From the start, there was something different about the last recession. The financial crisis hit all sectors of the economy at the same time and demand fell across the economy. People were angry yet the backlash was relatively muted. The Occupy demonstrations for a time seemed to express the public mood, but the campers took their tents away, and, while unemployment rose sharply, it never reached the peak of the 1980s and 1990s recessions, let alone rose to four million as some had predicted. Governments are now cutting back on social security spending with public support, and applying other austerity measures. Yet all is not well. Growing numbers using foodbanks and the number of households still dealing with debt show we live in a divided nation.
This is the issue Tom Clark and Anthony Heath tackle in Hard Times. Based on the work of an academic project and including some face-to-face interviews, they argue that many people in the United Kingdom and United States were hit hard by the slump and face little prospect of things improving over the next few years. In most cases, the people most affected were already struggling before the recession, as their wages were eroded by inflation. Jobs numbers do not reflect the number of people underemployed and many people are trapped in cycles of low incomes with intervals of unemployment. Clark and Heath detail an impact that goes far wider than the immediate crisis of having bills to pay. People facing hard times are less likely to engage in social activities or volunteer time for community activities; rather than be a source of strength the ‘big society’ itself is often damaged when people lose hope. Hard Times even suggests the suicide rate may have begun to rise.
The authors plunge the reader into the numbers and the anecdotes, seeking to paint a picture of how many people are going through hard times and in what sense. The authors do note that the median average income in the UK is around £25,000 a year. That means half the population receives £25,000 or less, a fact still not properly comprehended in the worlds of Westminster and the City where economic policy is made. As policymakers we also need to have a clear sense of what our nation looks like today. This should include a focus on the imbalances of political power in society. Clark and Heath do this to some extent and highlight the need for shrewd politics when implementing reform, highlighting Franklin D Roosevelt’s success linking welfare to tax contributions.
Hard Times could have provided a better sense of how the UK and US economies work and more on how they contrast with harder-hit eurozone economies, and thus been more a work of political economy. Nevertheless, the authors are clear that a further crumbling of support for meaningful social security has occurred and that, before we hasten to devise answers, we need first to pause and listen to those who are living at the hard end of our particular brand of capitalism.
Hard Times: The Divisive Toll of the Economic Slump
Tom Clark with Anthony Heath
Yale University Press | 304pp | £18.99
This article was first published by Progress, in the June 2014 magazine and website.