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To those who wish to penalise poor people, cold and hunger are signs of a perfect system

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Show caption A food bank sorting hub in Weymouth, February 2022. Photograph: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images Opinion To those who wish to penalise poor people, cold and hunger are signs of a perfect system Frances Ryan Politicians and the media have long dehumanised benefits claimants. Making their lives tougher is part of the plan @drfrancesryan Wed 9 Mar 2022 09.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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Two things are about to happen in Britain. Next month ministers will increase the value of benefits by just 3.1% – the equivalent of a real-terms cut in light of soaring inflation. At the same time, household costs will rocket: energy bills will increase by 54% from April alongside record high rents and a national insurance hike. Food price inflation is at its highest in almost a decade, while even getting tested for coronavirus is about to add £6 to the bills. The Resolution Foundation says the conflict in Ukraine will further push gas and oil inflation in UK to above 8% this spring – the biggest hit to households since the 1970s.

You don’t have to be an economist to work out what will happen next: if the money going out soars, while the money coming in shrinks in real-terms, millions of families who rely on benefits will be experiencing a socioeconomic catastrophe. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says 9 million families on benefits due to low incomes will be £500 worse off on average from April. About 400,000 people could be pulled into poverty.

Bear in mind that benefit rates are already at a 30-year low – a level so meagre that the government’s own research shows disabled people are unable to afford food, rent and energy bills, even before the inflation hike. April’s real-terms benefits cut comes only a few months after ministers cut the universal credit “uplift” of £20 a week. That move itself came after a decade of cuts and freezes to social security. The only things that have gone up for people on benefits in recent years are the queues at the food bank.

Last week I spoke to Victoria. She told me she often gets through a day by eating out-of-date food; tins of beans handed out by her local “waste cafe”, where the poorest come for supermarket rejects. Severe ME, and heart and bowel conditions, means the mum of one relies on out-of-work sickness benefits to get by. But like so many others, the benefits system leaves her unable to afford even the basics. “My benefits don’t even cover a tank of heating oil,” she said. Instead, Victoria covers her windows in bubble wrap, keeps the curtains drawn and puts a blanket round her wheelchair to try to keep warm.

When energy bills spike, Victoria calculates she’ll have to find thousands of pounds extra a year. Ministers may as well ask her to find a unicorn. Thirty charities are pushing the government to raise benefits by at least 6% to be in line with inflation and help soften the blow. Yet to expect the Conservatives to make the lives of people receiving benefits easier seems to miss the point. It is not a cliche to say the Tories fundamentally believe that someone on benefits should not be able to have a comfortable life – as if hunger pangs are a necessary motivation to get out of poverty. Or to put it another way: to a certain crowd, social security users not being able to afford food or heating is not a sign that the system is going wrong – it is the system working exactly as intended.

Just look at the government’s recent plan to make universal credit “tougher”, including forcing jobseekers to travel up to three hours and apply for jobs they’re not qualified for or have their benefits docked. Britain’s welfare state is in many ways still based on Victorian morality politics, but instead of workhouses, poor and disabled people get sent to the jobcentre. The cruelty, as they say, is the point.

Such austere policies are often presented under the guise that ministers “cannot afford” to increase benefit rates or ease eligibility even if they wanted to – despite the fact research shows the state has to shell out huge and increasing amounts of money not to tackle poverty. Remember that the same government that will cry poor over benefit rates next month recently found £5bn to write off fraudulent Covid loans. There is always enough money to do the wrong thing.

It would be convenient to believe such thinking is confined to the worst of the right, but these are not particularly fringe opinions. They have been on the front pages of newspapers for years. It is accepted that hunger is an aberration for working families, but somehow justified for those who claim social security; that it is quite right for a certain level of suffering to come with being on benefits, but would naturally be wrong happening to “other” people.

Even the use of the term “benefit claimant” is dehumanising, encouraging people to think of those who receive benefits as somehow separate from the population at large. The fact that many people on benefits are actually in work, and others are ill or family carers, is apparently still not enough to break this moral binary.

Cutting social security in real terms in the middle of a cost of living crisis is, in many ways, the natural end point for this narrative, a darkly cruel turn of events that is only possible in a political culture that long ago lost its hold on decency or even common sense. Until we challenge it, this country is destined to repeat the same old mistakes, becoming an ever meaner society, one that is ill-equipped to provide even the most basic essentials for millions of its citizens.

The pandemic showed dramatic state intervention could be mobilised in a time of crisis – and it would be hard to argue vast hikes in food and energy prices do not constitute another. Mass hunger and cold are just as much a sickness as coronavirus, and a vaccine is available: raising benefit rates; introducing a windfall tax on oil and gas producers; increasing the warm homes discount for poorer and disabled households; union-backed pay rises for squeezed workers; and, in the longer term, building more affordable and social housing.

It is a reflection of how low we have sunk that to get there, we must argue for the most obvious of truths: so-called benefit claimants matter too.

Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist and author of Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People – now out on audiobook