The Cost of Living
As daytime light grows and the Omicron recedes, forgive me if I don’t share the optimistic mood that’s being cultivated as ‘restrictions’ are lifted. Freedom Day 2.0 anyone?
The pandemic has both revealed and acted as cover for wider endemic social problems and the populism of rhetoric about ‘defeating’ it will act as a spur for us to jettison any lessons learned about collective public action and solidarity and rush back to hyper-individualism. It’s already there in the narrative about mask-wearing, ‘hospitality’, travel and the urgent need to get back to ‘normal’.
A report issued three days ago reinforces what many of us experience, that the perfect storm of the CoronaBrexit, supply-chain collapse, and the grinding consequences of long-term Tory social and economic policy have left millions in ‘deep poverty’. For many getting ‘back to normal’ means what the media have called plaintively ‘the cost of living’ and facing the brutal choice “heat or eat”.
The report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that 1.8 million children are growing up in ‘deep poverty’, with 500,000 more children living in significant poverty in 2019/20 compared to 2011/12. That’s a damning indictment of a decade of Tory failure.
But it’s about to get significantly worse. Soaring energy bills, tax increases and inflation are pushing families up and down the country into destitution. The amount energy companies can charge customers on certain tariffs under the government’s Energy Price Cap is predicted to go up in April by around 51%. This spring energy prices could rise to £2,000 per year pushing an estimated 6 million households into fuel poverty.
The Joseph Rowntree’s report lays this out in stark detail. Katie Schmuecker from the foundation said: “The reality for many families is that too many children know the constant struggle of poverty. The fact that more children are in poverty and sinking deeper into poverty should shame us all.”
“The case for targeted support to help people on the lowest incomes could not be clearer. But this must go hand in hand with urgent action to strengthen our social security system, which was woefully inadequate even before living costs began to rise.”
“Our basic rate of benefits is at its lowest real rate for 30 years and this is causing avoidable hardship. The Government must do the right thing and strengthen this vital public service.”
While Schmuecker says this oil and gas companies are set to make record profits from the crisis, BP’s CEO Bernard Looney described the business as a “cash machine”.
While charities and opposition parties call for a ‘windfall tax’ on the obscene profits of North Sea oil and gas companies like BP and Shell, (re) directing the funds to people struggling to pay their bills, this doesn’t seem enough. It may be the only politically possible act but it also seems inadequate. The problem of heating and energy costs are systemic. A one-off windfall doesn’t change any of the relationships at play here it would merely erase the most politically embarrassing visual signs of deep poverty for a news cycle.
The problem is gross social inequality, massively inadequate and exploitative housing and energy seen as a source of profit rather than a basic need. We are so far down the hole of Capitalist Realism and privatisation that the basic simple solutions are excluded from the public debate. Energy and heating as a human right and a public utility should be enshrined as a social norm.
The same can be said of food.
The food writer and activist Jack Monroe has used her considerable social media platform to point out that the debate about the ‘cost of living’ increasing by 5% is a gross under-estimation of the reality. She points out:
- This time last year, the cheapest pasta in my local supermarket (one of the Big Four), was 29p for 500g. Today it’s 70p. That’s a 141% price increase as it hits the poorest and most vulnerable households.
- This time last year, the cheapest rice at the same supermarket was 45p for a kilogram bag. Today it’s £1 for 500g. That’s a 344% price increase as it hits the poorest and most vulnerable households.
- Baked beans: were 22p, now 32p. A 45% price increase year on year.
- Canned spaghetti. Was 13p, now 35p. A price increase of 169%.
- Bread. Was 45p, now 58p. A price increase of 29%.
These are just indicative examples – but you can see it in the real world. Monroe points out that as well as the phenomenon of price rises there’s also the practice of making products smaller while keeping them the same price, which is known in the retail industry as ‘shrinkflation’.
Monroe argues: “The system by which we measure the impact of inflation is fundamentally flawed – it completely ignores the reality and the REAL price rises for people on minimum wages, zero-hour contracts, food bank clients, and millions more.”
It’s this wider context of precarity – in which everything has become ‘precarious’ – that the debate about energy and food has to happen. The proletariat has been replaced by the precariat and that class has widened and deepened. If the proletariat were brought together by workplace, class consciousness, and politically articulated ideology, the precariat are divided by social isolation, the gig economy, and a soporific moron culture.
Some work has already been done to move beyond the ameliorative and the short-term fixes that characterise progressive political debate. Nourish Scotland has been advocating for some time for a ‘Right to Food’ in Scotland. The charity argues for “A Scotland where everyone can afford the food that keeps them healthy and well.”
They argue that: “Everyone should be able to afford the food that keeps them healthy and well, but this does not mean that food should be cheap. It means wages and benefits should be high enough that people can afford the food that helps everyone in the family live a healthy life, without having to sacrifice on other basic needs like heating.”
There’s no doubt that the new Scottish Child Payment is a great start, meaning that eligible families can access £40 every four weeks to help with the costs of raising a child under six, and prepaid Best Start Foods cards help eligible families buy healthy foods for children under three. But these are only the outline – barely a glimpse – of what a decent society would look like. We have so normalised greed and inequality as to be blinded to the real solutions that face us. Basic housing energy and food as publicly controlled and owned assets are the bigger vision we need to reclaim. If we want to steer away from the mounting ‘deep poverty’ and away from energy as a ‘cash machine’ for BP then we need to radically alter the nature of the debate and the one dimensional and short-term discussion about social policy we are mired in. Instead we have to have a debate about what sort of society we want to share when we really do come out of this. That really would be something to be optimistic about. That really would be a Freedom Day worth celebrating.
Download the Joseph Rowntree report here.
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