One of the most powerful documentaries of 2019 was Growing Up Poor: Britain’s Breadline Kids. Directed by Jezza Neumann, it allowed a handful of children to give first-hand accounts of life on the financial margins.
The fact those featured were so young stripped their commentary of artifice. They talked in matter-of-fact tones of hardships that would have broken many adults.
Courtney, eight, who lives in Cambridge – “the most unequal city in the UK” – counted out coppers in the hope there would be enough for heating, before resigning herself to another night spent sleeping in her coat. Cameron, a pale and undernourished boy, described eking out diminishing food supplies. “We try not to eat a lot in one day, even though most of us are really hungry,” he said.
Growing Up Poor painted a picture of the UK that made A Christmas Carol, with all its paternalism, feel entirely contemporary; a world where the working poor are forced to survive on charity hand-outs.
It was jam-packed with heroes. There was Danielle, who tried to carve out a bit of space in temporary accommodation to study for her GCSEs, and Courtney’s mother, who drew a chart to try to explain her depression to her daughter. Then there were those who donated to and ran the food banks, and Neumann himself, who avoided all the pitfalls of poverty porn to bring us this thoughtful piece of film-making.
The villains – the architects of the Westminster government’s austerity programme – were less visible, but ever-present, behind the scenes, undermining the foundations that used to keep the lives of the underprivileged stable.
Iain Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms were the dark heart of Growing Up Poor. Whatever his original intention, those reforms and the striver/skiver rhetoric they produced were responsible for pushing just-coping families into destitution .
And yet Duncan Smith is among those being rewarded in the New Year’s Honours list. Much to the horror of anti-poverty campaigners, the man behind Universal Credit, the bedroom tax and the two-child cap – three of the most odious policies of the decade – is being knighted because of (not despite) the havoc he wreaked. That’s the way it goes nowadays. Those who sow chaos and confusion are glorified, while those left to pick up the pieces of their own and other people’s lives remain in the shadows.
The likes of Duncan Smith lack the insight to be embarrassed by such unseemly boys’ club back-slapping. He will doubtless regard himself as a fitting recipient of the title Sir – as if Universal Credit had fulfilled its mission of helping millions back into work rather than entrenching misery and social exclusion.
It was, famously, in Easterhouse, that Duncan Smith experienced an epiphany. Back in 2002, he wept in the face of condemned tenements and boarded up lives. This moment of empathy inspired him to evangelise about “compassionate Conservatism”. Under his leadership, he pledged, the Tories would become “the natural party of those who want to make a better life for themselves and their children”.
How hollow that sounds now. Yet, with hindsight, that phrase foreshadowed everything that would go wrong with his welfare reforms. It hinted at that most Dickensian of binaries: the deserving and the undeserving poor. It made a spurious distinction between “those who want to make a better life for themselves” and those considered too feckless to care.
There are groups, including the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who believe Universal Credit was a good idea in principle. It was aimed at simplifying an over-complicated system by rolling six benefits into one, and – more importantly – at incentivising people to work.
The logic was, on the face of it, unimpeachable. The way the benefits system was structured meant those who moved from claiming, say, Jobs Seekers Allowance, to low-paid employment would often find themselves losing out financially, which cannot be right.
But with this logic came other shakier assumptions: that everyone ought to be entering the labour market; that no-one would ever be too ill to work or have other competing pressures on their time, such as caring for children, the elderly or the disabled.
And so a new era was indeed ushered in: an era of sanctions and Atos fitness-for-work tests, which saw benefit claimants penalised for attending funerals and the chronically ill forced to prove they had not staged some miraculous recovery. It was the era of being punished for having an extra bedroom – even if your own child slept in it every other weekend. It was the era of growing mental health difficulties and soaring suicides. The era of I, Daniel Blake.
Universal Credit caused more problems than it solved, if it solved any. It was supposed to help people into work. But in 2016, the Institute for Fiscal Studies claimed some groups, such as single parents, had less of an incentive to work under Universal Credit than the old system and that 2.1 million working families faced an average loss of £1,600 a year.
The five-week hiatus before Universal Credit was received meant claimants like Courtney’s mother had no money to feed their children. They were forced to go to food banks or to take out loans they had no hope of repaying.
By the time the National Audit Office issued its scathing report in 2018, Duncan Smith was gone. He resigned over cuts to disability benefits in 2016, and four more work and pensions secretaries followed in quick succession.
But the conceptual and logistical flaws the NAO report identified were ones that originated under his watch. Head of the organisation, Amyas Morse, said the case for Universal Credit was based on unproven assumptions. “We think the larger claims for universal credit, such as boosted employment, are unlikely to be demonstrable at any point in future,” he said.
Nor has the situation improved over the last 18 months.
Last month, the UN rapporteur for extreme poverty, Philip Alston, said the UK government’s austerity policies were driven by “a political desire for social engineering” and that key elements of the post war social contract devised by William Beveridge had been swept away.
Alston also insisted the UK government was in a state of denial about reports suggesting 14 million people, a fifth of the population, now live in poverty, with 1.5 million destitute.
It is in the same spirit of denial, no doubt, that Duncan Smith was offered and accepted his knighthood. His elevation further undermines an already discredited honours system. But it is entirely in tune with today’s politics: cruelty and incompetence rewarded by a self-promoting clique, while those working long hours to improve people’s lives might as well be invisible.
As the MP for Chingford and Woodford Green kneels on the red carpet at Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle, what will Courtney be doing? Or Cameron? Or Danielle? They will be struggling on, supporting their parents through the worst of their misery. Unfortunately, there are no knighthoods for stoicism. Or resilience. Or making the best of things.