It’s time to demand more. In parliament last Wednesday the government made small adjustments to the distribution of wealth and power. Austerity, a programme of policies that have caused death and destitution, remains in place. Out on the streets families starve, destitution is at record levels, work doesn’t pay.
For three years Mimea, a 30-year-old woman from Uganda, was forced to live on £20 a week. She wasn’t entitled to state support because she was in the UK on a spousal visa. But she’d left her partner, he was violent.
She survived by living with a man she didn’t want to be with. He humiliated and harassed her. She couldn’t take a shower without him complaining. He would say she was wasting his money.
After escaping that relationship, Mimea was detained in Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre, where she made an application for leave to remain in the UK. She was released from detention to wait for the Home Office response to her case. Meanwhile her status was still tied to her former partner. This meant she could not claim welfare benefits.
Mimea’s kind of destitution doesn’t show up in official figures. Destitution means you don’t eat regularly, you can’t afford clothes. You are dependent on others, sometimes strangers, for a roof over your head, from one night to the next. Tens of thousands of people like Mimea aren’t counted. They live below the radar, sleeping on sofas, working cash in hand, unregistered.
In 2015, the social policy and research charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation embarked on a project to measure destitution in the UK. The charity found more than one million people living in destitution during that year. This includes 312,000 children.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report points out that social security for people on low incomes or in between jobs isn’t enough to survive on. Welfare benefits of £73 a week for a single person is 40% less than what’s needed to cover daily essentials. As an asylum seeker you get £36.95, just half that.
Strikingly, 79% of destitute people were born in the UK, the charity says. Though “some migrant groups face disproportionate risks of destitution”.
Poverty, a common story
The fact that destitution is now a shared experience across different sections of society is an opportunity. It opens up the possibility of us coming together to defeat it.
Mimea won her right to stay in the UK and qualified for social security which lifted her from destitution to poverty.
Every two weeks Mimea joins over 100 other women in London for a self-help meeting of the All African Women’s Group, also known as the AAWG. Some are mothers of small children; the majority are from countries where they have suffered rape or other torture. Some have physical disabilities and most have been traumatised. At our meetings, the added everyday trauma of destitution reveals itself.
One woman was embarrassed at a supermarket check-out because her asylum support payment card had no cash on it to pay. Another sat rigid with fear because she had no money for the bus fare to her Home Office appointment. She was terrified that she and her children would be detained for absconding. Another woman told of a friend who kindly let her stay when she was homeless. Then the friend’s husband demanded “payment”.
These side effects of growing destitution aren’t just affecting our members. Back in September at the Labour Party conference in Brighton, we organised an event to discuss the issue. Single mothers, people with disabilities, asylum seekers and sex workers shared a platform, each told their own moving story.
Gill Thompson spoke about her brother David Clapson, who died two weeks after his benefits were stopped. A McDonalds striker described workers being made homeless and destitute because they dared stand up to sexual harassment, bullying and violence from managers. Zero hour contracts bestow such power on managers, she said, that workers had “no choice but to do exactly as they are told otherwise they might lose the hours and then I’d be out on the streets.”
One of the difficulties of challenging destitution is contempt for the poorest of us in much of the press.
Politicians and the media embellish or even invent stories such as: “Refugees on benefits trash £1.25m home” and “A million on benefit capable of work”. Stories aimed at painting people with disabilities and asylum seekers as bogus and scroungers.
On rare occasions this fake news is debunked: the story that asylum seekers receive more support than pensioners, was exposed as a lie. But not before other newspapers, chat shows, and media outlets, each crediting the same story, had published and broadcast it.
Despite the misinformation and attempts to hijack public sympathy, the reality of rising destitution makes it harder to blame poverty on “fecklessness”.
One in eight waged workers are going hungry. And just two weeks ago a mum of four died in her freezing home. On Facebook her mother blamed the Department for Work and Pensions for her death. The young woman’s universal credit had been stopped, she couldn’t even afford to heat her home.
These are not isolated examples. The government’s own data revealed that between December 2011 and February 2014, 2,380 people died after being declared fit for work. That’s 90 people a month. A new study linked 120,000 deaths to austerity since 2010.
Time to fight back, demand more
As destitution grows so does the struggle against it. There is a growing movement of all kinds of people who are not only asking for more but demanding it. And in the Labour Party, there is an opposition which is echoing and spearheading that demand in the corridors of power.
Brighton Migrant Solidarity spoke at our event in September about their “Thousand for a Thousand” scheme, which raises money to pay rent for homeless people. This is just one of many community efforts which have sprung up around the country, collecting and distributing food, clothing and sometimes small amounts of cash.
Austerity has been shaken by these movements. The coming together of people to support each other through hard times directly challenges the view that some of us need less, want less and deserve less. In these new movements, people find strength and realise their worth. This will help us to resist.