has been argued in Wilkinson and Pickett’s 2009 book The Spirit Level are linked to a variety of negative problems in society. Relative poverty impacts on things like physical health, mental well-being, educational and career opportunities.

    However, absolute poverty - meaning that a person is unable to fulfil their minimum physical needs such as food, drink and shelter - occurs in the UK also, and it is on the rise. Most people are completely unaware of the extent to which this exists, or the ways in which the current economic climate is impacting on some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Media coverage of two organisations working in Birmingham have been eye-opening in showing how absolute poverty is a growing problem for the city.

    Gateway Family Services are a non-profit community interest company who work in innovative ways to improve health, develop skills and opportunities and fight inequalities. In the last few days they have been instrumental in highlighting the real deprivation being fought by their pregnancy outreach team. They have set up a food bank in response to the reality that many pregnant women using their services were missing meals for days at a time. Clearly this is a great concern: malnutrition in pregnancy can have a devastating impact for both mother and baby, including obstructed labour, increased risk of premature birth &/or low birth weight (linked to infant mortality, growth retardation and infant illness), and increased risk of anaemia in pregnancy (which is linked to mortality in labour). They are not by any means the only food bank in the city, and like many others are finding big increases in the numbers of people forced to rely on this kind of support just to get by. For some, the service provides a lifeline in a time where we have high levels of unemployment, household debt, and escalating costs of living. For others, asylum-seeker status means that they are unable to access basic benefits and are struggling to feed their families.

    ITV local news footage here: http://goo.gl/BKKtr

    Birmingham mail article here: http://goo.gl/iRXpq

    Similarly, Home-Start UK, a national family support charity, have also been in the media, talking about the way in which their services, once a helping hand for needy families, are being inundated with unprecedented levels of calls for help. In Birmingham they have seen a rise of 70% in requests for help many of which are from working families. Home-Start emphasise that the knock-on effects which come with economic difficulties – mental health problems, relationship breakdown, housing difficulties – are leading to families tipping over into crisis.

    Channel 4 footage on home-start here: http://goo.gl/Q99UI

    I spoke to Vicki Fitzgerald, Chief Executive of Gateway FS. She says that Birmingham is in many ways in a unique position, in that it is unusual to have community support services like Gateway FS funded through public authorities. There has been a great public response to the story, and Birmingham should be proud both of this, and of its commitment to funding the vital work that Gateway FS do. Many cities with similar levels of deprivation rely on stretched charity provision alone to provide food and support, so while the picture highlighted in Birmingham is bleak, elsewhere it is worse still and going unnoticed by many. I have been told by someone working with vulnerable people in nearby Wolverhampton that some local food-bank charities have informally requested a stop on referrals because they are unable to cope with the escalating demand. Meanwhile, the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity, estimate that they needed to feed 100, 000 nationwide in 2011, and forecast that this figure will rise to half a million by 2015.

    What can we do to help?

    • On a local level, while there have been many positive responses so far, the more people support Gateway FS and other groups the more vital support these groups can give to the community. If you would like to help, you can read about the work the group do at http://gatewayfs.org/ .
    • You can get in touch to arrange donations to the food-bank by contacting Michelle Bluck, who co-ordinates support for the pregnancy outreach team, at info@gatewayfs.org.

    However, looking at the bigger picture, it is not just fire-fighting in a climate of rising economic problems which organisations like Gateway FS have to contend with. Often there is little empathy from the general public for the awful experiences women who use their services have had: Vicki Fitzgerald spoke to me very briefly about the life-histories of some of the women they help, which included being subject to atrocities such as rape in the countries they have left to seek asylum:

    The women have the most complicated and difficult lives and people really don’t understand”.

    In a climate of austerity cuts, we need to fight to protect the good work which organisations such as Gateway FS do locally. However, I believe we also need to ask the question as to why, when the UK is even during a time of economic recession one of the most wealthy countries in the world, we are having the debate as to whether we can afford to meet the needs of society’s poorest, and not the debate of why their needs are not being met in first place.

    Links: further reading



    This post was written for Gateway Family Services and can be found at http://gatewayfs.org/2012/04/13/birmingham-food-crisis-a-glimpse-of-the-unseen-absolute-poverty-in-21st-century-uk/