Disabled people and social security austerity: structural violence and social murder

Guest Blog by Dr Chris Grover, Department of Sociology, Lancaster University

Britain has endured nearly a decade of austerity that has had a devastating impact upon the income of and disabled people. It is estimated, for example, that the result of benefit and tax changes between 2010 and 2017 by 2020/21 will be that households with a disabled adult andchild will lose £5,500 per annum; households with a disabled child £3,300 per annum and households with a disabled adult £2,400 a year. These figures compare to £1,000 per annum for households with no disabled people. Even before the George Osborne’s 2015 Summer Budget that was structured by a poor lawarian approach to benefits for disabled people, it was estimated that in the five years between 2013/14 and 2017/18 disabled people would collectively lose £28 billion in social security payments.

There is mounting evidence that these cuts to the incomes of disabled people and the ways in which they are being secured, for example, through increased conditionality and demeaning and inaccurate eligibility testing are maiming and killing disabled people. So, for instance, disabled people’s organisations have gathered evidence about deaths related to austerity, for example, Calum’s List and We are Spartacus (see also Remember the Dead).Quantitative evidence suggests that for every 10,000 Employment and Support Allowance Work Capability Assessments, there are an additional six suicides, 2,700 reported cases of ‘mental health problems’ and the prescribing of 7,000 anti-depressant items. Other evidence suggests that a majority (66 percent) of ESA recipients have had thoughts about killing themselves, while nearly a half (43 percent) have attempted to do so. This compare to 22 and 7 percent respectively of people in the general population

Such observations point to the fact that austerity can be understood as a form of structural violence. Johann Galtung argues that violence can be understood as the difference between the potential and the actual, between what is and what could be, and that violence occurs when detrimental impacts are known and avoidable. Structural violence, he argues, is ‘built into the structure and shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances.’ Austerity can be understood as violence because, as the above observations suggest, it widens the gap between what could be and what is for disabled people. It can be undersoodas structural violence because, not only has its effects been known for many years, it is a political choice and, therefore, not inevitable. Austerity is also reproducing unequal life chances. It is, for instance, contributing to increasing povertyfalling living standardsprecarious wage-labour and deepening disabilised poverty.

As noted above, austerity is also contributing to the deaths of disabled people. Drawing upon the 19th century work of Friedrich Engels, this can be described as social murder. Engels’ concern was the effects of industrialisation – low wages and poor working conditions – upon working class people. He argued that because the impacts of such conditions were foreseeable and avoidable they could be understood as social murder:

when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live – forces them, through the strong arm of the law, to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence – knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual…

Given the evidence outlined above, similar arguments can be made about contemporary austerity – that through it the state (rather than bourgeoisie as Engels argued) is killing and maiming disabled people. It is doing this by reducing disabled people’s incomes andsubjecting them to an entitlement-testing regime that is emotionally damaging through the evocation of fear and stress and which is structured by harsher conditionality and, as a consequence, financially more punishing benefit sanctions

Engels argues that social murder is an ‘offence… more… of omission than commission.’ While, as the Disabled People Against Cuts recognise, ‘dead people don’t claim’, live people do consume, do provide jobs for other people (e.g. work capability assessors; social workers, ‘carers’ and so on) and they do have macro-economic effects (e.g. putting downward pressure on wage levels through competing for wage-labour). Governments, therefore, arguably have an interest in not deliberately killing and maiming disabled people. However, the treatment of disabled people under austere social security policy in the past decade suggests that, like many other impoverished people, their lives for ‘count for nothing’. The result is an enacting of social violence upon disabled people, the consequence of which for some is social murder.

This presentation was given at; “Social death: the impact of austerity and poverty”, organised by the land and health campaigning group Taxpayers Against Poverty (TAP) on 1st May 2019, Labour Day, at Portcullis House, on the Parliamentary Estate, Westminster. 

Click here for the video for the event and the individual presentations.