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.