This article is part of a Huffington Post series on the global impact of austerity -- "A Thousand Cuts" -- from affordable housing funds lost in San Francisco to increasing class sizes in New York, food inspector cuts in Canada, disability benefits taken away in the United Kingdom, decimation of France's solar industry, and more. Click here for information on how you can help people affected by these measures.
LONDON -- “The big problem for me is fear,” said Lisa Egan.
Since birth, the 33-year-old has dealt with a rare genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. The condition has caused more than 60 fractures in Egan's lifetime, including five separate breaks in 2011.
“I once broke my back sleeping in an awkward position,” she said. Because her disease is “wearing out her joints,” doctors told Egan to use a wheelchair.
“I can walk a very short distance and very slowly,” said Egan, who lives in Camden, North London. “But sometimes things happen, such as my knee dislocates or I will tear a tendon out of a metatarsal and pull the end of the bone off with it. … So I use a wheelchair most of the time.”
Despite her condition, Egan said she does not like to be seen as “vulnerable.” Intelligent and articulate, she has written extensively on disability and politics, and has even tried a stint at stand-up comedy.
As one of nearly 500,000 people in the United Kingdom who rely on welfare benefits, however, Egan now experiences fear daily: fear for her future, fear for her ability to live independently, even fear for her life.
The global economic crisis cast a shadow over the 2010 general election in the U.K., and the new coalition government, led by the center-right Conservative Party, introduced sweeping austerity measures, to the tune of £80 billion over five years.
The reductions are widely regarded as the most severe cuts in any developed Western nation so far. The London-based Institute of Fiscal Studies described them as “the longest, deepest sustained period of cuts to public services spending” since the Second World War.
The cuts have touched nearly every part of the state, from public sector jobs to the military. But welfare recipients have been the hardest hit, with upwards of £18 billion slashed from the welfare budget in 2010 and an additional £11 billion per year scheduled to be cut by 2014. The Tories have long criticized Britain’s "something for nothing culture," and since coming to power, they have clamped down on those perceived to be leeching off the system.
As Prime Minister David Cameron explained in a recent blog post for The Huffington Post, “By reforming welfare we will get people into fulfilling jobs, not abandon them to poverty and dependency, save billions of pounds of taxpayers' money and make sure those who really need help get it.”
The Welfare Reform Act, which Parliament passed earlier this year, replaced a number of benefits with a "universal credit," which is capped at £26,000 annually.
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The new scheme for disability benefits has left people like Egan in limbo. She currently collects around £95 a week in Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which she uses to pay for her car. Egan said that if she is no longer eligible to receive the money, she may be forced to give up the vehicle.
“If I lose my car, I lose everything,” she said. “I’ll be rendered virtually housebound. Without it, I can’t go shopping. … As a manual wheelchair user, I don’t have spare hands to carry shopping bags home. If I lose my car, I lose my social life. And what about my frail, elderly father? I can’t drag luggage to the train station. And I won’t be able to afford a taxi. If my car goes, how am I going to visit him? My car is everything to me.”
The government is evaluating each welfare applicant to determine how much money the individual needs, a process that will continue through the end of next year. Claimants must pass a series of activity tests, ranging from food preparation and communication to dressing and bathing.
Egan has yet to receive a date for her evaluation, but the prospect hangs over her head like a sword, ready to sever the payments that have allowed her to lead a full and independent life. “They are currently reassessing everyone on incapacity benefit, finding a third of people fit for work even if they’re suffering from suicidal depression,” she said.
Government figures back this up. In March, following the first round of reassessment, the Department for Works and Pensions found 37 percent of 141,100 individuals who claimed incapacity benefit were “fit for work.” Despite the government's contention that it is now saving money by weeding out cheats, official estimates published in 2011 found fraud and error within the DLA system accounted for only 0.5 percent of the total cost.
Separate from the welfare system, social care, which is provided by local authorities (not the central government), has also undergone dramatic change. The old system was split into three parts -- moderate care, substantial care and critical care -- with claimants receiving help depending on their needs. The reforms did away with the moderate care category.
Even before the cuts, not all local authorities provided moderate care. Egan was lucky: Camden did. But not any more.
“People rely on this moderate help," said Sue Marsh, a 38-year-old with severe Crohn's disease and a campaigner for disabled causes. "They are terrified."
"People with fluctuating conditions, such as Crohn's or Parkinson’s, could get help during prolonged periods of suffering," she explained. "Now that has completely gone.”
“This when combined with the loss of the Disability Living Allowance is absolutely catastrophic,” Marsh said.
Cameron's support for welfare cuts has baffled many because he has firsthand experience with the problems of disability. The prime minister’s son Ivan, who died in 2009 at age 6, had cerebral palsy and severe epilepsy.
“It’s an aspect I’ve thought a lot about,” Marsh said. “Cameron had his experience with a profoundly disabled child, but his attitude appears to be if you’re not profoundly disabled, you need to pull yourself up, take the knocks and get to work.”
In a recent parliamentary session, Cameron prefaced an answer to a question on the removal of disability benefits by reminding the House that he is “someone who has actually filled out the form for disability allowance and had a child with cerebral palsy.”
Yet the cuts have gone ahead, and for some, the prospect of losing their benefits has already proved too much.
In February, Craig Monk, who had lost a leg in an accident a few years earlier, hanged himself at his home in Lancashire. At the inquest, his neighbor reported that Monk had been worried about his benefits being cut.
Last month, Karen Sherlock, who faced a raft of debilitating conditions, including diabetic autonomic neuropathy, gastroparesis, diabetic retinopathy, a heart condition, chronic kidney disease and high blood pressure, died of a heart attack after some of her benefits were stopped.
In a final blog post, she wrote, “I am worried and frightened, I do not see how they can just snatch this away from me. I am chronically ill and I am never going to get better, not even with the [kidney] transplant will I feel better, all my conditions cannot be magically cured.”
Egan knows how Sherlock must have felt. “If I lose the money, the consequences of what will happen to me do not bear thinking about. It’s pure fear.”
Austerity Measures Devastate Communities Around The World
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/12/austerity-measures-a-thousand-cuts_n_1666309.html">CLICK HERE to read the full story.</a> The austerity budget, conservatives' favored response to the Great Recession, is more than just simple belt tightening. It's not one cut or 10, but a thousand. City and neighborhood essentials like bus service become expendable, and things that we have come to depend on as part of our daily lives are slowly erased. Those teachers and firefighters <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/post/mitt-romney-we-dont-need-more-cops-firefighters-or-teachers/2012/06/08/gJQAvOgDOV_blog.html" target="_hplink">Mitt Romney doesn't want</a> to pay for? They're already part of austerity's disappeared jobs. This austerity mindset is taking hold not just in cities and states across the United States, but around the world. While conservatives have championed austerity as eat-your-peas necessity, these massive cuts often have unintended consequences.
Fire Department Cuts
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/13/fire-department-cuts-a-thousand-cuts_n_1659671.html">CLICK HERE to read the full story.</a> "They are asking you to do more with less," Westfield, N.J., firefighters union president Mike Sawicki said. "A second-grader can figure that out. Show up with nine guys, and it is easier to save." While the number of deadly fires has declined over the last 20 years nationwide, thanks to better construction and safety techniques, fire departments are increasingly called upon to answer medical emergencies, chemical spills and more, said Garry Biese, CEO for the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Yet fire departments are going short-handed. The precipitous drop in state and local revenues caused by the Great Recession, combined with budget cuts pushed by austerity-minded politicians, has led to static or slowly dropping staffing levels across the country.
Larger Class Sizes
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/14/larger-class-size-a-thousand-cuts_n_1659591.html">CLICK HERE to read the full story.</a> When Shania started third grade at P.S. 148 last fall, she was thrilled to be back at the Queens public school. An outgoing eight-year-old, she said she was happy to be among her friends again, and she had loved her class the previous year. Her second-grade teacher would take the time to explain tricky topics like addition and subtraction one-on-one. She had even been named "student of the month." But since 2007, as the economy has tanked and expenses for public schools have risen, New York City has made principals cut budgets by 13.7 percent. When budgets are cut, teachers are fired and others aren't replaced -- including at P.S. 148, which has lost at least $600,000 and eight teachers since 2010. When teachers are lost, class sizes balloon. Shania had 31 classmates this past school year, compared to 20 the year before.
'The Big Problem For Me Is Fear'
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/15/austerity-measures-uk-a-thousand-cuts_n_1670711.html" target="_hplink">CLICK HERE for the full story.</a> Since birth, Lisa Egan, 33, has dealt with a rare genetic disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease. The condition has caused more than 60 fractures in Egan's lifetime, including five separate breaks in 2011. "I once broke my back sleeping in an awkward position," she said. Because her disease is "wearing out her joints," doctors told Egan to use a wheelchair. "I can walk a very short distance and very slowly," said Egan, who lives in Camden, North London. "But sometimes things happen, such as my knee dislocates or I will tear a tendon out of a metatarsal and pull the end of the bone off with it. ... So I use a wheelchair most of the time." Despite her condition, Egan said she does not like to be seen as "vulnerable." Intelligent and articulate, she has written extensively on disability and politics, and has even tried a stint at stand-up comedy. As one of nearly 500,000 people in the United Kingdom who rely on welfare benefits, however, Egan now experiences fear daily: fear for her future, fear for her ability to live independently, even fear for her life.
Public Transit Crisis
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/16/detroit-bus-cuts-a-thousand-cuts_n_1647867.html" target="_hplink">CLICK HERE to read the full story.</a> Waits have been getting longer for many of the roughly 107,000 to 117,000 daily passengers who depend on Detroit's bus fleet. The city has lost about half of its bus service since 2005, according to Transportation Riders United, a rider advocacy group. Under the Detroit Department of Transportation's new "415" plan, the city has increased service along its four busiest routes, with buses now running every 15 minutes, but the new schedule necessitated tradeoffs elsewhere. In March, the department, whose management had recently been privatized by the city, shortened hours on more than 30 routes and discontinued all service between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. The changes, which the city anticipates will save $40 million a year, have forced an estimated 3,200 nighttime travelers to come up with alternative plans for getting around town and left others waiting longer on the side of the road. "I'm hurting. A lot of times they don't come around, and when they do, they pass you by," said George Jones, 57.
Fewer Food Inspectors
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/17/canada-food-safety-a-thousand-cuts_n_1664579.html" target="_hplink">CLICK HERE to read the full story.</a> Frances Clark's last moments were not peaceful. Flu-like symptoms and seizures wracked her body. Her breathing deteriorated. At the end, she was "gasping, like a fish out of water," her daughter recalled later in court documents. The 89-year-old woman died on Aug. 25, 2008, the first victim of a listeriosis outbreak that killed 23 people, sickened thousands more and triggered the biggest food recall in Canadian history. A government investigation determined the cause of the outbreak: tainted meat from processing giant Maple Leaf Foods. The company apologized to the victims and settled a number of lawsuits, including one brought by Clark's family, for CAD$27 million. Following the scandal, the federal government introduced significant changes to its meat inspection program, including nearly doubling the number of inspectors from 225 to 400. But now, the government has slashed the budget for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the federal department responsible for food safety, by $56 million over the next three years.
Affordable Housing Gap
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/18/affordable-housing-san-francisco-a-thousand-cuts_n_1666760.html" target="_hplink">CLICK HERE to read the full story.</a> Roman Quinn said getting clean would have been nearly impossible if he were still living on the streets. But his struggle to find a place to live proved nearly as difficult as his struggle to find sobriety. San Francisco has nonprofit groups and other programs in place to help the city's most vulnerable residents -- people like Quinn and, increasingly, families tossed out of their homes due to the recession -- find housing. In recent months, however, that system has been greatly strained. Federal housing grants and tax credit programs have decreased drastically. Last year alone, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's HOME Investment Partnerships Program, which doles out grants to municipalities for things like affordable housing construction and down payment assistance, saw its budget slashed by almost 38 percent. And changes at the state level last year cost the city about $50 million worth of tax revenue that had gone toward affordable housing. Meanwhile, the flood of individuals who have lost their jobs and homes in recent years has swelled the demand for affordable housing. It became so bad that the city's public housing authority closed the waiting list to new applicants in 2010. The list has yet to reopen. Without new sources of funding, success stories, even ones as tenuous as Quinn's, will be increasingly uncommon.
New Industry Struggles
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/19/austerity-measures-france-a-thousand-cuts_n_1679428.html" target="_hplink">CLICK HERE to read the full story.</a> While austerity measures remain comparatively limited in France, one field has suffered considerably: renewable energy, particularly solar photovoltaic systems. Over the past few years, nearly half the jobs in the sector, a total of 12,000, have been disappeared. According to the Syndicat des Energies Renouvelables, the renewable-energy trade union, nearly one-third of those jobs vanished in 2011. Entrepreneurs like Kilian Heim, who had gone out to conquer this new market, are now restarting from zero.
Austerity's Big Winners
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/23/austerity-wall-street_n_1690838.html" target="_hplink">CLICK HERE to read the full story.</a> The austerity game also has winners. Cutting or eliminating government programs that benefit the less advantaged has long been an ideological goal of conservatives. Doing so also generates a tidy windfall for the corporate class, as government services are privatized and savings from austerity pay for tax cuts for the wealthiest citizens.
How You Can Help
As readers of The Huffington Post, you can take action to help those affected by these austerity measures. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/13/austerity-cuts-how-you-can-help_n_1669072.html" target="_hplink">Click here for information on what you can do.</a>