Britain’s Austerity Has Gone From Cradle To Grave

A decade of austerity in Britain has stunted, immiserated, and impoverished millions of lives. Now, the inevitable has happened: it’s started to shorten them.

Visitors and volunteers drink tea and coffee and have bacon sandwiches at the Salvation Army's weekly drop-in morning on July 26, 2017 in Cornwall, England. Matt Cardy / Getty

It takes twelve minutes to travel between Stockwell and Leicester Square stations in central London, but the life expectancy of a child born near the two stations drops one year for every minute of travel time: those born in Stockwell are expected to live to the age of seventy-eight, compared to eighty-nine by the time you’re in Leicester Square. The United Kingdom has always been riven with health inequalities: the class system generates material injustice that kills people early and burdens the years they do have with an increased incidence of health problems and disabilities.

The Office for National Statistics noted a slowdown in improvements of life expectancy, pinpointing 2011 as the year the health of the nation began to decline: just as Conservative austerity policies began to bite. The statistical body notes that while several other countries across Europe experienced slight declines, “the UK has experienced one of the largest slowdowns in life expectancy at birth and at age 65 years for males and females.”

That accounts for six months’ loss of life, according to the latest study of longevity in the UK. The Institute of Public Actuaries, an organization that collates projections for the pensions industry, say this is now a trend, rather than a statistical blip. Last year they revised down life expectancy by two months; this year, six. They decline to say why life expectancy is falling after slowly rising for so long, but academics in public health place the blame squarely on cuts in benefits, public health schemes, environmental protections, and the National Health Service.

Austerity has always hit women far harder than men: when public spending cuts came in, around 75 percent of the blow was absorbed by women — the latest projections show that number has risen to 86 percent. This is neither surprising nor accidental: the brunt of childcare and care for older relatives still falls upon women and is largely unpaid. Women’s work tends to be lower paid, and their pensions as a result are lower, so poverty in old age is higher among women. The Conservatives refused to carry out a full equality impact assessment on their economic policies, knowing the brunt would be borne disproportionately by women. This was fiscal misogyny, entered into willingly and knowingly by politicians who simply didn’t care about the well-being of people outside their usual electoral base.

That life expectancy has dropped by three months for poor women but risen by the same amount for rich women should come as no surprise. For nine years, the government has been pursuing inequality by stealth,” funding tax relief for the richest families by cutting financial support and public services for the poorest. Cuts have consequences, and in Britain those consequences see the lives of working-class people ending earlier as a result of deliberate government actions. Falling life expectancy across the UK is not an unexpected natural phenomenon but a direct political decision: the result of politicians choosing to prioritize government balance sheets over quality, and even length of life.

The Conservatives, first in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and now technically a majority with a confidence-and-supply deal with the Democratic Unionist Party, have been in thrall to the failed arguments of austerity. This model claims there is plenty of fat to be trimmed back within public spending and public services, and that where the need has been removed, volunteers will step in. That’s a proven lie: cuts to child protection and social care provision have put many vulnerable people in danger. Public health campaigns have been suspended due to lack of funds. Libraries and local social care systems for vulnerable children, older people in need of care, and both children and adults with disabilities or complex needs, are crumbling away. All of the municipal resources previously provided by local authorities are being squeezed or carved away as budgets are slashed in Westminster before being meanly hounded out to town halls across the country.

Comparing the public budget to household budgets is a common and economically illiterate tactic the Conservatives use in the media to justify austerity. Former chancellor George Osborne endlessly told the press and public that Britain needed to rein in spending, implying it was Labour’s spending while in government — rather than the global financial crash — that caused the economy take a hit. The deficit was spoken about as an unplanned overdraft the UK had to clear, and austerity as a temporary period of thrift that would result in later largesse, as though the country were saving for a holiday. But public spending cuts remove stimulus from the economy, cause greater need and burdens in other departments, and have left the UK in an even worse economic position than the economy the Tories inherited in coalition in 2010.

Idiotic metaphors aside, the fabric of people’s lives is never considered against the spending plans the Conservatives plot out. In the nine years since the Tories came into power, many children have been born, many growing from children into adults, with those in the poorest households being made even worse off through sanctions that deny social security benefits, gnawing hunger, financially battered schools, and parents intensely stressed in insecure work, or denied subsistence benefits. These will be the memories of their childhood: visiting food banks, missing school trips because their parents can’t afford them, seeing their local libraries and playgrounds close, experienced eviction and homelessness. Austerity has caused psychological violence to millions, and formed adverse memories of a decade of citizens’ lives. And now it has even shortened them.

Austerity is not a victimless crime, not some temporary cutback like forgoing a bottle of wine to save towards a greater pleasure. It causes misery within people’s lives and drastically worsens health, bringing death closer in the poorest communities. Talking about economics in terms of big numbers and abstract concepts creates the psychological distance necessary to justify swinging cuts. The Left’s fight against right-wing economic arguments has to include these stories, the human face of punitive public finances: the teenagers who had their childhood marred by poverty, the men and women dying early for the sake of a discredited economic argument.

Real-life stories are hard-hitting, but they’re not rare. A balance sheet view of economics is always posed as sensible and matter of fact. But austerity is literally killing people, and must be exposed for doing precisely that.