“This will only increase the state’s overall benefits bill, perhaps confirming many people’s belief – including mine – that its proposed reforms have nothing to do with austerity, and everything to do with ideology”
~ Lynsey Hanley
It all began in Easterhouse. Since Iain Duncan Smith’s visit to the outer-Glasgow housing scheme in 2002, Conservative rhetoric on domestic policy has been based on emphasising a causal relationship between social housing, worklessness, and family breakdown. His conviction that family breakdown causes poverty, and not the other way around, is the driving force behind much of the coalition’s agenda of welfare reform.
This reinforces a long-standing suspicion of social housing and the personal attributes of council tenants which implies that only the feckless and benefit-dependent rely on the state to house them. There’s method to this madness, as it aids the perception that social housing is only for the poor, even as more and more relatively well-paid people are forced onto the waiting list by ever-increasing housing costs.
What the coalition seems intent on doing is to simplify the complex relationship between the many factors which combine to make people’s lives unnecessarily hard. It disregards such complexity at its peril. The LSE’s Ruth Lupton’s work on social justice and schooling, for instance, shows that the relationship between social housing and poor educational and employment outcomes is more to do with the fact that poor-quality housing and poor-quality schools are both situated in areas where most people are poor.
This does not mean that most people are out of work: it does mean that, in these areas, work does not pay enough to allow people either to live in better-off areas or to avoid the need for means-tested benefits. By the same token, while the location and reputation of much social housing makes it more difficult to find well-paid work, it doesn’t follow that social housing ought to be regarded as a kind of remedial tenure, a stop-gap until you pull yourself up into the ranks of owner-occupation, or, at least, private rented housing.
Both Duncan Smith and Cameron wish to invert the relationship between poverty and all levels of domestic difficulty, insisting that the latter causes the former. The state can be made responsible for reducing poverty but cannot legislate for keeping relationships together. In order to minimise its role, or at least to give the impression of doing so, the coalition must reverse-engineer the facts: it wasn’t the stress of poverty that broke up your home; it was breaking up your home that made you poor.
Lord Freud is right to point out that being dependent on benefits to live makes the unemployed more averse to risk, because they fear coming stuck if they take a job and leave the benefits system before they are economically stable. To make housing benefit an element of Universal Credit, he says, will reduce the level of riskiness associated with entering work.
Yet tying housing benefit into work-related benefits will only conceal the degree to which housing costs absorb an ever-higher proportion of incomes, forcing more people to claim for help with their rent or mortgage. This will only increase the state’s overall benefits bill, perhaps confirming many people’s belief – including mine – that its proposed reforms have nothing to do with austerity, and everything to do with ideology.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010