Why the “Squeezed Middle”?

The ‘squeezed middle’ is a term which has attracted a great deal of attention since Ed Milliband’s struggle to define it on the BBC’s Today programme in November 2010 (it even has a Twitter hashtag: #squeezedmiddle). Miliband ummed and aahed and got tied in knots by Nick Robinson, but in a piece in The Telegraph explained himself a bit better. Using a phrase we’ve heard repeatedly since (most recently, from George Osborne as he launched the 2013 Budget), Miliband described the “people who work hard and want to get on”. He seemed reluctant to define the ‘squeezed middle’ further but depicted an evocative emotional landscape of dashed dreams, anxieties, and fears.

Miliband took the idea of the ‘squeezed middle’ from the Resolution Foundation, a think tank established in 2005 to improve the living standards of low-to-middle income households (low-to-middle earners, LMEs). In a series of audits (the latest published in 2010), the Resolution Foundation described the 15 million Britons who live in low-to-middle income households. These households live below the median income but above the income of the poorest 10% of households. For a couple without children, that means their household income sits between £12,000 and £30,000; for a couple with three children, between £19,200 and £48,500. These are not poor families, but nor are they well-off. They are often too rich to get much help from the welfare and benefits system, but not in a position to really flourish in a market economy.

Most own their own homes, though a significant minority live in the private- or social-rented sectors. Most are in employment, full- or part-time, though many women are stay-at-home mothers. Some of the 15 million have degrees, but many more are educated to GCSE or A-level standard. They are particularly likely to have skilled or semi-skilled jobs and to work in sectors such as retail, health and social care, hospitality, manufacturing, construction and public administration.

The ‘squeezed middle’, then, echoes with other keywords such as low pay, the living wage, and the working poor (households with one or two adults in low paid jobs, even those paying just the minimum wage, would find themselves included).

What the ‘squeezed middle’ isn’t is the traditionally understood middle class. It maps on to what might previously have been described as social classes C1, C2 and D, the skilled working and lower-middle classes. It’s also not ‘middle England’, with all the conservative (big and little ‘c’) baggage that that phrase carries.

In 2011 the Oxford English Dictionary identified the ‘squeezed middle’ as their Word of the Year, defining it as “the section of society regarded as particularly affected by inflation, wage freezes and cuts in public spending during a time of economic difficulty, consisting principally of those on low or middle incomes.” This is a succinct and helpful definition which connects both to ‘objective’ issue of income, and to the more ‘subjective’ question of experience.

Notwithstanding the term’s popularity, there are a number of criticisms that can be leveled at it. Without doubt, Miliband and other politicians, on the right and left, have identified the ‘squeezed middle’ with swing voters whose ballots they are keen to attract. And with the hard-working, deserving ‘strivers’ we’re supposed to support, in opposition to the undeserving, feckless ‘skivers’ we’re supposed to view with contempt. Miliband’s and Osborne’s attachment to the idea of the “people who work hard and want to get on” belies a troubling moral distinction which need not be at the heart of debates about recession and austerity.

Ian Jack in The Guardian argues that the “‘Squeezed middle’ is far too cuddly a term for the damage being done to British and American wages by changes in global trade, and the lack of any serious political challenge to free-market theology.” For Jack, the idea of the ‘squeezed middle’ is not political enough. It doesn’t allow for an appropriate critique of the neoliberal agendas which enable low and stagnant pay.

For others, all the attention paid the ‘squeezed middle’ (not least in the media) draws attention away from those who really find themselves at the blunt edge of austerity, the poor. Even the Resolution Foundation acknowledges that these aren’t the most deserving households.

Yet, for me, there is still something provocative about the idea of the ‘squeezed middle’.

The idea of the ‘middle’ connects to a range of sociological debates about the ‘missing middle’ and our academic tendency to study the most vulnerable or the most powerful. Steve Roberts and Robert MacDonald explore this in the context of youth studies; they draw attention to the need to think about the ordinary, the ‘invisible majority’, those who find themselves between the middle class youth who seemingly make their transitions to adulthood with relative ease and the excluded poor, who find themselves outside education, employment or training. For Roberts and MacDonald, researching the ‘missing middle’ gives us a fuller and more diverse picture of social change. They argue that this middle may appear to be ‘getting by’ but suggest that more may be going on, under the surface. These unseen, undocumented experiences of struggle, to find and keep a job, to further education or training, to juggle work and family life, and so on, echo with my concerns here.

Roberts and MacDonald build on the arguments of David Byrne (2005) who in turn connects to the work of Michael Zweig, writing in the US about the ‘working class majority’. For Byrne and Zweig, the majority of US and UK households find themselves neither in the middle class, nor in what is most commonly identified as the working class (the dispossessed, the excluded, the most vulnerable). This ‘missing middle’, with jobs in which they have little autonomy, but living in their own homes with little visible deprivation, are barely understood: as Byrne argues, “The absence here is of knowledge about people like these. How do they live? Statistically we know a lot – they fill in census forms and Neighbourhood Statistics yield up the data cited above. But we know very little about how they think, how they feel about work, about their identities in these places, about their schools and about their hopes for the future.”

Pieces by journalists, activists, and others are beginning to sketch out some of the contours of life in ordinary families, in the context of the the ongoing recession and the austerity measures I described in a previous blog. These range from reduced food spending and the turn to discounters such as Aldi and Lidl, to the need to turn down heating to cut fuel costs, or to giving up a family car, or to delaying retirement.

What these pieces hint at – and what really interests me – is the position of these families ‘on the edge’, ‘struggling’, ‘juggling’ ‘vulnerable’, ‘unstable’. These are families who are doing OK, are ‘getting by’ but for whom a single knock (reduced working hours, rising food and fuel prices, rent increases, ill-health, family separation) might be enough to push them into poverty. They are living on edge of security, a few degrees from insecurity, threatened, at risk.

What I’m trying to understand in this project is how these risks and insecurities are lived and negotiated, and the focus of my project is on relationships. In their best form, relationships help us to feel secure, ‘contained’, or ‘held’ and to fend off anxiety; my question then is how do relationships help the ‘squeezed middle’ to negotiate these social and economic challenges and to achieve (or maintain) material and emotional security.

In his Telegraph piece, Ed Miliband explained: “The squeeze on family life is not just financial, but it is also a squeeze on our time, our relationships and our communities.” I’m not so sure that Ed Miliband is taking his own words seriously, but it is this concern that is at the heart of my project.

Geography, relationships and the ‘bedroom tax’

Although most of those affected by the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ are not what we’d identify as ‘squeezed middle’ households (since, by definition, they’re in receipt of housing benefit), exploring the effects of the government’s clampdown on what it sees as ‘under-occupation’ gives an insight into some of the issues at the heart of this project.

What the ‘bedroom tax’ belies is a determined attempt by the Coalition and its thinkers to ignore the importance of everyday relationships and their geographies, within and beyond the home. The determination to cut the housing benefit bill by ‘taxing’ recipients who have one or two spare rooms threatens the relationships which protect families and individuals, which help them to feel secure and looked after.

How does it do this? In two primary ways, I think.

One, it disregards the complexity of family relationships within the home. For example, the insistence that siblings share rooms (depending on age and gender) fails to acknowledge a raft of circumstances that might make this difficult, including special needs or disabilities, or time and space for study, or even radically different personalities. Forcing siblings to share in some of these circumstances might put so much pressure on relationships in the home that they begin to break. Similar arguments could be made about the expectation that couples must share a bedroom, regardless of circumstance. Or consider the numerous cases where a sister or a nephew or a cousin provides unofficial care for an adult family member with an illness or a disability; under the new regime, those sisters, nephews or cousins don’t count as ‘family’ and so wouldn’t be entitled to a room of their own in the house where they’re providing care. Finally, think of those families whose circumstances have suddenly changed, through separation, estrangement, death, or even just an adult child leaving home. The ‘bedroom tax’ would mean that, unless they choose to pay the penalty, those families will have to move before they’re had time to get used to the changed circumstances or to come to terms with the loss. Polly Toynbee in The Guardian recounts the desperate case of a family who recently lost their seven year old daughter to cancer and who, as a result, are seen to ‘under-occupy’ their home.

Two, it fails to value the place of embedded, long-term, local relationships and their contribution to people’s wellbeing. In another Guardian piece, Amelia Gentleman talks to residents on the Bushbury Hill housing estate in Wolverhampton, but their tales will be replicated nationwide. Dozens of residents are being forced to choose between paying the ‘tax’ or relocating and losing the relationships they’ve built from living on the estate for decades. Those relationships, with friends or neighbours or local shops and services, might be offering all kinds of support: community, conversation and friendship, childcare, loans of money, food, equipment, a watchful eye on each other’s homes, to name a few. In short, these kinds of relationships are invaluable, and especially for more vulnerable and isolated households. Their loss may have a real impact on welfare, in ways that may be impossible to quantify but which are nevertheless costly. The head of Public Health England recently argued that “Being isolated and living alone shortens life and increases disability. It is equivalent to 15 cigarettes a day.”

An additional irony, if you can call it that, is that many who do relocate will end up in homes which, though smaller, are more expensive, such that the housing benefit bill increases rather than decreases.

It’s a terrible policy, one with a potentially enormous human cost. Relationships matter and we need to take care of them.

The Costs of Austerity

In this project I’m interested in the ways in which people’s relationships with family, friends and the wider community enable them to negotiate social and economic change. The cluster of economic and social changes that I’m particularly focused on are those associated with the ongoing recession and the austerity measures implemented, by government and other institutions, in response to recession.

Many of these changes are part of the coalition government’s ongoing welfare reforms, announced in the 2012 comprehensive spending review and the 2012 Welfare Reform Act. The key reforms include:

– the freezing of child benefit rates and ‘tapering’ of access for higher income households (earning over £50,000) plus reductions in a variety of payments to new parents (such as the Child Trust Fund and the Health in Pregnancy Grant)

– the capping of housing benefits (as part of the overall benefit cap, see below), a reduction in Local Housing Allowance rates (which set the local levels of housing benefit) and benefit reduction for ‘under-occupation’ (the so-called ‘bedroom tax’)

– time limiting of employment and support allowance (ESA)

– a reduction in both coverage and levels of tax credits (in advance of all tax credits being subsumed with Universal Credit, see below)

– the replacement of the Disability Living Allowance (DLA) by Personal Independent Payments (PIPs) and a re-assessment of all recipients (expected to result in hundreds of thousands receiving reduced levels of benefit)

– the localisation of council tax benefit (i.e. to cash-strapped local authorities) and a reduction of council tax benefit budgets by 10%

– a benefit cap of £500 per week for a family or £350 per week for a single person

– the abolition of community care grants and crisis loans (with a suggestion but no statutory requirement that they be replaced by local schemes, devised by (cash-strapped) local authorities)

– the introduction of Universal Credit from Oct 2013; this will become the main means-tested social security benefit for people of working age, replacing Housing Benefit, Income Support, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Jobseeker’s Allowance, Working Tax Credit & Child Tax Credit

– an increase in state pension age

In addition to these welfare reforms, the other major cuts affecting households’ everyday lives are the cuts to council spending allocations, amounting to £5 billion in 2011/12 and 2012/13. This equates to an average decline, over two years, of approximately 16% in councils’ funding from central government. These cuts are leading to declining support for essential services and the wholesale of withdrawal of support from apparently non-essential services (in, for example, Newcastle City Council’s plan to cut all arts subsidies). There’s a particular geography to these funding cuts, as Patrick Butler’s Cuts Blog in the Guardian explores. In North Tyneside, Conservative mayor, Linda Arkley, has spearheaded an outsourcing of council services, in the face of opposition from Labour-held council. The impacts of this outsourcing are as yet unknown, but the fear is that access to services will be reduced.

On top of all these, families are feeling the ‘squeeze’ from, at one end, pay cuts and freezes, reduced working hours and job loss, and at the other, from increases in everyday prices, for food and energy for example. The ‘big six’ energy providers announced price increases in December of between 6 and 12%. At the same time, a number of the large supermarkets predicted further food price rises, as a result of both high world grain prices and the wet UK winter. The impact of this particular squeeze is seen in the rapid growth of food banks across the UK; the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest provider of food banks, estimates around 230,000 people will be fed nationwide by food banks in 2012/13 (see also this report).

Numerous commentators suggest that yesterday’s Budget will do little to alleviate the pressures on families. Budget reflections by the Resolution Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Fawcett Society, and many others argue that nothing has been done to stop more and more working families finding themselves in, or on the brink of, poverty. What’s more, there are fears that the upcoming Comprehensive Spending Review (expected later this year or in 2014) will see further cuts to welfare.

All in all, this is tough picture for the ‘squeezed middle’ families at the heart of my research. Whilst these are not families living in poverty, they are families for whom a few knocks (such as reduced working hours, or rising energy prices, or limited access to tax credits, or the loss of free local playgroup) make life increasingly difficult.