Around eight years ago, I interviewed a man planning to live off biscuits. The coalition government’s “welfare reforms” were about to come into effect and, like many, he knew it meant his meagre benefits were about to get smaller. For him, that meant letting go the woman who came in each day to help him cook. His disability left him unable to use the oven and his benefits wouldn’t stretch to ready meals or pre-prepared veg. Sat in his wheelchair, he calculated that he could feed himself each day with packets of biscuits. I remember the conversation not only for its injustice, but his outlook – a kind of matter of fact acceptance of a system that was content to starve him.
I thought of him as I read the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s call this week for the government to use the autumn budget to keep the £20 increase in universal credit it introduced during lockdown. It is a crucial campaign: if the extra help is taken away as planned next April, 700,000 more people are likely to be pulled into poverty. And yet it is remarkable that we are only having these conversations now. Social security was not enough to live on long before coronavirus arrived.
Public health emergencies do not necessarily throw up new concerns, but expose travesties that should have been a concern for years. The societal crises that coronavirus has shone a light on – including food poverty, underfunded public services and insecure jobs – are being exacerbated by the pandemic, and will likely trigger immense hardship in the coming months. But these are not new problems. A decade of austerity, coupled with around 40 years of neoliberal policies, has starved services to breaking point and permitted an obscene gap between the wealthy and poorest. It is not as if campaigners haven’t been banging these particular drums for years, or that ministers were not capable of understanding what was happening before. The truth is, millions of people in this country have been suffering for some time. It just took a global pandemic for many to notice.
Look at what’s happening to our poorest pupils. Research by the National Foundation for Educational Research this month found the gap in England between some children and their wealthier peers widened by 46% this summer as the coronavirus lockdown stopped the school year. There are rightly calls for urgent support to now be targeted at disadvantaged pupils and schools in areas of high deprivation, but working-class children have long had their life chances rigged with little more than an accepted shrug. The same children who had no laptop to learn with during lockdown have been left without textbooks at school for years. Child poverty, meanwhile, has been permitted to spread more than any virus would be.
Or consider homelessness. Rough sleepers were placed in hotels during the height of the pandemic and an extra £85m has been announced by the Treasury to provide emergency accommodation in England in a bid to stop thousands of people having to return to the streets. This is entirely the right thing to do – but it is not sour grapes to ask, why only now? Rough sleeping increased in England by 120% between 2010 and 2018 as this decade’s cuts kicked in. Human beings have been camped out in tents on the streets all this time and politics carried on, largely unmoved.
When commentators talk about the hope of “going back to normal” after coronavirus, they miss the fact that, for many people in this country, “normal” is not a rose-tinted ideal to return to, but a grinding system to escape. Brexit, after all, was in many ways the loudest cry for change – any change – and one that is still being ignored on any meaningful level. At some point, we will emerge from this pandemic haze and start questioning not only what a new normal might look like but, more importantly, what we want it to. Or to put it another way: as we mourn the deaths, we may want to consider how exactly we should live. Evidence suggests the public are ready for something different. Just 6% of the population want a return to the pre-pandemic economy. A new report by Tax Justice shows even Conservative voters have shifted in favour of tax rises during lockdown, as inequality becomes more apparent.
A government that appears to have little interest in governing will never willingly usher in progress, just as the political class that previously had no interest in fixing the cracks will be no more keen to fix them now they are gaping. But moments of seismic economic and social change have a habit of shaking the status quo. Coronavirus has shown not only the long-felt divisions in our unequal society but that the state can address them if it chooses. Once that genie is out of the bottle, it is decidedly harder to get back in.
• Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist