In his latest report on shocking poverty levels in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, the United Nation’s top expert on poverty took aim at increasingly harsh austerity measures pushed through by the right-wing Tory government—which has stripped the nation’s social services and left millions of Britons struggling to afford basic necessities.
Paul Austen, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, spent two weeks traveling the country and surveying communities where many people have increasingly relied on food banks and other charities to survive as the government of Prime Minister Theresa May has overseen major slashes to key programs—cuts borne not out of economic necessity, he argued, “but rather a commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering.
“British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instill discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today’s world, and elevating the goal of enforcing blind compliance over a genuine concern to improve the well-being of those at the lowest levels of British society,” wrote Alston in his report (pdf).
Although Britain has the world’s fifth-largest economy, Alston reported that a fifth of the population—14 million people—live in poverty, while 1.5 million are “destitute, unable to afford basic essentials.”
“British compassion for those who are suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous approach apparently designed to instill discipline where it is least useful, to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping with today’s world.” —Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur Alston especially found the level of poverty among British children to be “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster.” The special rapporteur cited research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which predicted a seven percent rise in child poverty by 2022, with the rate going up to 40 percent.
Alston pointed to a number of policies from which one could draw a direct line to the current realities Britons are faced with today. Cuts to social welfare benefits have made it impossible for those supports to help lift families out of poverty, especially as the government has rolled out measures like its “two-child policy,” which allows families to collect benefits and tax credits only for their first two children.
The U.K.’s recently unveiled Universal Credit, meant to replace unemployment, housing, and other benefits, has also been criticized as taking £2,500—or about $3,200—away from more than three million households that rely on those payments every year, under the guise of making benefits claims more convenient for families while also saving the government money.
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