Austerity has relied on a politics of fear and distrust to drive through policies which hit the most vulnerable the hardest. Fear occurs in situations of danger, whether physical or emotional, while distrust is a response to unreliable or damaging social relationships. Both imagine a negative future[i]. Blaming people for misfortune, disability or poverty, and promoting the idea that those people who receive state help are untrustworthy, directly promotes distrust in society. In addition, people living in communities which have fewer resources, and higher levels of disorder and disorganisation, have higher levels of distrust[ii], and austerity policies have been shown to have hit such deprived areas hardest[iii].
The costs to mental health
Fear and distrust are central to many mental health problems. Life events which are rated as dangerous are known to cause experiences of serious anxiety[iv]. Societies which are less trusting, also tend to be less equal, and have higher levels of mental health diagnoses[v]. High levels of distrust are associated with an 80% increase in overall reported poor health[vi]. Low levels of trust also increase the chance of being diagnosed with depression by nearly 50%[vii]. People who live in neighbourhoods which have high levels of distrust also have increased levels of all mental health problems, particularly psychosis[viii]. Loss of trust in the world and others is also known to be a precursor to suicide[ix]. Policies which increase distrust within and between communities are therefore poisonous to both community cohesion and individual mental health.
Case study: Benefits claimants
Austerity policies targeted benefit claimants, using the vilification of benefit claiming and beliefs about the level of benefit cheating. The DWP has been reprimanded by both the UK Statistics Authority and the parliamentary committee for Work and Pensions on the misleading and ideological use of statistics, to promote negative views about benefit claimants, including disabled people[x]. This is a deliberate strategy to undermine popular support for the principle of social security; over the past 30 years, there has been a 20% reduction in people who think that the unemployed are deserving of the support they receive[xi], and people are more likely to think that benefit claimants are lazy and don’t deserve help[xii]. Media reports are also more likely to contain language which implies that benefit claimants are undeserving of help, or have lacked effort to help themselves[xiii]. In addition, 30% of media stories discussing benefits focus on fraud, despite the fact that the fraud rate is only 0.5-3%[xiv]. This feeds the finding that the public overestimate benefit fraud by a factor of 34[xv], and 14% of people believe a majority of claims are fraudulent[xvi]. This kind of rhetoric promotes distrust within and between communities, through promoting the idea that people who receive state help are duplicitous and undeserving.
[i] Sztompka., P. (1999). Trust: A sociological theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[ii] Ross, C. E., Mirowsky, J., & Pribesh, S. (2001). Powerlessness and the amplification of threat: neighbourhood disadvantage, disorder and mistrust. American Sociological Review, 66, 568-591.
[iii] Berry, C., While, L. (2014). No. 6 – Local authority spending cuts and the 2014 English local elections. Sheffield: SPERI.
[iv] Finlay-Jones, R., Brown, G. (1981). Types of stressful life event and the onset of anxiety and depressive disorders, Psychological Medicine, 11, 4, 803-815.
[v] Wilkinson, R., Pickett, K. (2010). The spirit level: Why equality is better for everyone. London: Penguin.
[vi] Fujiwara, T., Kawachi, I. (2008). A prospective study of individual level social capital and major depression in the United States, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 62, 627-633.
[vii] Araya, R., Dunstan, F., Playle, R., Thomas, H., Palmer, S., Lewis, G. (2006). Perceptions of social capital and the built environment and mental health, Social Science and Medicine, 62, 12, 3072-3083.
[viii] Rogers, A., Pilgrim, D. (2010). A sociology of mental health and illness. Maidenhead: Open University Press
[ix] Benson, O., Gibson, S., Boden, Z. & Owen, G. (forthcoming). New Focus for Suicide Prevention: An Understanding of Suicide Based on Accounts of Experience. Unpublished manuscript.
[x] House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee. (2013). Monitoring the performance of the Department for Work and Pensions in 2012-13. London: House of Commons.
[xi] NatCen Social Research (2013). British Social Attitudes Survey. London: NatCen Social Research.
[xii] Baumburg, B., Bell, K., Gaffney, D. (2011). Turn to Us: Benefits Stigma in Britain. London: Elizabeth Finn Care.
[xiii] Baumburg, B., Bell, K., Gaffney, D. (2011). Turn to Us: Benefits Stigma in Britain. London: Elizabeth Finn Care
[xiv] Baumburg, B., Bell, K., Gaffney, D. (2011). Turn to Us: Benefits Stigma in Britain. London: Elizabeth Finn Care
[xv] Royal Statistical Society. (2013). Perceptions are not reality: The top ten we get wrong. London: RSS.
[xvi] Baumburg, B., Bell, K., Gaffney, D. (2011). Turn to Us: Benefits Stigma in Britain. London: Elizabeth Finn Care.