The economic consequences of the financial downturn that started in 2008 are well familiar – they were immediately apparent in the high street shops that slammed their doors, and the jobs that disappeared. Less understood, but more insidious, are the devastating social repercussions, which would soon show themselves in everything from suicide rates to social club rolls. These are the focus of Tom Clark’s compelling book Hard Times: Inequality, Recession, Aftermath now available in paperback, which reveals how a crisis that began up in the towers of high finance would eventually come to haunt the streets below. In a three-part blog series, taking each element of his subtitle in turn, (read part 1, part 3), Clark explores the backdrop of economic inequality which left society frail – and made this slump so devastating.
The great crash began in the towers of high finance, but it didn’t take long for the crisis to descend to the streets below. Dried up credit lines soon converted into redundancy notices, which were disproportionately served on the young, the black and the unschooled – that is to say, on exactly the same people who had been missing out for decades. The great squeeze in incomes, however, was not so much concentrated at the bottom, as shared far and wide. The real wages of British men, for example, dropped by something approaching 10%, and the fall was just as large a tenth of the way down from the top of the pay scale, as it was at the bottom of heap.
Inequality in narrow economic terms did not, then, suddenly get worse. The real problem was that it was already extreme, so the pinch hurt an awful lot more at the bottom of the heap, where people had already been squeezed for years. Food banks mushroomed, rent arrears built up and – in the most stricken streets especially – hope began to die. That may sound a melodramatic choice of phrase, but in hard times we mine data on everything from social club roles to suicide rates to bear out the verdict which recession-struck families tell us in their own words.
Those who felt the slump most keenly were fully four times as likely to report rising anxiety, as those whom the recession had washed over without troubling too much. The slump hit became twice as likely to report rowing more often with their family and friends, as were the recession proof. And a dramatic collapse in overall volunteering, which made a mockery of David Cameron’s big society, turns out to have been heavily concentrated in the worst-hit towns. And it is not merely organised do-gooding, but even the informal exchange of neighbourly favours, which have taken a hit. There appeared to be a kindness crunch, with fewer citizens than before changing lightbulbs for elderly neighbours, feeding cats over the road, or minding the tots for a single mother down the road.
The recession unleashed a tornado of insecurity, which tore a strip through stricken towns. Their residents, who had long been left increasingly behind, appear to have responded to the fresh economic onslaught on their standard of living by hunkering down in their homes. “This is”, unemployed chef ‘Winston’ tells us, “the worst time in my life”. The reason, he explains, is not unemployment as such, but penury. “Losing a job is nothing, compared to what I’m going through now, because I am on the breadline”.
Tom Clark has spent his career exposing and analysing poverty and inequality. He moved from the academic settings of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, to the control-room of anti-poverty policy in Whitehall, under the last Labour government, and then to the Guardian where he writes about British politics and society. Clark teamed up with top sociologist, Anthony Heath, to explore the social effects, in a book which does not remain stuck in the ivory tower, but instead descends to the streets, and brings in the voices of those at the sharp end of the slump.
Hard Times is now available in paperback.
Image courtesy of ©athrine via flickr.