In the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2008, Britain’s government put into effect a hotly contested series of major cuts in public expenditure with the stated aim of restoring economic security. Since then, this reign of austerity continues to devastate contemporary Britain through a disconnected and unaffected political elite. In The Violence of Austerity, David Whyte and Vickie Cooper bring together the passionate voices of campaigners and academics to show that rather than stimulating economic growth, austerity policies have led to a dismantling of the social systems that operated as a buffer against economic hardship. Chapters from major contributors—including Danny Dorling, Mary O’Hara and Rizwaan Sabir—show how austerity is a form of institutional violence more socially harmful and far-reaching than other more politicized and publicized forms of violence, such as terrorism or gun violence. Contributors expose highly significant cases of this institutional violence driven by public sector cuts: police attacks on the homeless, violent evictions of the rented sector, risks faced by people on workfare, and more. The Violence of Austerity is a devastating, authoritative study of the myriad ways austerity policies harm people in Britain that will resonate with anyone concerned with the increasing power of the political elite and the future of social welfare.
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About the Author
Vickie Cooper is a lecturer in criminology at the Open University in England. David Whyte is professor of socio-legal studies at the University of Liverpool and the editor of How Corrupt is Britain?, also published by Pluto Press.
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Mental Health and Suicide
In the aftermath of the meltdown that was the 2007/08 financial crisis, millions of people – millions of ordinary people on low to moderate incomes – paid an enormous price. They paid that price, however, not just in terms of job losses or employment security and wages, or indeed the loss of their homes and vital services. As savage austerity measures were rolled out in the UK after the crash, huge numbers of people paid the price way beyond their pockets. They paid it with something much more valuable – their mental health.
No matter where in the world you are, look at the research and the evidence is clear: economic strain contributes to mental health difficulties – especially during recessions when unemployment and poverty tend to jump. What's more, people already living with mental health difficulties are likely to suffer disproportionately in times of recession – not just because funding for services might be cut but also because they are at higher risk of losing their jobs and homes.
The so-called age of austerity has shown just how serious and widespread the impact of economic turmoil on mental health could be. One US study found a 'significant and sustained' increase in major depression among adults between 2005–06 and 2011–12, during which time millions of Americans lost their jobs and their homes. Another study exploring the effects of the 2008 financial crash reached some stark conclusions. Analysing data from 24 European Union (EU) countries, the USA and Canada, the researchers reported that by 2011, the economic crisis had already led to over 10,000 more suicides than would have been expected – a figure they called a 'conservative estimate'. The downward trend in suicide rates seen in the EU before 2007 went into reverse when the financial crisis hit, rising 6.5 per cent by 2009. In the USA the rate increased by 4.8 per cent over the same period. Yet the study also showed that the trends were not uniform: many countries did not see any increase in suicide rates. The researchers suggested that a range of interventions – from back-to-work programmes to prescriptions for antidepressants – may reduce the risk of suicide during economic downturns. In the USA, figures published in April 2016 showed a suicide rate at its highest for 30 years with researchers linking the surge in part to financial woes, poverty and job insecurity.
One study in the UK published in November 2015 concluded that austerity, financial strain and unemployment following the financial crash of 2008 were significant factors in suicide rates. The work, by academics at the Universities of Bristol, Manchester and Oxford, estimated that around 1000 additional deaths by suicide occurred between 2008 and 2010 while something like 30 to 40,000 extra suicide attempts may have taken place.
In their important book, The Body Economic, Sanjay Basu and David Stuckler examined health and economic data over decades, concluding that austerity was bad for both physical and mental health. 'If austerity were tested like a medication in a clinical trial, it would have been stopped long ago, given its deadly side effects ... One need not be an economic ideologue – we certainly aren't – to recognise that the price of austerity can be calculated in human lives', was their damning conclusion in the New York Times. They went on to argue that countries that have chosen stimulus over austerity, such as Germany, Sweden and Iceland, have had better health outcomes than countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain, where austerity measures have been used. 'If suicides were an unavoidable consequence of economic downturns this would just be another story about the human toll of the Great Recession', they concluded. 'But it isn't so.'
Greece – a country with traditionally lower suicide rates than other European nations – has felt the impact of austerity more than most. A landmark study led by Professor Charles Branas of the University of Pennsylvania incorporated a 30-year month-by-month analysis of suicides in Greece, ending in 2012. The researchers looked at possible links between suicide data and particular prosperity- and austerity-related events over the three decades, including the acceptance of Greece into the EU, the 2004 Athens Olympic Games and the passing of austerity measures by the government.
While cautious not to link the cause directly to austerity, the researchers found 'a significant, abrupt and sustained increase' in suicides following austerity-related events like announcements of spending cuts and violent protests against them. Across the decades studied, 2012 was the peak year for suicides in Greece.
In the UK, from as early as 2011, the charities Sane and the Depression Alliance were reporting concerns about links between financial woes, austerity policies and rising stress and depression. Many organisations and activists began flagging up how a plethora of local government cuts and welfare reforms such as the Work Capability Assessment were creating unnecessary and sometimes intolerable stress for both physically disabled and mentally ill people. The Work Capability Assessment in particular was generating widespread tension, according to many frontline welfare workers and campaigners (see Chapter 3 by John Pring and Chapter 4 by Jon Burnett and David Whyte).
Nick Dilworth is a frontline welfare advice worker and long-standing critic of the government's back-to-work strategy who also monitors and analyses welfare statistics. He summed up the reality of dealing with the consequences: 'People are coming in with multiple problems. You get grown men crying. What you see are broken lives.'
In addition, sanctions, which were causing significant stress, soared after 2010, while JobCentre workers began speaking out about what they say was an increasingly punitive regime that was adding to the mental stress of both claimants and workers. As Angela Neville, a JobCentre worker who went on to write a play about it, explained to me in February 2015: 'From my own experience, staff are subjected to constant and aggressive pressure to meet and exceed targets. Colleagues would leave team meetings crying.' On the fallout after sanctions were applied, she said: 'It was very distressing to have customers literally without food, without heat, without resources – and these are unwell [and] disabled customers.'
Mental health services in the UK are notoriously underfunded and often referred to as a 'Cinderella service'. According to the Centre for Economic Performance, mental health services receive just 13 per cent of the total NHS budget, while mental illness is responsible for 23 per cent of the loss of years of healthy life caused by all illness nationwide. Despite this, and despite numerous reassurances from government, services fell foul of austerity policies. Mental health provision was hit hard and early by austerity measures and this pattern has continued into 2016. Figures released in April 2016 by the charity Mind revealed that almost half of people (46 per cent) with mental health problems had considered or attempted to take their own life due to social factors such as debt and welfare difficulties.
Despite rising demand for help, including from people in crisis or feeling suicidal who were turning up at A&E departments ill-equipped to provide help, mental health services and the people relying on them were feeling the impact. Organisations from Oxfam to activist groups such as Disabled People Against Cuts and War on Welfare warned of an unprecedented 'perfect storm' of falling incomes, rising costs and the removal of vital safety nets, including for mental health and disability, just when the pressure on individuals and families was skyrocketing.
The figures back this up. In 2011, three years after the financial crisis, the number of prescriptions for antidepressants rose sharply, up 43 per cent on the previous year. One investigation found that more than 2000 acute mental health beds were lost in England between 2011 and 2013. This meant that many people in crisis who didn't have a safe place had to be transported hundreds of miles to wherever a bed became available.
By 2015, funding for mental health services was estimated to have fallen in real terms by 8.25 per cent over four years. Three quarters of children and young people with a mental health issue could not access treatment when they needed it. Charities warned that this was also storing up problems for the future because it prevented early intervention, something proven to be crucial for young people's recovery prospects. Meanwhile, it was reported that calls to mental health helplines from people citing financial problems shot up in line with personal indebtedness. GPs reported a surge in patients with stress and anxiety due to worsening economic predicaments and joblessness.
When discussing the impacts of austerity in the UK, deaths feature prominently. Like 44-year-old Mark Wood – who was found dead after learning that his benefits were being cut and whose story of struggle drew outrage from campaigners – some of the people who have died had a history of mental health problems. Others didn't. And there are many, many stories. The violence of some of the deaths and distress can be truly shocking. In one case, a man doused himself in petrol outside a JobCentre after being declared fit for work and experiencing benefits delays. Police arrived in time to save him. One woman died two days after trying to take her own life. Her doctor told the inquest that a letter stating that her incapacity benefits were to be withdrawn had precipitated the suicide attempt. A pensioner in his seventies was believed to have killed himself due to fears about the 'bedroom tax' (see also Chapter 17 by Kirsteen Paton and Vickie Cooper). Witnesses testified to the inquest that he was frightened by news reports that said people might lose their homes if they couldn't pay it.
On the frontline of mental health, the strain of five years of austerity became such that hundreds of health professionals took to writing to newspapers about it. In one highly critical letter to the Guardian on the government's public health record, senior physicians linked austerity policies to rising suicides, concluding that 'over the last five years, there have been avoidable deaths and much unnecessary damage to health'.
In another letter, published just before the 2015 election, 442 professionals ranging from psychologists to epidemiologists wrote:
The past five years have seen a radical shift in the kinds of issues generating distress in our clients: increasing inequality and outright poverty, families forced to move against their wishes, and, perhaps most important, benefits claimants (including disabled and ill people) and those seeking work being subjected to a quite new, intimidatory kind of disciplinary regime.
Psychologists Against Austerity, an alliance of mental health professionals, formed with the aim of directly challenging the cuts and welfare changes that they said were adding to mental distress. The group produced a briefing paper that includes five 'austerity ailments' it believes contribute to worsening mental despair. These are: humiliation and shame; instability and insecurity; isolation and loneliness; being trapped or feeling powerless; and fear and distrust. The authors conclude: 'Mental health problems are being created in the present, and further problems are being stored for the future.'
One group of researchers believes that a serious political-cultural shift is taking place within the welfare system, and that it is having serious ramifications for mental health. In a paper published in 2015,29 Dr Lynne Friedli and colleagues documented their findings on the impact of back-to-work policies, notably psychological assessments of unemployed individuals' fitness for work. 'Psychological explanations for unemployment ... isolate, blame, and stigmatise unemployed people. They reinforce myths about "cultures of worklessness"', Frieldli wrote. 'They obscure the realities of the UK labour market and the political choices that underpin it.'
There have been ongoing calls from families and campaigners for a full public investigation into deaths that followed cuts to benefits or the implementation of sanctions in order to find out what connections there may be. And when, in September 2015, a coroner in north London concluded that the suicide in 2013 of 60-year-old disabled man Michael O'Sullivan was a direct result of having been wrongly found fit for work, there were yet more calls for the Department for Work and Pensions to overhaul fitness-for-work assessments. The coroner said: '[His] anxiety and depression were long-term problems but the intense anxiety that triggered his suicide was caused by his recent assessment ... as being fit for work, and his view of the likely consequences of that.'
More research and better data are needed to ascertain fully the connections between recessions and austerity and suicide, but mental health strains are clearly exacerbated by economic factors, according to Joe Ferns, Director of Policy and Research at the Samaritans. Part of the problem, he says, is that stresses such as financial pressures or losing a job make people feel 'disempowered' and 'less able to cope'. But people can be affected by the community around them too. Says Ferns: 'The social impacts spread far wider and last far longer than the economic ripples.'
Sanjay Basu has pointed out that there is already considerable evidence of serious and deleterious effects of austerity which as a matter of urgency require robust policy responses. Basu told me in an interview that his work has persuaded him that the stakes of austerity for mental health are very high indeed:
I think the real decision for us is whether we want to pay now or pay later. I think we can either pay now in terms of creating the social safety nets in order to avoid a real dismantling of some of the key parts of our communities or we'll face the consequence for many years.
Charities, healthcare professionals, academics and those on the frontline agree: act now or suffer more later. The Department of Health told me that it was tackling 'historic underfunding' in mental health, yet time and again it is pointed out that many services are on their knees.
As anyone who has suffered directly as a result of austerity or who has lost a loved one because of policies implemented under its banner will tell you, harm to mental health and loss of life constitute a serious violation. Almost a decade after the financial crisis, people continue to suffer under aggressive austerity policies even in the face of evidence of the human cost.
Austerity and Mortality
In 2015, the UK suffered one of the largest rises in overall mortality measured since reliable annual records were first collected of the population in the late 1830s. What has taken place in Britain recently has few precedents since the 1930s and the Second World War. To discover the reasons why there might be a fall in life expectancy among the elderly in England now, we need to look for where a similar fall has occurred in the past.
One such spike in mortality rates occurred in the early 1950s. It took just four months, in the midst of Britain's post-war austerity period from December 1952 to March 1953, for some 12,000 residents to perish in what was then modern London's most deadly civilian disaster. The initial public reaction was to attribute the deaths to air pollution. At the time, most Londoners kept warm by burning dirty coal. Cool air had settled over the Thames Valley in early December 1952 and did not move for weeks. The air turned thick with smog. In one week alone 4703 people died, many more than the 1852 people who had died during the same week the previous year.
In early 1953, a Member of Parliament put this episode into context when he asked the Minister of Housing, Harold Macmillan:
Does the minister not appreciate that last month, in Greater London alone, there were literally more people choked to death by air pollution than were killed on the roads in the whole country in 1952?
Excerpted from "The Violence of Austerity"
Copyright © 2017 Vickie Cooper and David Whyte.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Violence of Austerity Vickie Cooper David Whyte 1
Part I Deadly Welfare
1 Mental Health and Suicide Mary O'Hara 35
2 Austerity and Mortality Danny Dorling 44
3 Welfare Reforms and the Attack on Disabled People John Pring 51
4 The Violence of Workfare Jon Burnett David Whyte 59
5 The Multiple Forms of Violence in the Asylum System Victoria Canning 67
6 The Degradation and Humiliation of Young People Emma Bond Simon Hallsworth 75
Part II Poverty Amplification
7 Child Maltreatment and Child Mortality Joanna Mack 85
8 Hunger and Food Poverty Rebecca O'Connell Laura Hamilton 94
9 The Deadly Impact of Fuel Poverty Ruth London 101
10 The Violence of the Debtfare State David Ellis 110
11 Women of Colour's Anti-Austerity Activism Akwugo Emejulu Leah Basset 117
12 Dismantling the Irish Peace Process Daniel Holder 123
Part III State Regulation
13 Undoing Social Protection Steve Tombs 133
14 Health and Safety at the Frontline of Austerity Hilda Palmer David Whyte 141
15 Environmental Degradation Charlotte Burns Paul Tobin 149
16 Fracking and State Violence Will Jackson Helen Monk Joanna Gilmore 156
17 Domicide, Eviction and Repossession Kirsteen Paton Vickie Cooper 164
18 Austerity's Impact on Rough Sleeping and Violence Daniel McCulloch 171
Part IV State Control
19 Legalising the Violence of Austerity Robert Knox 181
20 The Failure to Protect Women in the Criminal Justice System Maureen Mansfield Vickie Cooper 188
21 Austerity, Violence and Prisons Joe Sim 195
22 Evicting Manchester's Street Homeless Steven Speed 203
23 Policing Anti-Austerity through the 'War on Terror' Rizwaan Sabir 211
24 Austerity and the Production of Hate Jon Burnett 217
Notes on Contributors 225