Britain is undergoing a welfare revolution following the enactment of the Welfare Reform Bill. To date, the demographic group most exempt from cuts to welfare spending are those over state pension age. People of working age who rely on state welfare payments for some or all of their income – young people, single parent families, the unemployed and the chronically sick and disabled – have all had their incomes reduced to varying degrees. The removal of the spare room subsidy, otherwise known as the ‘bedroom tax’ is a case in point. Affecting an estimated 600,000 social housing tenants nationally and introduced in April 2013, the bedroom tax requires tenants to pay an additional £12 per week for one spare room and an additional £24 per week for two. Almost two thirds of affected tenants have a disability. Social housing tenants are amongst the poorest in society, heavily reliant on benefits and particularly vulnerable to welfare system changes.
The Government’s aim with this policy is to reduce public spending on social housing and increase efficiency in the sector, although the social sector is four times more efficient than the market at matching people to homes. In 2012, prior to implementing the ‘bedroom tax’ policy, the Department for Work and Pensions, undertook an impact assessment and stated that the bedroom tax would have no impact on health and wellbeing. There is a plethora of evidence, widely known to the UK’s Department of Health, demonstrating that reducing incomes is bad for health. Indeed, the evidence from across the globe linking low income and poor health is so compelling it is very hard to imagine how the Department of Work and Pensions could have drawn such an astonishing conclusion about the impact of this tax.
It is with absolutely no joy that I can point out just how wrong this conclusion is. Research published in the Journal of Public Health (March 2015) has shown that, “the bedroom tax has increased poverty and had broad ranging adverse effects on health, wellbeing and social relationships.” This is the most recent of a growing number of studies documenting the misery associated with the bedroom tax and the first to note specific links between the tax and health and wellbeing. Food and utilities were the first things to be cut back. Yes, people reported going hungry, living in unheated homes, and, as a last resort, using food banks. Stress, anxiety, depression, sleep problems were endemic among those affected. Reduced incomes meant that people could not afford to carry out normal social roles – meeting up for a cup of tea, having friends over for a meal, taking grandchildren out – all reported as being beyond the budget of affected households.
Advocates of the ‘bedroom tax’ assert that it forms just one part of the necessary re-structuring of our welfare state needed to stop the ‘handouts’ given to people passively languishing on benefits who have no intention of working. What this view fails to acknowledge is that our welfare system, far from being detached and distant from most of the tax paying population is closely linked to all our lives. As John Hills points out in his excellent analysis of the welfare state, “most of what the welfare state does is about coping with the complexities of lives that change and develop in often unpredictable ways.” Hills demonstrates how, throughout our lives, we all receive welfare services and benefits, rich as well as poor and not just a small, ‘welfare-dependent’ minority.
The rhetoric around ‘skivers’ and ‘strivers’ separating those who benefit from the system and those who pay into it is now so widely accepted, that policies such as the ‘bedroom tax’ prevail and can be couched as being fair when in fact they push poor people further into poverty and desperation. The debates about welfare resource allocation attract an intergenerational dimension, pitting those below and above state pension age against each other. This is a serious diversion from the real question which concerns the appalling treatment of those of whatever age who are trying to eat, heat their homes and have something of a life with the diminishing resources allocated to them from the state. Many of the seventeen per cent of older people deemed to be living in poverty, do not claim the means tested benefit to which they are entitled due to a combination of lack of knowledge, system complexity, stigma and pride. A further indication of the failure of the state welfare system.
Returning to the specifics of the bedroom tax, whilst people over state pension age are not directly affected by the income reductions wrought on other groups, their children, grandchildren, friends and neighbours may be. In all likelihood, older people will be the next in line to be affected by the inevitable welfare ‘reforms’ that will be on the table in future years, as austerity measures continue apace. Inequalities in income, housing and health are higher than at any time since the Second World War, and there is no indication that this is likely to change in the immediate future.
We have a long way to go to achieve the goal of ending poverty, one of the founding principles of our welfare state. Removing policies such as the bedroom tax, would be a step in the right direction, and something which should concern us all.