Despite the spin politicians and mainstream media are feeding anyone desperate or delirious enough to pay any attention, the Cost of Living Crisis is not over, and for those of us on the lowest incomes in the UK, it is still worsening. I can’t see an end.
The current economic situation is not accidental, unexpected, short-term or an uncontrollable disaster. Unaffordable rents, increasing food insecurity, period poverty, low wages, punitive social security measures and an ever increasing wealth gap are the inevitable, long term consequences of late-stage capitalism that controls our society. I experience this in my life in many ways. Underinvestment in education meant I had to home-school my daughter for a year when her primary school admitted they did not have the resources to continue to provide an education to meet her level of learning. The near collapse of the NHS has extended my 5 month wait for an urgent neurological referral and typical 3 week wait for a GP phone appointment. The lack of social housing was catastrophic for me when I was homeless 20 years ago and has become scarcer amid greater demand since then. Last year 1.21 million households were on local authority waiting lists for social housing.
Events like Brexit and the invasion of Ukraine, although hugely detrimental to the UK economy, were just a catalyst, accelerating the financial crisis we have experienced in recent years that was already unsustainable. The cost of life’s essentials will not return to pre-pandemic or pre-Brexit levels. Unless we fall into a recession, prices will continue to rise. Even with the gradual decrease in inflation it is unrealistic to hope for the current cost of necessities like food, toiletries, clothing or travel to reduce. This is the new normal. This is all playing out as expected and intended.
Some people have yet to realise that it is not just the rising costs of essential goods and services that impoverishes us, although that is the most obvious and most reported factor. Shrinkflation, (yes your wagon wheel really has gotten smaller and smaller) is a feeble attempt to disguise rising costs. Smaller, lighter reshaped products in the same packaging at the same, or inflated, price are now the norm across all but the highest price bands. In our daily reality that causes a problem when the box of cereal that used to feed our kids breakfast all week, now only lasts 5 days and there is nothing left to eat at the weekend. The quality of food items have also deteriorated as many products now contain cheaper ingredients for example palm oil replacing sunflower oil, more sugar, more trans fats, more additives and more highly processed foods. “Ultra-processed foods make up almost two-thirds of Britain's school meals”. This is a nightmare for anyone with allergies, intolerances or special dietary requirements, and bad news for anyone who tries to eat clean on a limited budget. I now carefully check every single item and their expiry dates before it goes into my trolley. Every week I notice rotten, slimy, bruised or damaged fruit and vegetables in their plastic packaging yet still on display for sale. Many fresh foods have a very short use by dates, whilst out shopping recently I had to buy milk and bread both with expiry dates of less than 4 days.
The lack of variety and availability is visible as I regularly see supermarket shelves empty and basic items only available as limited stock or rationed to 2 or 3 units per customer. Essentials are often already sold out or otherwise unavailable. Whilst undoubtedly inconvenient for everyone, this is especially problematic for those on low incomes. Those of us who often rely on only one store to shop for the whole week, don’t have the extra bus fare or energy to walk to try another shop, nor the extra money to afford a pricier substitute, or a repeat shop mid week to buy more short shelf life fresh produce.
Greedflation or profiteering is rampant, in other words customers not benefitting from discounts in wholesale costs. This is undeniable when supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s are making extortionate profits. Despite wholesale gas prices halfing in the last year, customer bills are still increasing. Centrica, the owners of British Gas, tripled its profits to £3.3billion in 2022.
During the very cold weather in December 2022 35% of our weekly household income was spent on fuel. That £75 just about paid for powering our basic appliances, lighting, cooking one single hot meal a day and running the central heating for 2.5 hours each day for one week. My physical and mental health suffered as it was still so cold, our home never once reaching the government recommended 18C to maintain our comfort and health. So the Winter Fuel Allowance, Cold Weather Payments, Cost of Living Payments and Energy Grants, all of which fell well short of what was required to keep our homes even tolerably or safely warm, paid obscene profits and bonuses for huge private companies and their many shareholders. This is successful capitalism in action and one of the ways in which the government attempts to hide their lack of policy and intervention. Without which, the poor and most vulnerable in our society have become entrenched in deep poverty, are more marginalised than ever before and lack any real political representation.
How would you choose to measure the success of a country and its financial and political system? Personally, I prefer alternative measures of value. And they are possible. Bhutan prioritises the happiness of inhabitants rather than their economic outputs using the Gross National Happiness model. Surely the health of citizens and whether they have a home to live in is more important than the income they produce. Nor do we judge our collective success by the academic prowess of our younger generation. We certainly do not measure greatness as a nation by how we treat the most vulnerable. If we did, we would surely fail.
Conservatism and capitalism go hand in hand. Capitalism and the ultra right wing believe that if you can’t afford your own home you don’t deserve one. If you don’t add to the economy, if you are not in paid employment, then you are of no value, of no worth or consideration. Your ‘worth’ solely depends on your ability and willingness to perpetuate the system. I believe much of the stigma attached to claiming social security stems from capitalist and conservative principles. If you are not creating financial wealth for yourself you have no power and if you are not helping create financial wealth for someone else you have no value. Those who lack capacity or inclination to do either are heavily stigmatised and relegated to the lowest of the low.
How then can this ‘crisis’ ever end?