Debates about the UK welfare or ‘benefits’ system have been difficult to avoid in the media over the past weeks, from the furore surrounding the Channel 4 programme ‘Benefits Street’, to the reception of UN housing envoy Raquel Rolnik’s report on the impacts of the so-called ‘bedroom tax’. These stories are also part of a larger shift in the machineries of the British welfare system and public attitudes to benefit claimants which have emerged during the reign of the coalition government, though which arguably began during previous administrations.
With around 70% of households in the UK receiving at least one kind of state benefit, the vast changes we are currently witnessing in the welfare system are likely to have wide-ranging impacts. Current and recent changes to the benefits system include; the introduction of a benefits cap of £26,000 per year, the withdrawal of child benefit from households with a single income greater than £60,000 per year, changes in modes of assessment and criteria for eligibility for disability living allowance, a reduction in housing benefit available to low income households with spare rooms (the ‘bedroom tax’), and a reduction in the number of benefits available to under 25s.
Geographers studying the benefits system have a particular interest in how the impacts of these changes are felt differently between different regions and local authorities. This concern with the distribution of harms and benefits is particularly apt given the rhetoric of ‘fairness’ which has been used by politicians to justify such changes. This is something which Chris Hamnett observes in a recent article in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.
Hamnett draws our attention to several aspects of the changes to the welfare system which are of particular geographical interest. Firstly, he considers the national impacts of the welfare changes in the light of austerity and spending cuts, with attempts to reduce overall welfare spending and to move towards a ‘workfare’ system which puts more emphasis on rewarding those in work and forces those out of work to be actively looking for work in order to receive benefits. These changes have also occurred alongside a hardening of public opinion towards those facing benefits – for example 80% of people supported the benefits cap – which will make any attempts to reverse these changes in future difficult.
Secondly, against a backdrop of contrasting regional welfare bills and huge differences in the mix of benefits claimed in different regions, Hamnett concludes that the impacts of many of the benefits cuts will be socially regressive. For example, in old ex-industrial areas, such as the former coal-mining regions of Wales and North East England, there are twice as many people claiming disability living allowance than in the South of England. Thus the restrictions in those eligible to claim disability living allowance have a disproportionate impact on the old ex-industrial regions, which also have a higher proportion of people out of work and on low incomes.
A third geographical trend that Hamnett observes at the local authority level, relates to the housing mix of certain inner city areas. Whilst the £26,000 benefit cap appears very generous, it has resulted in reductions in the amount of housing benefit available to low income households living in areas of very high rent, such as central London. Hamnett predicts that this, alongside the impacts of the ‘bedroom tax’ will make certain areas of London and elsewhere uninhabitable for low income families, leading to a pronounced zoning of high income and low income areas.
When considering the potential impacts of future changes to the welfare system it is important to think not only of individual stories of poverty or dependency, but to consider how they might effect the already highly uneven geographical distribution of needs, benefits and incomes. Welfare changes are likely to have distinctly ‘spaced’ impacts and furthermore will be increasingly written into the fabric of these spaces – from the nation, to the de-instrustialised region, to the layout of the inner city, down the appropriate usage of the bedroom.
Chris Hamnett 2013 Shrinking the welfare state: the structure, geography and impact of British government benefit cuts Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers Online first DOI: 10.1111/tran.12049
Benefits street: the hard-working history that Channel 4 left out Guardian, 29 January
Bedroom tax: Raquel Rolnik’s uncomfortable truths Guardian, 3 February