How are our six disabled families coping with the cuts?
by Claudia Wood
Back in 2010, Demos produced a report with the support of Scope, Destination Unknown, which looked at the impact of the Government’s cuts on disabled people. We calculated that, through the raft of welfare reforms being announced, three and a half million disabled people claiming disability related benefits would be £9bn worse off by the end of this Parliament.
But big numbers like this, while they may make good headlines, don’t really tell you anything about the lived experiences of those disabled people who are seeing the support they receive from the state – both financial and in services – being withdrawn piece by piece and pound by pound. So we decided to speak to a few of them – six disabled families, who were very much typical of most disability benefits claimants in the UK today. Contrary to tabloid rhetoric, the vast majority are not claiming hundreds of thousands of pounds off of the state to be caught dancing at a wedding or working as a builder. Nor are they living in 5 bedroom mansions in central London for free.
Their lives, as we found, were more stressful, more uncertain and simply more difficult than perhaps most people imagine. Because the fact remains, living with a disability is expensive. Being immobile means getting colder more quickly, which means the heating has to be on longer, and your bills are higher. Inaccessible public transport means paying for taxis to hospital appointments and treatments. Food for special diets, batteries for equipment, tyres for wheelchairs – in fact most specialist or disabled consumer items are astronomically expensive compared to their mainstream counterparts.
All this adds up, and, as welfare benefits are cut, so disabled people’s ability to carry on meeting these costs is reduced. With this in mind, Demos and Scope decided to revisit the disabled households we featured in our 2010 report every six months to see how they were weathering the implementation of the government’s austerity measures. In our first update of Spring 2011, we found families were struggling to make ends meet, accumulating debt, and seeing local service closures, making their lives more difficult. But we knew this was the relative calm before the storm – changes in benefits only began in April 2011, and tighter local authority budgets had only just begun.
Six months on, it’s a different picture. Our families are between £75 and £700 worse off due to benefit reforms. The result? Parents of a disabled child skipping hospital appointments now that the budget won’t stretch to diesel for the car. A disabled couple in their 60s with broken window frames which they cannot afford to repair, and using towels to stop the cold coming in. And they have just been served with an eviction notice.
Each of the families described their uncertainty and anxiety about their futures due to living on a financial knife edge – one unexpected repair bill or an unplanned trip to the hospital was enough to tip them into crisis. But most were trying to do something about it. They are scouting around for alternative sources of support as the welfare state rug is pulled out from under them. This, we know, it the Government’s vision of the Big Society – that community and informal support should take the place of the state and create better outcomes, a sense of individual and community responsibility, with less cost. It’s an appealing offer.
But perhaps what the clearest message from Destination Unknown: Autumn 2011 is that this vision can ring hollow if the funding isn’t in place to support it. Alternative sources of support dry up very quickly without continued investment, but alongside state support, funding for local voluntary and community organisations has also been cut. So charitable grants are coming from a dwindling pot. And many are one-off deals, for use in a crisis. In the face of a massive surge in demand for help, there’s only so far this sort of support can stretch.
This just isn’t a sustainable solution. So now, our parents of a disabled child have exhausted the community fundraiser, and the employer assistance scheme. Our older couple have had a one-off charitable grant and have been refused another. Our single disabled man has maxed out his overdraft, credit card and loans from family. So where do they turn next?
In six months' time, we will revisit our six families. But what will we find, now that they have already reached the end of the line?