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Thursday, December 13, 2018

“It’s clearly an attack on our class,” says Dave Kelly, a retired bricklayer in the town of Kirkby, on the outskirts of Liverpool. New York Times Part Two


What follows is the second part of an article published by the New York Times on May 28th 2018. We have not edited this in any way so please accept USA spelling.  This is Part Two. Part One may be read here. Part Three is available here.

“It’s clearly an attack on our class,” says Dave Kelly, a retired bricklayer in the town of Kirkby, on the outskirts of Liverpool, where many factories sit empty, broken monuments to another age. “It’s an attack on who we are. The whole fabric of society is breaking down.”

Austerity’s ‘Knock-on Effects’

As much as any city, Liverpool has seen sweeping changes in its economic fortunes.

In the 17th century, the city enriched itself on human misery. Local shipping companies sent vessels to West Africa, transporting slaves to the American colonies and returning bearing the fruits of bondage — cotton and tobacco, principally.

The cotton fed the mills of Manchester nearby, yielding textiles destined for multiple continents. By the late 19th century, Liverpool’s port had become the gateway to the British Empire, its status underscored by the shipping company headquarters lining the River Mersey.

By the next century — through the Great Depression and the German bombardment of World War II — Liverpool had descended into seemingly terminal decline. Its hard luck, blue-collar station was central to the identity of its most famous export, the Beatles, whose star power seemed enhanced by the fact such talent could emerge from such a place.

Today, more than a quarter of Liverpool’s roughly 460,000 residents are officially poor, making austerity traumatic: Public institutions charged with aiding vulnerable people are themselves straining from cutbacks.

A fire station in Allerton, England, is one of several in the area that have closed because of austerity measures. Credit Andrea Bruce for The New York Times

Over the past eight years, the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service, which serves greater Liverpool, has closed five fire stations while cutting the force to 620 firefighters from about 1,000.

“I’ve had to preside over the systematic dismantling of the system,” says the fire chief, Dan Stephens.

His department recently analyzed the 83 deaths that occurred in accidental house fires from 2007 to 2017. The majority of the victims — 51 people — lived alone and were alone at the time of the deadly fire. Nineteen of those 51 were in need of some form of home care.

The loss of home care — a casualty of austerity — has meant that more older people are being left alone unattended.

Virtually every public agency now struggles to do more with less while attending to additional problems once handled by some other outfit whose budget is also in tatters.

Chief Stephens said people losing cash benefits are falling behind on their electric bills and losing service, resorting to candles for light — a major fire risk.

The city has cut mental health services, so fewer staff members are visiting people prone to hoarding newspapers, for instance, leaving veritable bonfires piling up behind doors, unseen.

“There are knock-on effects all the way through the system,” says Chief Stephens, who recently announced plans to resign and move to Australia.

The National Health Service has supposedly been spared from budget cuts. But spending has been frozen in many areas, resulting in cuts per patient. At public hospitals, people have grown resigned to waiting for hours for emergency care, and weeks for referrals to specialists.

Treating a patient at Royal Liverpool University Hospital. The National Health Service has supposedly been spared from budget cuts, but spending has been frozen in many areas. Credit Andrea Bruce for The New York Times

“I think the government wants to run it down so the whole thing crumbles and they don’t have to worry about it anymore,” says Kenneth Buckle, a retired postal worker who has been waiting three months for a referral for a double knee replacement. “Everything takes forever now.”

At Fulwood Green Medical Center in Liverpool, Dr. Simon Bowers, a general practitioner, points to austerity as an aggravating factor in the flow of stress-related maladies he encounters — high blood pressure, heart problems, sleeplessness, anxiety.

He argues that the cuts, and the deterioration of the National Health Service, represent a renouncement of Britain’s historical debts. He rattles off the lowlights — the slave trade, colonial barbarity.

“We as a country said, ‘We have been cruel. Let’s be nice now and look after everyone,’” Dr. Bowers says. “The N.H.S. has everyone’s back. It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are. It’s written into the psyche of this country.”

“Austerity isn’t a necessity,” he continued. “It’s a political choice, to move Britain in a different way. I can’t see a rationale beyond further enriching the rich while making the lives of the poor more miserable.”

‘Prosperity for All’

Wealthy Britons remain among the world’s most comfortable people, enjoying lavish homes, private medical care, top-notch schools and restaurants run by chefs from Paris and Tokyo. The poor, the elderly, the disabled and the jobless are increasingly prone to Kafka-esque tangles with the bureaucracy to keep public support.

For Emma Wilde, a 31-year-old single mother, the misadventure began with an inscrutable piece of correspondence.

Raised in the Liverpool neighborhood of Croxteth, Ms. Wilde has depended on welfare benefits to support herself and her two children. Her father, a retired window washer, is disabled. She has been taking care of him full time, relying on a so-called caregiver’s allowance, which amounts to about $85 a week, and income support reaching about $145 a month.

The letter put this money in jeopardy.

Sent by a private firm contracted to manage part of the government’s welfare programs, it informed Ms. Wilde that she was being investigated for fraud, accused of living with a partner — a development she is obliged to have reported.

Ms. Wilde lives only with her children, she insists. But while the investigation proceeds, her benefits are suspended.

Eight weeks after the money ceased, Ms. Wilde’s electricity was shut off for nonpayment. During the late winter, she and her children went to bed before 7 p.m. to save on heat. She has swallowed her pride and visited a food bank at a local church, bringing home bread and hamburger patties.

Having lost electricity, Ms. Wilde and her children went to bed before 7 p.m. in the winter in order to conserve heat Credit Andrea Bruce for The New York Times

“I felt a bit ashamed, like I had done something wrong, ” Ms. Wilde says. “But then you’ve got to feed the kids.”

She has been corresponding with the Department for Work and Pensions, mailing bank statements to try to prove her limited income and to restore her funds.

The experience has given her a perverse sense of community. At the local center where she brings her children for free meals, she has met people who lost their unemployment benefits after their bus was late and they missed an appointment with a caseworker. She and her friends exchange tips on where to secure hand-me-down clothes.

“Everyone is in the same situation now,” Ms. Wilde says. “You just don’t have enough to live on.”

From its inception, austerity carried a whiff of moral righteousness, as if those who delivered it were sober-minded grown-ups. Belt tightening was sold as a shared undertaking, an unpleasant yet unavoidable reckoning with dangerous budget deficits.

“The truth is that the country was living beyond its means,” the then-chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, declared in outlining his budget to Parliament in 2010. “Today, we have paid the debts of a failed past, and laid the foundations for a more prosperous future.”

A community center in Everton. It provides numerous services, like free lunches for the elderly, that were once done by government agencies. Credit Andrea Bruce for The New York Times

“Prosperity for all,” he added.

Eight years later, housing subsidies have been restricted, along with tax credits for poor families. The government has frozen unemployment and disability benefits even as costs of food and other necessities have climbed. Over the last five years, the government has begun transitioning to so-called Universal Credit, giving those who receive benefits lump sum payments in place of funds from individual programs. Many have lost support for weeks or months while their cases have shifted to the new system.

All of which is unfortunate yet inescapable, assert Conservative lawmakers. The government was borrowing roughly one-fourth of what it was spending. To put off cuts was to risk turning Britain into the next Greece.

“The hard left has never been very clear about what their alternative to the program was,” says Neil O’Brien, a Conservative lawmaker who was previously a Treasury adviser to Mr. Osborne. “Presumably, it would be some enormous increase in taxation, but they are a bit shy about what that would mean.”

He rejects the notion that austerity is a means of class warfare, noting that wealthy people have been hit with higher taxes on investment and expanded fees when buying luxury properties.

Britain spends roughly the same portion of its national income on public spending today as it did a decade ago, said Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

But those dependent on state support express a sense that the system has been rigged to discard them.

Glendys Perry, 61, was born with cerebral palsy, making it difficult for her to walk. For three decades, she answered the phones at an auto parts company. After she lost that job in 2010, she lived on a disability check.

Last summer, a letter came, summoning her to “an assessment.” The first question dispatched any notion that this was a sincere exploration.

“How long have you had cerebral palsy?” (From birth.) “Will it get better?” (No.)

In fact, her bones were weakening, and she fell often. Her hands were not quick enough to catch her body, resulting in bruises to her face.

The man handling the assessment seemed uninterested.

“Can you walk from here to there?” he asked her.

He dropped a pen on the floor and commanded her to pick it up — a test of her dexterity.

“How did you come here?” he asked her.

“By bus,” she replied.

Can you make a cup of tea? Can you get dressed?

“I thought, ‘I’m physically disabled,’” she says. “‘Not mentally.’”

When the letter came informing her that she was no longer entitled to her disability payment — that she had been deemed fit for work — she was not surprised.

“They want you to be off of benefits,” she says. “I think they were just ticking boxes.”

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