To paraphrase Tolstoy, healthy economies are all alike; every unhealthy economy is unhealthy in its own way. That is one of the lessons I took from reading Hard Times: The Divisive Toll of the Economic Slump, a new book written by the Guardian journalist Tom Clark with the help of a team of researchers led by Anthony Heath, professor of sociology at the University of Manchester.
While the political-media complex obsesses about the precise speed of the incipient recovery and argues about whether people are still worse off than they were before the financial crisis erupted, Clark and his colleagues look elsewhere—at the “long shadow” cast by recessions and the “enduring toll” they take on the victims of economic downturn. In the recession of the early 1980s, that toll could be measured in the rate of redundancy which, in many cases, was a prelude to chronic joblessness. But the recession that began in 2008 has been different, Clark tells me. “On the one hand,” he says, “what seems to have happened is that everyone’s pay took a squeeze and people had their hours reduced rather than losing their jobs. In the Eighties, lots of people, especially in the north of England, lost their jobs. People in the south carried on much as before. The other thing that’s distinctive this time round—certainly since the end of the Second World War—is that we had a highly unequal society going in to recession. Pain was very easily absorbed at the top end of the income scale. Whereas at the bottom what we’re seeing in this recession is not an increase in relative poverty but an increase in absolute poverty.”
And Clark’s point is that the effects of the recession on the worst off will “last well into the recovery”. It’s important to be clear, however, as to exactly what he’s saying here about the long-term scarring effects of recession and redundancy. Clark points out that there’s little evidence for the kind of claim often made by the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith (and his outriders in the mid-market tabloids) to the effect that there are families all over Britain in which no one in three generations has ever worked. “I spoke to some people doing work for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation who went to a couple of the poorest estates in Glasgow and on Tyneside,” he says. “They tried to find such families, or even families in which two generations hadn’t worked. They could find three families on either estate where two generations hadn’t worked. But they couldn’t find any in which three generations hadn’t worked.”
What Clark discovered is that poor families on estates like the ones he mentions are disproportionately vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the economic cycle. Economists have a jargon term for this state of affairs: “hyper-cyclicality”. Clark explains: “It means that everyone has a cycle in terms of the ups and downs of unemployment, but that for groups at the bottom of the heap, that cycle is all the more dramatic. So what you find is that the people [on these estates] are very susceptible to cycles and would be much more likely to work if the economy picks up. And, correspondingly, they’re especially likely to be hammered if the economy is stagnant.”
As for the narrative of inter-generational worklessness, Clark believes it “fits very well with a kind of ‘que sera sera’ attitude towards it. It’s a way of saying, ‘Over three generations, the poor have always been with us, so we should be realistic about what we can do.” But we’re not just talking about political rhetoric here. One of the striking things about Clark’s analysis is what it shows about the hardening of social attitudes towards the most vulnerable during the recession, especially towards those who need help from the state to keep their heads above water. He says the extent to which attitudes have hardened is new. “We found, for example, that in America in the 1980s people became more solidaristic when recession hit. The same was true in Britain during the recessions of the early Eighties and again in the early Nineties. But something flipped and by 2008, it looked as though opinion went the other way in the face of recession. Although in the Eighties it became acceptable to countenance some unemployment to deal with inflation, the corollary of that was a belief that if there were going to be victims, they needed to be protected and offered social insurance. That belief fell away in America in the early Nineties and in Britain it had been eroded by 2008.”
One of the reasons for this, Clark thinks, is that the voices of the poor or the economically “precarious” are rarely heard. “The general proposition that we should cut back on welfare because there’s a lot of waste is very popular,” he says. “When you talk about welfare in the abstract, it sounds like a winning line. But if you think about it as a specific proposition [about a specific person’s predicament], you soon see that it’s absurd.” Hard Times contains a number of interviews with people who’ve suffered in different ways during the recession, giving a voice to the voiceless. Take “Maria”, a Portugese single mother living in London, whose case Clark discusses in the book. “She works full time for a salary of £21,000, close to the median female full-timer’s £23,000 wage, which means: ‘Net per month, I get £1,400; my rent is £1,385.’ She lives in a flat in unfashionable Cricklewood, five miles out of London’s centre, and yet without state support her full-time toil would leave her with £15 to survive on each month; the childcare she needs during the school holidays is £28 a day.”
Clark thinks there’s a political dimension to this. “Making things specific is a huge part of the political challenge,” he tells me. “By listening to people [like Maria], you can make the point that bad things can happen to good people. That was something people understood after the Great Depression. But they started to forget it in the 1980s and 1990s.”
There’s an interesting echo of this argument in a project launched in France recently by the political philosopher Pierre Rosanvallon. “Raconter la vie” is a pamphlet series, with an accompanying interactive website, in which ordinary French people are invited to become characters in and authors of the “true story of society today” . In Le parlement des invisibles, a sort of manifesto for the project, Rosanvallon writes that many French citizens today feel “forgotten and misunderstood”. In France, as in other countries across Europe (including Britain), there is a growing and alarming disconnect between the people and their elected representatives. “Democracy,” says Rosanvallon, “is undermined when faint voices cannot be heard.” What takes their place—and this is one of the points Clark is making, too—is a “political language saturated in abstractions, which has no purchase on the real but is mired in ideology, that is, in the fabrication of magical, artificial worlds.”
Rosanvallon and Clark have both taken a stand against that kind of magical thinking.
“Hard Times: The Divisive Toll of the Economic Slump” is published by Yale University Press (£18.99)