New York, 1975, Margaret Thatcher and the Coalition’s Britain: Same Script, Different Actors

I’ve started reading Anthony Marcus’ Where Have All the Homeless Gone: The Making and Unmaking of a Crisis (New York: Berghahn 2006). Marcus is an anthropologist who did his Ph.D. research from 1989 to 1994, first examining the causes of the 1988 riots in Tompkins Square Park, and then as a staff ethnographer on a social work project intended to improve the chances of the mentally ill being able to get into and retain housing. Marcus’ informants were a group of fifty-five Black men, none of whom saw themselves as homeless. The book is an examination of the reasons why homelessness was a major issue in the decade from 1983 to 1993, but then suddenly dropped out of American consciousness. From being one of the most discussed and important political issues, it has vanished and become almost invisible, despite the fact that the numbers of the homeless are still rising. Marcus makes a number of fascinating and observations in his book the situation and perception of the homeless in New York. He makes it very clear that Reaganite economics is behind much of the poverty, and particularly blames ‘American Thatcherism’ for its rise. The book is mainly about the failure of the Democrats’ campaigns to end homelessness, however.

One of the important points Marcus makes is that much of the failure to tackle homelessness in US is due to the ethnographic construction of the homeless. Marcus describes how, when he was doing his research, he became increasingly confused about who ‘the homeless’ actually were. Did it include people, who only slept on the streets for a few nights a week, but at other times were in shelters, or slept at girlfriends’? What about the people, who were given space in a storage area, like a cupboard, basement or upper landing in a building for a janitor, in return for which they worked off the books cleaning or performing other jobs. Furthermore, many of the men he studied, like their White counterparts, could be described as ‘bohemian’ rather than conform to the traditional image of homelessness. These were men from middle class backgrounds, sometimes college educated, who viewed homelessness as merely a transient phase before getting themselves off the streets and into permanent, fixed accommodation. One man described himself as a poet. He notes that quite a few of the homeless in New York were college and university graduates, who were left homeless after leaving uni, and who were forced to move around, sleeping at friends’. Get ready, Britain! This is your future! With the rise in tuition fees, and many graduates now forced to find work at lower paid, menial jobs, for which they are overqualified, such as stacking shelves at Tesco or serving in McDonalds, I have absolutely no doubt that this will come to Britain soon, if it already hasn’t done so.

What struck me most of all was the similarity between the comprehensive destruction of New York’s advanced welfare system after the City Went bankrupt in 1975, and the situation in modern Britain. Here, like New York nearly forty years ago, the Coalition is demanding the destruction of our remaining welfare state under the guise of combatting the nation’s debt.

New York City suffered an acute fiscal crisis in the 1970s, which culminated in the City defaulting on its loans in 1975. The then president, Republican Gerald Ford, declared that he would veto any bill intended to bail it out. The government then placed New York City under the control of the Municipal Assistance Corporation in exchange for granting it the right to issue bonds to pay off its debt. The Municipal Assistance Corporation was a consortium of bankers and businessmen given the task making sure the City stayed solvent. Marcus then describes the consequences of this decision:

‘Their version of making the city financially solvent involved the beginnings of a larger ideological project that would sweep the United States, the United Kingdom, and much of the world during the 1980s. The New York City welfare state that provided free tertiary education, a comprehensive public health system, a version of the “dole”, and many other social programs that had brought New York City derogatory nicknames like Moscow on the Hudson and the Soviet Republic of New York City would be no more. As the US Secretary of Treasury, William Simon, testified in October of 1975 about the federal aid program that had been offered to New York City to address its fiscal crisis, it should be “so punitive, the overall experience made so painful, that no city, no political subdivision would ever be tempted to go down the same road”. Tens of thousands of layoffs, scores of thousands of job eliminated through “attrition” in the public sector, often disastrous reductions in health, firefighting, policing, education, and social services, and a tremendous breakdown in public morale followed. …. There is hardly a New Yorker who lived in the city at this time who does not have some memory of a family member thrown out of work, a favourite teacher in high school saying goodbye to his or her class, or some kind of deterioration in city living.’ (p. 37).

This had a disastrous effect on the lives of Marcus’ informants:

‘Many of my informants traced the origins of homelessness to the New York City financial crisis of 1975. They were from families that had depended on the vast New York City welfare state for everything from education and housing to jobs, summer recreation programs, and health care. Even informants who had been young children during the dark days of 1975 could remember adults around them panicking as mass layoffs and budget cuts changed their lives and forced them to scale back their expectations. I had informants who had grown up in New York City who remembered their first experiences of housing loss after a parent was laid of 1975. They talked about going from being “middle class black folk” to being poor. For most of them it meant a brief period in a welfare hotel followed by a move to a poorer, more marginal neighbourhood. Sometimes it merely meant moving to a smaller apartment and sharing a bedroom with younger siblings.’

Elsewhere Marcus described how this led to a massive decline in the quality of housing as whole neighbourhoods were left to become derelict, and the transformation of these areas during the boom in the late 80s and early 1990s when these areas became gentrified. This was the period when New York City’s economy and workforce went from being working class, blue collar manufacturing and industrial, to white collar, based on the financial and IT sectors.

The parallels to the British experience are strong and obvious. Margaret Thatcher, when she was in office, used the financial crisis the country had experienced under Labour as a pretext for a wholesale attack on the British welfare state. Now, 39 years later, Cameron, Clegg and the Coalition are doing the same. They have, however, much less excuse for doing so, as despite their rhetoric the crisis is not the result of overspending by Labour, and the debt is actually much lower than it has been for 200 of the last 250 years. This has not forced the Tories and their Lib-Dem satellites changing their tune, however. It’s exactly the same script, but with different actors.

Or if you want to put it crudely, ‘same sh*t, different +++holes’.

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