Monday, 18 February 2013

A Tale of 3 Austerities.....

.... So what does Austerity mean to different people in society? Depending on people's income levels the things we have to cut back on in Austerity UK will differ surely?

I live on the North Wales coast in a diverse town, with quite a wide class and income divide. Literally the people who live on the hillside in the wealthy "upper" part of the town are the solicitors, doctors, lawyers, teachers and then the town spills down the hillside to the flat coast with a council estate inbetween and general semi detached residential homes and roads. I also know a wide variety of people through my voluntary work in the town, and I have found that through some conversations austerity varies wildly depending on who you are talking to.

I have taken a cross reference from 3 austerities and their effects on these families. You may think some of what is written is not austerity at all, you may be angered that what is classed as austerity to one is not what you are experiencing at all. All deserve to be aired. I shall start with myself and my family.

We are a family of 6: husband, wife and 4 sons, although one son has moved out. We bought our own home some years ago on the coast in more plentiful times. Its a 1930's semi detached in a road that could be replicated commonly across the UK. Its worth about £130k in N Wales: closer to £700k+ if we lived in London no doubt. Life has always been a struggle since our youngest son was diagnosed as autistic and caring duties took over from career/job progression. He is the centre of what we plan for the present and the future, and rightly so.

I first noted us cutting back significantly in about 2008. We always enjoyed a 2 week UK summer holiday, replacing items when they had worn out readily enough, sending the boys on school trips and buying sporting equipment when needed. Our third son Joe, a talented cricketer, has represented Wales at national level and this took a lot of money, travel, time and support to enable him to compete. Funnily enough, although there were 6 mouths to feed, and growing lads, food was never an issue to me. We could always manage the weekly food shop which has always been around the £150 a week mark.The mortgage has always been paid and all bills up to date. We have a 3 piece suite on credit, but that's all.

Since 2008, my husbands self employment has suffered. He is a DJ and cricket coach. Pubs and clubs have shut down ; the smoking ban hit all entertainers in the pub industry very hard, as pub footfall fell significantly and so pubs/social clubs did not want entertainment as often as they once had. We had to make cuts and decisions as to what more we could do to boost income. In the last few years my heart sinks when we get the "school trip" letter. As our third son Joe is doing GCSE French this year, we allowed him to go on the 4 day trip to Paris last October and scrimped the £300 trip cost plus spending money as we thought it would benefit him most as it was educational. It was a huge expense to find.  He has stopped playing for Wales at national level this year as all the matches are based in S Wales and the extreme South of England. He now just plays regionally and to be honest the relief on our finances is welcome.

The outside of the house wants painting: it will have to wait, not a priority. We desperately need new carpet throughout, but we are not prepared to put that on credit, so it will have to wait. The boys ask for the latest gadgets; ipads, new mobile phones etc and we say they have to wait as we do not have that type of money. You then get the refrain"John in my class has an ipad and his parents don't work." I even found myself against all my socialist principles shouting back "Well John's parents don't have this mortgage round their necks like we do!" I found myself envying those on housing benefit, until I sat my boys down and explained social housing, private housing and the dreaded Bedroom Tax. I am ashamed that I succombed to the very thing the Government want: Setting the working classes against each other; the politics of envy. The same goes for day trips and meals out- these have gone and have been cut. My youngest son wanted to start Drama School classes at Christmas. The cost is £100 per month. Luckily as he is autistic and our income is low, the Family Fund stepped in and have given him a grant for 6 months worth of classes. A huge help and we will struggle again to make sure he is able to attend, as he gets so much out of these classes, any sacrifice is worth it to send him there. Through my self employment as an avon rep, I and my customers collect tins, and long life food for our Foodbank. Normally I was able to put by many items on my shopping list as Foodbank donations. Since Christmas I have only been able to donate one bagful of tins, and these were all the value ranges. Personally I hate donating the value brands, as I feel people using the Foodbank should be eating foods, that I would wish to eat, not being grateful for value brands of supermarkets. However, I am increasingly using the value brands myself within my family, and therfore cannot afford to donate the better brands to the foodbank.

The mortgage is becoming a real struggle, but the irony is that if we sold the house, it would cost us more to rent another house, so our priority is keeping the family home, we all feel happiest in, come hell or high water.

I asked myself and others in this blog post one question: What makes you happy in Austerity UK?
My answer: The time when we have a bit extra to do a bigger shop, and the cupboards are full with food. Feeding my family, keeping this roof over our heads is my priority. I feel sad just reading this over.

Joanne and her husband James live in a large detached house with a lot of land in the "upper" part of the town. Both are self employed business people and have one son who attends private school. I speak to her often through my voluntary work. The business they are in, is suffering hugely as it concerns luxury goods, that people are not buying in the abundance they once did. Her priority is keeping her son at private school, as he has a close circle of firends and is a teenager. She feels if she had to move him to a state school, he would be like a fish out of water. She has a love of antiques, that she has curbed in order to fund the school fees. She also tells me of very expensive school trips abroad; a recent one to Madagascar cost her £3.5k for the trip alone, but she believes these educational trips are worth it for her son's life experiences. The family has on average 4 foreign holidays a year: ski-ing in February half term, a luxury long haul holiday to USA or similar for 3 weeks in the summer, an October half term week in Spain, and a Christmas trip for more ski-ing etc.

Joanne has cut back on the half term holidays and remains at home this year, she tells me. She regularly does her food shopping at M+S and also buys her own clothes from M+S. This year, she is shopping for basics at Aldi, and just buying her meat, and things Aldi do not do, at M+S. Her son's clothes are still designer lables as she refuses to pass on austerity to him as much as possible. While she and her husband do not eat out as often as they used to, she also refuses to limit her son's days out with friends to theme parks and the like as "the recession is not his fault". She voted Conservative at the 2010 election, but feels that although she is "conservative to the core" she is troubled by the amount of austerity inflicted on the middle classes by the coalition and feels they are "hitting their own voters".

I posed the question: What makes you happy in Austerity UK? She answered "Knowing I have paid another terms school fees".

Linda lives with her partner Steve in a one bedroomed flat on one of the main arterial roads leading out of town. Linda is disabled and has had various health problems with her weight and diabetes, and has mobility difficulties. Steve has had mental health issues and alcohol problems all his life. Both are currently unemployed. Steve has a daughter from a previous marriage. Both he and Linda were living until recently in a 2 bedroomed flat in town, as Steve's daughter stayed with them at weekends. Due to the Bedroom Tax, they could not afford to stay in the 2 bedroomed flat, and so managed to find what basically is little more than a couple of  attic rooms at the top of a shared house, converted into flats. They receive Housing Benefit to pay their rent, which is paid directly to their Landlord. Lesiure Time is spent doing voluntary work, which is where I know them from, and it gives them purpose and a sense of belonging. Steve had a major breakdown at Christmas and was hospitalised and is now in recovery.

Linda shops on a daily basis, both to get her herself outdoors and because they do not know from day to day what money they can spend on food. She admits she has to buy food that is as cheap as possible, and filling. Nutrition plays no part in her choices. She rarely buys meat as it is too expensive. She battles daily with Steve over finances as his alcoholism means he would blow all their money on alchohol if it was left to him. Linda hates having to give him a daily allowance for booze, but has little choice as it is an adddiction for Steve. She does not want him to pester his elderly mother for money if she refuses to give him money. She says "He will get money for alcohol from anyone/anywhere if he has to". She always has at least one or two days a week with no electricity, as it runs out before their next benefit is paid. Her biggest worry is when Universal Credit comes in and Housing Benefit is paid monthy to her and Steve, not to the landlord. She already knows she could be in rent arrears from Month 1, as either Steve's alcohol dependency, the luxury of being able to afford more electricity or more and better food will prove a bigger temptation than paying the rent. There are no meals or days out, and holidays are a distant dream. She says she has 2 luxuries: a pay as you go mobile phone and she smokes when she gets paid on benefit day. She has 2 grand-daughters and she would love to be able to buy them a few toys or clothes but cannot.

Linda has been forced to contact the foodbank which is 5 miles away from our town, twice since Christmas, and was ashamed to do so, as she simply ran out of food and had gone hungry for 2 days. She finds supporting Steve is a constant strain upon her and her health and has threatened to leave him. Steve admits his addiction and mental health problems get the better of him and he has threatened to commit suicide on a few occasions.

On asking the question: What makes you happy in Austerity UK? Linda replied "Going to bed and knowing I have enough money for food for the following day."

Big differences in austerity are obviously relative to your income, but what differences they are in Austerity UK today.