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…