Second class citizens

Book cover for Second Class Citizens by Stef Benstead shows scissors cutting through cardboard with wheelchair symbols

Stef Benstead discusses her new book on welfare reform

#IsItOk that disabled people have written books about the harm that the UK government is doing to us?

In the modern hegemony of identity politics, a person is only allowed to comment on something if they have direct experience of it. So one answer is that yes, it is okay that sick and disabled people write about issues affecting them, because in fact they’re the only people who have the right to do so.

But the reality is that, whilst it is okay that sick and disabled people write about their experiences as sick and disabled people, it is not okay that those experiences are so overwhelmingly negative in breadth and depth. It’s one thing when one part of your life goes wrong and everything else is fine: you can probably manage. It’s quite another when every part is wrong: your health, your house, your income, your medical care, your local area, your support to live in your home, your support to get out of your home.

I remember once talking to a friend who was objecting that poverty in the UK isn’t really that bad. I realised that it was, in part, because he thought of a person in poverty who otherwise had good health; lived in a warm and safe home in a pleasant suburb; had friends and family and business colleagues; and even had a decent job and secure albeit inadequate income. But when I think of a person in poverty, I know that they are typically sick or disabled; stressed and distressed; in a property that is at least one out of cold, damp, mouldy, unsafe, overcrowded and pest-infested; either isolated from family and friends or whose family and friends are struggling just as much as they are; and whose job is insecure, high-pressure, low-autonomy, toxic, high strain work that actually makes people ill – and I include complying with the benefits system in that definition of jobs carried out by the poor.

My friend’s poor person was broadly okay and manifestly better off than the poor in undeveloped countries. My poor person was being actively harmed by a government that underfunded public services and promoted toxic jobs through the implementation of a toxic welfare system combined with deregulation. My friend’s poor person could get by; mine was trapped.

It is for people like my friend that I wrote Second Class Citizens. I know that my friend cares about poverty and social injustice; we’ve talked about it often. And I have many friends like him. They are people who would care – if they knew. But their understanding of poverty is restricted by the middle-class world in which they live. Their understanding of the causes of poverty is coloured by myths and misinformation.

The fact is that poverty is primarily a structural problem and one that is solved firstly through money and secondly through investment. But this is the opposite of what the UK government has done. At a time when private sector spending and investment was falling, the government thought that demand would be boosted if the public sector was also cut. At a time when more people needed the safety net of the social security system, the government ripped the net to shreds. In a crisis caused by deregulation and irresponsible lending, the government blamed people who either couldn’t work or couldn’t find work.

Disabled people are the canaries in the mine. You can be sure that when services and support are cut, it is disabled people who notice first. When bus routes are slashed, pavements cracked and daycentres closed then disabled people lose not only somewhere to go but the means to get there. If you add on top of this the decreasing availability of necessary healthcare, loss of benefits and collapse in social care then disabled people can’t even get out of the house. When jobs at the bottom combine a high premium on speed with low autonomy, then toxic conditions are created which make healthy people sick and lock sick people out of the labour market altogether. Add in benefit cuts and you’re trapping sick and disabled people in penury.

The consequences are life-threateningly severe. Our NHS provides outstanding care for the amount of resource the government allots it – but the government doesn’t give it enough to pay for the need. So we have people going blind because the government didn’t treat them in time. Diabetics have lost their legs and even their lives because they couldn’t afford the insulin they needed. Nine people die each day still waiting for the government to get around to assessing them for disability benefits. There are an additional 200 suicides a year associated with our harsh sickness benefit process. There were 30,000 deaths above expected in winter 2015 and 10,000 additional deaths in the first six weeks of 2018.

There is no need for the government to be in thrall to big business and the ultra-rich. Sick and disabled people do not have to be second-class citizens. But until citizens come before companies and people before profit, the sick and disabled will continue to be the least and the last.

Second Class Citizens provides the definitive verdict on government welfare reform. Its comprehensive overview shows how four decades of poor policy, based on neoliberal ideology and myths of welfare dependency, has undermined the original welfare state and caused increasing harm to the UK’s sick and disabled citizens. Individual stories demonstrate how the UK, far from being a world leader on disability, has breached the rights of its sick and disabled citizens, repeatedly putting them second to private profit and corporate gain. Buy it here

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