Each month, the reports and studies pile up.
They come from Oxfam, Unicef, Rights Advice Scotland, the British Medical Association, the Welfare Reform Committee of the Holyrood Parliament and many more besides. They have two things in common.
First, they demonstrate, time and again, that the destruction of social security provision in Britain is having a cataclysmic effect, hitting the poorest communities first and vulnerable people hardest.
There are statistics, tables and charts enough to satisfy any sceptic’s demand for evidence.
Second, each of these documents is born of a strange, indignant naivety. The writers and researchers cling to the belief that if only Government could be made to address mountains of evidence, understanding would dawn. Facts, datasets, unimpeachable methodology, objective truths: who could ignore reports from reality?
That counts as a rhetorical question. After all, the flood of evidence has a political consequence. It proves that in no sense is the burden of austerity being shared. The claim was a lie. In order that a Government budget deficit can be bridged, those who are least well-off are to have less. In what passes for moral justification, the victims are libelled as shiftless.
That doesn’t quite explain why “on average” London is four-and-a-half times more prosperous than the Welsh valleys, or why Londoners who are not average are being cleansed from the inner city. You can’t get a sound bite from the fact Scotland’s plight is less grim than that of Wales and northern England thanks only to the Scottish Government’s council tax assistance.
Parental fecklessness doesn’t justify destroying a generation of children whose lives have barely begun.
Statistics are like peashooters against the steel hull of the Coalition’s contempt.
It is a big mistake to think Iain Duncan Smith, work and pensions secretary, “doesn’t want to know”.
Where social security is concerned, the minister knows a great deal.
He spent time in opposition studying the system and its effects. He even fooled good people, some in Glasgow, into mistaking his interest for concern. But IDS knows perfectly well what he is doing.
That might seem to make all the reports and studies worse than naive.
Opinion polls report consistently that the likes of Mr Duncan Smith have won the propaganda wars. Struggling in their own lives, a majority who think they will never need social security have become flint-hearted. We are back, decades and generations back, to a world in which economic security is deserved or undeserved.
To whom, then, are despatches from the frontiers of misery directed?
Ministers and a majority of voters have made their choices.
At Westminster, opposition politicians hesitate to paddle against the current, or to offer commitments, a word whose meaning seems to escape them.
Reporting the grim news of poor folk surely counts, therefore, as a waste of time and research grants.
Like most people, I resist the idea that I was born naive.
On the other hand, all I bring to an argument is a bad 35-year dawn-to-dusk news-watching habit, scanning the sources while trying to answer proper questions:
“Why did it happen?”
“What happens next?”
Aside from arguing in the first half of the decade that a glut of credit couldn’t last for ever, it didn’t exactly make me a prophet of capitalism’s collapse. Boys who cry wolf are always caught out. But you get the idea.
So I see young people rioting in Sweden. The first reaction is everyone’s reaction: Sweden? But that only brings the truth home. As of June 1, 2013, the social fabric is delicate wherever you look. In some countries, the fabric is close to becoming a memory. Perhaps it would be handy, then, to have people doing the work of telling us how we stand. A little more research into the state of things before the banking crash might have saved us a world of grief, after all.
There is a connection.
IDS believes he can go on grinding the faces of the poor – this is no longer melodrama, just a fact – indefinitely, without hindrance or consequences. Why should that be true? And what if upwards of £1 trillion in money guaranteed by common folk has not – for it has not – put British banking back on an even keel? What happens if it all comes unstuck again? Someone will wish they had paid more attention to all those earnest bits of social policy research.
Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty report that half a million people are using food banks regularly because they have no other choices.
The loss of minimal social security support has pushed these folk into a dependence on the modern equivalent of soup kitchens.
The charities describe “destitution, hardship and hunger on a large scale”.
If stone-faced, you could at least say half a million men, women and children are unhappy souls.
Add the numbers too proud to accept charity, too willing to go hungry, to turn to crime or – IDS lives for the thought – to resort to cheating the system. That’s a lot of people. Conflate the figures, then, with all the other figures provided by Poverty and Social Exclusion, a research effort mounted by universities from Bristol to Belfast, involving Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, the OU and York along the way. Its first report, covering 2012, appeared this week.
I’ll use just the numbers provided by researchers to journalists with a limited amount of space.
More than 30 million people “suffering some degree of financial insecurity”; close to 12 million “too poor to engage in common social activities”; around four million children and adults who are not properly fed; around 2.5 million children in damp homes; around 1.5 million children “in households that cannot afford to heat their home”.
Most of this is defined, by the way, according to what most of the rest of us regard as sane. Those “common social activities” are things “considered necessary by the majority of the population”. The methodology is also accepted internationally and by the UK Government.
To summarise brutally, meanwhile, the researchers conclude that by every indicator things are getting worse thanks to what IDS calls reforms. To quote from the report’s “key findings”:
“Today, 33% of the UK population suffers from multiple deprivation by the standards set by the public. It was 14% in 1983.”
Draw conclusions, then. On the kindest reading, a government struggling to compete with standards set in 1983 – not a good year, as I recall – cannot claim to be building any sort of future for the people of this country.
What future is being created when half a million children are not being fed properly, when a million of them don’t have the kind of clothing that an average parent regards as “necessary”?
But there go statistics from the peashooter again.
If austerity continues to fail, if the financial system returns to crisis, what flows from all that misery? It needn’t require spectacular riots or more Tory hysteria towards the armies of the misbegotten poor.
If human decency is already defined by IDS as “unaffordable”, what follows another crash?
Rhetorical questions anticipate answers.
It is no accident that countries run in this manner tend to have epochal economic crashes.
There’s a flaw in the system.
The fact is no comfort, either.