Kelly Bogue, The Divisive State of Social Policy: The ‘bedroom tax’, austerity and housing insecurity, Policy Press, 2019, viii + 195 pp, hbk, 1 4473 5056 9, £75
This book is an example of precisely the kind of subject for which qualitative research is so important. The only way to find out the effects of policy change is to ask the people who are most affected by it. The book is based on the research that the author undertook for her Ph.D. thesis on the effects of the ‘bedroom tax’: the reduction of Housing Benefit when families are living in accommodation with more bedrooms than they are deemed to need.
The first chapter begins with the financial crisis of 2007 and the UK government’s response: austerity. The author lists changes to Housing Benefit, and to social security benefits generally, and then concentrates on the ‘bedroom tax’. Many of those affected are older people whose children have left home. The problem is that in many areas there are no smaller properties for them to move into. The result has been poverty, debt, and stress.
Chapter 2 is historical, charting the beginnings and growth of the social housing sector; government financial support for housing costs; the implementation of ‘right to buy’; and the subsequent neglect and stigmatisation of social housing. The chapter concludes with a description of the community in which Bogue conducted her interviews, and on the research methods that she employed. The following chapters present detailed case studies on the impact of the bedroom tax, but also reveal how other policy changes since 2010 have also affected the lives of social housing tenants. Chapter 3 shows how the bedroom tax has undermined families’ ability to cope on limited budgets, and that children are often seriously affected by the policy. Chapter 4 records the experiences of households that have attempted to downsize in order to avoid the new ‘tax’, and suggests that the bedroom tax is part of a policy shift from a state that protects the population’s welfare to one that aims to construct a mobile and low wage workforce. Many of those most affected by the bedroom tax would never be able to earn a wage; coping with change has been made more difficult by reductions in local authority staffing levels and by the benefits system’s ‘digital by default’; and responsibility has effectively been shifted from the state to the household. The internalisation of a lack of security in one’s home has become yet another characteristic of an already marginalised social class. Chapter 5 offers evidence of the shame and anger that people feel when they feel forced to leave their homes, particularly when ethnic minority families move into the homes that long-term residents have been forced to leave; and chapter 6 explores place attachment, and the fear that displacement can generate. A particularly important discussion can be found in chapter 5 about parallel divisions within the working class, between those who own their own homes and those in increasingly stigmatised social housing, and between the ‘strivers’ and the ‘shirkers’. It is of course an interesting question as to whether this reinforced division is purposeful, and whether it is an electoral strategy.
Chapters 5 and 6 taken together reveal a social reality: If in a longstanding community people are forced by the bedroom tax to move home, then the entire community can feel as if it is being undermined by forces that it cannot control. Finally, chapter 7 reflects on the increasing precarity of housing, and the toxic mixture of fear and anger that that produces. This, along with the resentment caused by the increasing precarity of incomes and employment, is an important driver of the divisive state of politics in the UK.
Bogue’s manages to be both objective in relation to the evidence gathered, the methods employed, and the conclusions drawn, and passionate in the cause of secure good quality housing. At the end she asks whether the UK is returning to the pre-public housing situation evidenced in the second chapter. If so, this will be a symptom of a more general regression, as the increasing severity of work and disability tests, and increasingly precarious incomes and employment, take us back to a pre-Beveridge welfare state. As Bogue says at the end of the acknowledgements at the beginning of the book: ‘I remain hopeful of a better future’.