Feeling the squeeze: Towards a psychosocial geography of austerity in low-to-middle income families

The first actually-published paper from the research in Cullercoats that initiated this blog is now available online in Geoforum. Some of the ideas were developed in my short Discover Society article, and more are forthcoming when this presentation gets properly written up, hopefully within the next few months.

If you can’t access it through the paywall, drop me an email and I can send a copy.

Austerity and Everyday Relationships in Low-to- Middle Income Families in the UK

This is a PDF of my recent presentation at the Nordic Geographers’ Meeting in Stockholm. I’m hoping to get this written up in the next few months, but in the meantime…

NGM Presentation

The paper’s abstract was as follows:

In the context of a research project which explores the experiences of austerity in a small number of ‘squeezed middle’, ‘just about managing’ (low-to-middle income) families in north east England, this paper focuses on the place of everyday relationships within and beyond the family in mediating austerity. It uses a psychosocial framing to foreground the importance, complexity and diversity of relationships in making sense of and negotiating changing socio-economic circumstances, attempting to think about and connect the psychic dynamics of families’ relationships and the social dynamics of austerity and recession, and to develop a psychosocial geography of everyday austerity. After setting out some ideas about the nature and value of relationships, the paper asks how and why relationships with family, friends, neighbours, acquaintances and wider communities have been invoked, used, challenged, remade, and imagined as families have navigated the transformations of austerity. As part of the ‘squeezed middle’, these are not families living in poverty, but they have all experienced real threats and losses in the context of austerity, redundancies, falling incomes, tightened budgets, and growing insecurities, for example. The paper explores the ways in which these shifts are connected, in families’ reflections and narrations, to the place of children and their futures in family dreams, the diverse support and demands of friends in crises, large and small, memories of earlier family lives, and everyday negotiations with partners, husbands and wives, and wider families. It seeks to map these shifting relationships, identifying the varying sites and spaces, within and beyond the family home, in which they are made and remade. In these ways, the paper connects to ongoing debates, political, popular and academic, about relationships, austerity, and neoliberalism more widely, to reflect on their diverse and complex articulations.

Thanks to Sarah Hall, John Horton and Helena Pimlott-Wilson for organising the session.

A bit more information about interviews for possible participants…

This is just a quick post with a bit more information about what interviews for this project might involve.

If you’ve just arrived here from a link, tweet or FB message, please first have a look here, where you’ll find more information about this research project.

I’m looking for low-to-middle income families or individuals (the ‘squeezed middle’) living in Cullercoats or on the Marden estate. If you fit the bill, then please read on. 

Ideally, I’d meet you twice over a few weeks (maybe with an additional meeting at the start, just to meet each other and talk about the research in a bit more detail). Each interview will take about an hour, but it depends on how much you have to say.

The first interview will focus on your family – who lives with you, how long you’ve lived in Cullercoats, what jobs you have, if you have other family living locally, for example – and on your experiences of recession – on your jobs, on shopping, on your budgets and so on. I won’t ask for details like your salary or what benefits you receive. I won’t ask many questions, but will leave you to talk about the things you want to tell me.

In the first interview, we’ll also talk about your friends and family, to get an idea of who is important to you. To help do this, I’ll ask you to fill in a diagram (a ‘personal community map’) like the ones below:

At the end of the first interview, I’ll ask if you’re interested in filling in a diary for a week, noting down which of your friends, family, neighbours and acquaintances you meet and what you do with them.

If you do agree to do this, then we’ll arrange another interview for when you’ve finished and talk about these relationships in more detail, focusing particularly on if and how they help you cope with the effects of recession on your family. Again, I’ll try not to ask too many questions and let you tell me what you want me to know.

We can meet anywhere that suits you. This may be your home, or someone else’s home, or your workplace, or a public place such as a café or even a park. We can also meet at a time that suits you.

With your permission, I would like to record the interviews but anything we do discuss will be anonymised before I use it in any presentations or publications. I will keep all the information you give me safe.

As a thank you for participating, after our final meeting, I’ll give you £20 worth of high street vouchers.

If you are interested in being interviewed, please contact me by email, phone or text.

Mobile: 07580 386874

Email: alison.stenning@ncl.ac.uk


Updates and more information about the project can be found at:



Twitter: @alisonstenning


Recruiting interviewees


What is this research about?

Some say that in our global world, local communities are becoming less important. Yet, as many individuals and families are struggling with the effects of recession, it seems that these local, personal relationships, and the support they offer, are becoming important again. This research tries to explore this question in Cullercoats and on the Marden estate.

I’m particularly interested in exploring whether our relationships with family, friends and neighbours help us to deal with economic uncertainty. This might be through the moral support they offer, or because they give us time, or money, or other kinds of help that make it easier for us to get by.

The North East has been hit especially hard by the effects of recession and austerity (such as job loss, pay squeezes, benefits reductions, service cuts). Within the region, the ‘squeezed middle’ (low-to-middle income households, with a total income of roughly £12,000 to £40,000) has been particularly vulnerable.

Cullercoats and the Marden estate are home to a significant number of these households. They have dense and long-standing networks of community relationships and a relatively well-defined identity. All of this means this is a good place to explore the questions I’m interested in.

To explore these questions, it is important to me to first get to know Cullercoats and the Marden estate well. I want to get a sense of the life and history of the communities and to find out what is important to people living there.

The next step will be to carry out interviews with individuals and families in Cullercoats and on the Marden estate. These will involve discussions of the recession and of everyday relationships, with friends and family.


Why am I doing this research?

I believe the question of how individuals and families are living with the effects of the recession is an extremely important one and I think that people’s relationships with each other have a real influence on how they deal with economic stress. I have a young daughter, I work part-time and I live on the coast so these issues are personally important to me too.


Who is funding it?

Newcastle University, through their Catherine Cookson Foundation. The University has a longstanding relationship with Cullercoats through the Dove Marine Laboratory and is keen to support research that connects to the lives of local communities. Of course, Catherine Cookson herself was very interested in communities like Cullercoats.


Who will use the research?

Most importantly, this research will, I hope, be the beginning of a long-term relationship with Cullercoats, one that allows me to research issues that are important to people who live there. So I plan to feed what I find out back to the people I interviewed, including to those working in institutions that support community life. I will also be writing blogs and papers to present at conferences and to publish in academic journals.


How will any information you share be used?

In all meetings and interviews, I will discuss and agree how the information will be used. If you would like it to be anonymised before it is used in presentations or publications, we can agree that. All material gathered in interviews and meetings will be stored safely. I will be the only person who has access to it.


Are you interested in being interviewed about your experiences of recession and community in Cullercoats?

I’m currently looking for families living on low-to-middle incomes in Cullercoats and on the Marden estate to interview. Interviews will focus on your experiences of the current recession and your relationships within the local community.

Interviews can take place with one or more family members and can be arranged at a time and place that suits you.

If you are interested, please do get in touch and I will send you more information about what is involved.


Getting in touch

If you live in Cullercoats or on the Marden estate, think you belong to the ‘squeezed middle’, and are interested in being interviewed, please contact me by email, phone or text.

Mobile: 07580 386874

Email: alison.stenning@ncl.ac.uk


Updates and more information about the project can be found at:



Twitter: @alisonstenning


A PDF version of this information can be downloaded here.




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.

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.


As I start a new research project, I thought I’d start a blog too and see if and how it helps me to think about my research.

The project is funded by the Catherine Cookson Foundation at Newcastle University, where I work, and is focused on building a long-term, collaborative research relationship in and with communities in Cullercoats, North Tyneside.

In doing this, I’m hoping to explore how the personal relationships that shape communities (between family, friends, neighbours etc.) enable so-called ‘squeezed middle‘ households to negotiate social and economic challenges and achieve emotional and material security.

Both academic and more popular accounts of contemporary society suggest that the value of local, personal relationships (with, for example, family, friends and neighbours) is being reduced. Yet relationships remain at the heart of our everyday lives. They create an environment that ‘contains’ us, allows us to keep going and to tolerate stresses of various kinds, and the value of such relationships is increased, not decreased, at a time of economic crisis. Insecurity, vulnerability, loss and anxiety are experienced by many as they face the considerable economic, social and emotional challenges of austerity, and the contribution that local, personal relationships might make to weathering these challenges is a critical concern.

The effects of over four years of economic crisis have been widely felt but they have also been uneven, socially and geographically.

Socially, the so-called ‘squeezed middle’ has been identified as being particularly susceptible to ongoing crisis and cuts. Although definitions of this class are vague, the Resolution Foundation suggests that it consists nationally of some 6 million working, home-owning households with a gross income of £12-30,000. These households are not living in poverty but are increasingly insecure and vulnerable to the threat of labour market, cost-of-living, and tax and benefit changes.

Geographically, the UK’s northern regions, and in particular the North East, have been disproportionately affected by job loss, public sector cuts and pay squeezes.

Cullercoats can be seen as a very ‘average’ place socio-economically, with a significant number of ‘squeezed middle’ households: in the 2007 index of multiple deprivation, it ranked at 4505 (out of 8836) and in the 2001 census, 57% of the population were classified as social classes C1, C2 and D. It has a dense and long-standing network of community groups, reflecting its historical development as a port and fishing community, a relatively well-defined geography, and an existing relationship with the University, through the Dove Marine Laboratory.