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Punishing the Poorest

It is a common feature of capitalism that those at or near the bottom of the social pyramid are attacked in specific ways by the state and its agencies. In many cases these are the people who are easiest to scapegoat and who find it hardest to resist. And such attacks often happen when capitalism is in some kind of crisis. Here we look at some historical and current examples.

Since the early seventeenth century there had been some state provision, including workhouses, for looking after the poor. Under the Speenhamland system, low wages were in effect subsidised out of the poor rate. The New Poor Law of 1834 was intended to reduce the expenditure on the relief of the poorest, which had increased enormously after the spread of enclosures and the growth in the number of the destitute. It required all recipients of ‘relief’ to enter the workhouse, which was deliberately made an extremely unappealing place to live. Families were separated, food was basic, and able-bodied men had to perform hard physical labour. Thomas Carlyle said the message was in effect that ‘whosoever will not work ought not to live’. The dread of the workhouse, in periods of unemployment, illness or old age, was for many years pervasive among working people. Workhouses were officially abolished only in 1930, on grounds of their expense.

The Depression of the early 1930s, with its drastic rise in joblessness and the consequent increased expense of unemployment pay-outs, saw massive attacks on the living standards of unemployed workers. Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald was explicit that unemployment benefit was not, and was not intended to be, a living wage, so the government had no compunction in cutting it. In November 1931 the benefit rate for an adult man was cut from the pre-decimal equivalent of 85p to 76p a week, for instance, and married women were generally excluded from unemployment benefit if they had not worked a specific number of weeks after getting married, no matter how long they had worked before marriage. These cuts were only reversed in 1934.

But above all it was the means test that constituted a vicious attack on the living standards of the unemployed. Under this people could have their benefits reduced or withheld if they had some savings or their household had some other income. So someone could find their benefits cut if they had a son who was employed, or if their mother lived with them and drew a war widow’s pension. The impact of all this varied from place to place: in Lancashire, for example, one-third of the unemployed had their benefits stopped completely. Some local bodies did try to alleviate the worst effects of the cuts, though. It was not just the financial impact of the means test that workers objected to, but also the intrusive and insensitive investigation into their family situation and finances.

The recent recession and consequent austerity measures have led to similar onslaughts on many of the poorest. One clear example is the notorious ‘bedroom tax’, as opponents have named what is officially called the under-occupancy penalty. People have their housing benefit cut if they are deemed to have ‘too many’ bedrooms. It has saved the government some money but, because of the lack of availability of one-bedroom flats in social housing, has largely failed to free up ‘under-occupied’ properties. Many of those penalised in this way are disabled, and in general this vindictive piece of legislation leads to poor health: people are forced to eat less in order to save money, and stress is caused by struggling to meet bills or having to move. One tenant had, after essentials, just £6 a week for food and travel; he then lost £15 a week because of the bedroom tax (Guardian online, 16 March).

More generally, reducing the amount paid out in benefits is a government priority, often coupled with offloading this dirty work to companies who make a profit from it. Atos, for instance, went to great lengths to cut the numbers on disability benefit by declaring people fit for work, even in some cases if they were severely paralysed. Even when some of the more absurd rulings were overturned on appeal, claimants had by then gone through longish periods of stress and destitution. In one case, a man who was half-blind and partially paralysed after a stroke died the day after being found fit for work and told that his benefits would be stopped (Owen Jones: The Establishment). There are plenty of other horror stories along such lines.

A4e is a company that treats job-seekers as just another means for their own profit, sending them on useless ‘courses’ and offering no real assistance in finding work at all. The Mandatory Work Activity programme forces the unemployed into unpaid work, and does not improve their chances of getting a ‘proper’ job. Just turning up late can lead to losing benefit and having to resort to foodbanks. All this is very similar to the workfare system introduced in the US in 1996, which forced people to work unpaid in return for benefits. Unpaid work undermines the wages and job security of existing staff, while of course increasing the profits of the companies concerned.

The prison population in Britain has almost doubled since 1993, and it is the poorest who are subject to the worst police harassment and the threat of jail. These developments though, have been even worse in the US. Earlier this year the Washington-based think-tank the Institute for Policy Studies published a report The Poor Get Prison, which looks at the ways poverty has been effectively criminalised there.

Debtors’ prisons were officially abolished in the US in 1833, but a very similar procedure still exists. For instance, people are often fined for low-level offences such as traffic violations; but if they cannot pay the whole of the fine, they may be imprisoned. If you are arrested but not convicted, you may have to pay to have your arrest record cleared when you apply for a new job. If you are put on probation, you may – depending on which state you live in – be charged for services provided by a private probation company (such as $12 a day for an alcohol-monitoring device); and if you can’t pay, you face prison. An estimated 600,000 people in the US are homeless on any given night, and they can be arrested for crimes such as public sleeping or begging. It is the poorest section of the population who are punished by fines or imprisonment for trivial misdemeanours, while those who are rather better-off get away with it.

From the Poor Law to the means test to the bedroom tax, capitalism has saved some of its most savage onslaughts for the most vulnerable, those who are hardly in a position to produce profits and so are little more than a drain on resources.