Unemployment and Health in the 1980s

Earlier this morning I put up a piece urging people to look at an article on Mike’s blog, over at Vox Political, in which he discusses composing and sending in a form letter from claimants with depression. This, he argues, would make the connection between benefit sanctions and increased rates of depression and anxiety irrefutable. Despite numerous protests and warning from disability and mental health groups, and the medical profession, Ian Duncan Smith still refuses to accept that his wretched welfare reforms are pushing people into suicide and depression. As I said, he has no arguments against this. When pressed, he simply blusters about his beliefs, or goes into a huge rant about how no-one else is doing anything to solve the problem of long-term unemployment. He did this when he appeared on an edition of Question Time with Owen Jones, when the author of the classic book on the demonization of the working class took the bald brute to task for his callous and destructive policies. A foam-flecked angry rant followed.

Psychologists have presented statistics showing that over a quarter of a million benefit claimants have been pushed into depression and anxiety because of the DWP’s sanctions regime. 590 have died in poverty, of neglect, starvation and horrifically by their own hand. This on its own should be sufficient proof that IDS’ policies aren’t working. But it isn’t. Hence the need, so Mike argues, for the form letter.

In support of Mike’s argument, I quoted a piece from Eric Hopkins’ social history, The Rise and Decline of the English Working Classes 1918-1990. He notes that in the depression of the 1930s, two unemployed men committed suicide every day. Later in the book he discusses the depression of the 1980s. He states that ‘How far real depression was suffered is impossible to quantify, and would depend on individual circumstances’. He also states that

(U)nemployment in itself does not appear to have contributed much to sickness rates. The Economist Intelligence Unit 1972 survey found that the unemployed were no more likely than the employed to visit the doctor, though slightly more on average were liable to have a long-standing illness; and there were higher rates of chronic sickness among manual workers who (as we have seen) were more subject to unemployment than skilled workers. (P. 20).

However, the Economist Intelligence Unit published some statistics in 1982 that shows that people’s self-respect and mental health were being damaged by unemployment.

About a fifth of those interviewed (19 per cent) confessed to being miserable or unhappy since losing their jobs; 17 per cent to being restless and bad-tempered, 15 per cent to being less patient and tolerant, and 13 per cent to being easily upset or snappy. Interviewees often mentioned becoming more aggressive, emotional and ashamed. As for material disadvantage, 13 per cent said they had been affected very badly, and 24 per cent that they were affected ‘fairly badly’; 32 per cent said they had not been affected at all (presumably they had been on low wages). Answers on this topic varies according to length of unemployment; of the long-term unemployed, 20 per cent said they had been badly affected, and 30 per cent affected ‘fairly badly’. (P. 218).

My guess is that if IDS is basing his denials on anything other than simple belief, it’s the statistics from the 1980s, as these would seem to confirm his own prejudices that no-one was being harmed by unemployment. Like most of the Tories, he believes that the unemployed are simply idle and workshy, and need to have a good dose of poverty in order to force them to get a job or work harder.

The problem for using the stats from the 1980s in this way is that conditions are now rather different. Those statistics come from a time when there were either no, or a much less rigorous system of benefit sanctions. The conditions unemployment benefit could be received was being cut. For example, I can remember that one of the conditions Maggie scrapped was unemployment provision for those going on holiday. However, it wasn’t quite like the absolute denial of income there is now, although there were certainly justifiable fears at the time that this would be the final result. And undoubtedly, many people were suffering genuine poverty.

The Gentleman Ranker is also basing his claim on discredited arguments about the existence of a dependency culture, largely coming from the American Republicans. When I found a booklet published by his moronic Social Justice Centre a few months in a second hand book shop, many of the arguments seemed to be based on experience in America. The blurb on the back declared that when benefits had been cut in America, welfare dependence had fallen in some cases by 40 per cent. That’s entirely possible, of course. It doesn’t, however, tell you whether those people then got a job, or if they just starved to death or subsisted on scraps from friends and relatives. And IDS can’t tell you either. All he does is rant about how it’s ‘what he believes’. Well, Smith can also believe that the Earth is flat, and Maggie was a titan of political insight and acumen, but that doesn’t make them true either.

The overwhelming evidence is that benefit sanctions are pushing the unemployed and disabled into anxiety and the ‘malignant sadness’, as the scientist Lewis Wolpert described depression in the title of his book on it. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the statistics from the Economist Intelligence Unit on the way unemployment was affecting people’s minds and moods. But the evidence of statistics and medical professionals is, apparently, not enough to sway the mind of Ian Duncan Smith. This says all you need to know about the rationality of this government, and Smith’s own glaring unfitness for office.

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