During the early period of coronavirus lockdown, many thousands of people denied themselves help. Around 500,000 who were entitled to Universal Credit did not claim. There was perceived stigma around being seen as “scroungers” and “freeloaders”, said the Welfare at a Social Distance project, which carried out the research. And as a result, rent payments were missed, bills went unpaid, mental health was hurt. It was not the individuals’ fault that jobs disappeared and they needed help, but it brings to light yet another real-time echo of the austerity programme. That pernicious striver/skiver rhetoric of former Chancellor George Osborne has helped make half a million ashamed to ask for a hand up.
We don’t know the ongoing impact of furlough. We don’t yet know the scale of job losses that may follow as furlough payments lift. But we can be sure that things are going to get tough for an awful lot of people.
Government intervention and help will still be needed on a massive scale. Yet it feels like we’re still nosing around the edges.
Figures from the US last week showed that unemployment fell while consumer spending leapt during March. This came as the cheques that Americans were receiving as part of the $1.9tn relief budget landed. It was driving recovery and economic growth. And because everybody was getting them, there was no embarrassment associated with asking for them.
To keep things going further, Biden’s New Deal is pushing massive infrastructure projects – building roads, fixing bridges, making broadband an essential service rather than a luxury. And in a clever move, he’s focusing on paying to develop broadband networks owned or operated by local government or non-profits. It’s not surprising that some of the only voters he’s polling badly with are the rich.
It is time for bold, unified help and rebuilding. There is no space to make excuses
If such a plan were to exist in Britain, such a bold move that felt as though it was designed to genuinely serve the people rather than line the pockets of a small number of those in the know, a government would be heralded for generations.
Quite why they don’t is not clear. You could argue about cost, or about the nature of governance or that in terms of quick wins, so loved by those with their eye on the next vote, making a big noise about the inequity of plans by a cabal of rich football club owners to make themselves wildly richer is much easier.
Already local authorities are looking to the coming financial year with fear. The National Audit Office revealed last month that 25 councils in England are facing bankruptcy.
In Glasgow, five libraries, 11 community halls and centres, three museums and a number of sports fields and gyms face a very uncertain future as budgets are massively cut.
The catalogue of catastrophic retreat from essential provision will escalate across Britain. It is time for bold, unified help and rebuilding. There is no space to make excuses.
It just so happens that there are elections across Britain on May 6. Every single one of us can start to make our demands.
Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue