The £20 per week uplift to Universal Credit introduced at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic has been cut. The uplift was introduced as one of a number of temporary responses to the pandemic. Nevertheless, its abolition was not inevitable. It was a political choice that will harm the poorest people in Britain. As such, it can be seen as an example of structural violence.
It is estimated that the Universal Credit uplift cut removed about £1,000 a year from 5.5 million families (about a fifth of all working age families). The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates it will drive 500,000 people, including 200,000 children, into poverty.
The destructive effects of the cut are known and avoidable ñ they will entrench existing inequality
It is economically and socially devastating for Universal Credit recipients. It will leave families having to make even more difficult decisions about how to feed and clothe themselves and keep warm, let alone how they might be able to take part in social and cultural activities that many people take for granted. The physical and mental impacts of this cut, like those of the preceding “decade of austerity” (including the benefit cap, two child limit, bedroom tax and four years of frozen benefit levels), will be visible and experienced over many years to come. As a consequence of its relationship to increased poverty, the uplift cut will contribute to such things as: reduced life expectancy and the years with which people live good health; an increased likelihood of self-harm and people attempting to and killing themselves; reduced educational attainment; precarious work and the “low pay, no pay” cycle; and increased likelihood of children being removed to local authority care.
Such impacts of poverty have been known for many years. And the poverty-causing impact of the Universal Credit uplift cut is known to the government. It did not conduct an impact assessment of the cut, arguing that it did not need to as the uplift was a temporary measure. A “Whitehall official”, however, is reported in the Financial Times as saying: “The internal modelling of ending the UC uplift is catastrophic. Homelessness and poverty are likely to rise, and food banks usage will soar.”
By extending and deepening poverty the cut to the Universal Credit uplift can be understood as a form of structural violence. Usually, violence is understood in an interpersonal kind of way. It is something that individuals do to each other – a punch, kick or even worse. Violence though, can take various forms beyond the interpersonal.
Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung, for example, argued in the 1960s that violence can be understood as acts that widen the gap between the actual and the potential, or prevent a decrease in the distance between the two. Structural violence exists in the structures and processes of society, such as unequal power relations and life chances. As such, structural violence describes the ways in which social and economic structures operate to the detriment of what could be the potential. Structural violence is also something that is known and avoidable.
Britain is a very rich country. Were its social and economic structures and process geared to greater equality and equity the potential is there for those people who receive Universal Credit to be financially supported in ways that mean they do not face a greater risk of the harms noted above. The cut to the Universal Credit uplift, however, is in the opposite direction, threatening to cause even more harm to the poorest people in British society. It can, therefore, be seen as an act of structural violence, as its destructive effects are known and avoidable, and they will reproduce and entrench already existing social and economic inequalities.
The government, however, needs to go further than just restoring the uplift. Rather, the levels of Universal Credit should be substantially increased so that they are pegged to calculations – which are available – of what it costs for people to meet their needs and live a life where they can participate in society, rather than having their lives degraded by inadequate levels of support and a system framed by shame and stigma that harms them.
Chris Grover is senior lecturer in sociology at Lancaster University
Image: Volunteers at a Blackpool food bank. Usage is expected to soar after the cut. Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP