Only time will tell how dramatically Brexit will impact Britain and whether it’ll plunge the country into a protracted economic slump. But Sarah Marie Hall says we shouldn’t ignore those already living in and through austerity and consider the everyday impacts of economic and social change.
Since 2010, the UK government has vigorously pursued a programme of economic and political austerity. In its most simple terms, this refers to a series of public spending cuts with the purported aim of reducing the national deficit.
During this time, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported, local government budgets have been slashed by up to 27%, further benefits caps have been introduced, and millions of pounds cut from the social care budget. Political and economic reforms significantly impact the everyday lives of UK residents, whether it’s in terms of employment, caring responsibilities, local community services, housing, or household budgeting.
Austerity is as personal as it is political. This seems like common sense, right? Maybe so, but tales of the depth of these cuts – especially for those at the sharpest end – in the way they feel, and the changes they make to everyday life, are usually dwarfed in political debates about the economy, finance and state budgets. Even the widespread public push-back to the ‘Bedroom Tax’ fell on deaf ears.
As a researcher with an interest in the everyday impacts of economic and social change and passionate about social inequality, I wanted to give people a chance to explain how they have experienced austerity, and to provide a platform for these voices.
Paying attention to the impacts of austerity and of austere policies as they are lived and experienced is not, however, about speaking for others. Instead, it means asking simple but relevant questions about economic and political conditions in the UK, like: What is austerity? What does it look and feel like? What impact does austerity have on people’s everyday lives? How do people get by in austerity? And it means listening to the answers.
‘Everyday Austerity’, an exhibition I have developed in collaboration with North West zine artist Stef Bradley and currently taking place at the University of Manchester, addresses these important and topical questions. Based on my ethnographic research over two years and with six families in Greater Manchester, the exhibition presents personal, emotional and at times hopeful stories about living in and through austerity.
Austerity is multi-sensory
The exhibition is a multi-sensory affair. Using the medium of zine art – images produced for public circulation, not financial gain, cheap to produce, and self distributed – everyday stories and marginalised voices are brought to life. These drawings sit alongside collected materials and field diary extracts, and visitors are also able to listen to interview extracts. In this way, the exhibition reveals how austerity is also multi-sensory. Cold hands from a broken boiler that’s too expensive to fix, a growling tummy that longs for a feed, small talk at the bus stop about the closing of the local library, phone calls from a friend recently made redundant. Austerity appeals to all of our human senses.
What this exhibition, and the research study it is based on, also reveals is that austerity is not placed in a social vacuum. As my previous research has shown, people can be affected on a number of different fronts, at the same time or at different times. For instance, it is perfectly plausible that if you are impacted by one austerity policy – say the capping of housing benefits to those with an income of £20,000 or less, or the limiting of child tax credits to two children brought in by the Summer 2015 budget – then you will be affected by another. These layers have no limit, because at the same time you may be at the mercy of an increasingly unaffordable rental market, and have seen the erosion of public services and charities in your neighbourhood.
That’s the thing about economic austerity, and everyday life more generally; it isn’t separated into neat digestible chunks of housing in one corner, social care in the next. It is messy and porous and generally quite complicated. So when austerity policies are made, they too are not made in isolation.
With this in mind, the European Referendum result, and the run-up to the vote, have been like a distracting horn, drawing the crowd from the main performance as some media commentators have noted.
While the Brexit debate is undoubtedly extremely important, it shouldn’t mask the very real experience for those currently living in and through austerity, for whom the situation is unlikely to get better and a lot more likely to get worse.
While we discuss Brexit as a nation, in our communities, or at the kitchen table, we also need to talk about austerity. The same goes for Devo-Manc, and for all discussions about devolution across the UK.
Austerity is still here, as palpable and personal as ever before, and does not appear to be going anywhere any time soon.
- More information and debate on this research, exhibition and the wider issues can be found at #livedausterity
- Photograph by Dr Joanne Jordan