Insa Koch is an LSE Fellow in the Department of Anthropology.
The bedroom tax, which was implemented on 1 April 2013, has been widely criticised as a fundamental attack on the welfare state. It exposes many people to the risk of losing their houses and breaks up family homes and communities. But there is also another problem with the bedroom tax which has so far tended to be overlooked: in addition to bringing down the welfare state, the bedroom tax also fosters widespread feelings of resentment which may well reinforce social divisions among the most marginalised sectors of society.
When the British welfare state was first established following the Second World War, a central ambition of the post-war reformers was to create a more equal and inclusive society. Through the provision of basic benefits and a minimum living standard, a settlement was to be reached between capital and labour that would protect all citizens from the most ugly sides of capitalism. Yet, with the dismantling of the Keynesian consensus in the late 1970s, this settlement has been progressively undermined. Alongside the gradual reduction of public resources, the shift towards means-tested assistance has restricted the provision of welfare assistance to only the most destitute and needy members of society. This attack on the welfare state has been taken to new extremes under the wide-ranging cuts introduced by the current government as part of its so-called welfare reforms.
The bedroom tax provides a case in point. Introduced with the Welfare Reform Act 2012, the bedroom tax is the name given by its opponents to the government’s under-occupancy policy as pertains to social housing. Promoted as a means of redistributing social housing more evenly, the avowed aim of the policy is to ensure that the needs of social housing tenants are met more efficiently through means-tested allocation policy. The policy works by assessing families for the number of bedrooms they actually need: any tenant found to have a spare bedroom loses 14 per cent of their housing benefit per week and 25 per cent per week if they have more than one spare bedroom. This means that those found to live in properties that are deemed to be bigger than their needs are either forced to find the money to pay the difference in rent or to downgrade to a smaller property. The bedroom tax affects an estimated 31 per cent of existing working-age housing benefit claimants in the social sector.
The problem with the bedroom tax is that it does not result in a more equal distribution of social housing as argued by the government. On the contrary, it exposes the vast majority of those affected by it to the risk of losing their houses. Most social housing tenants are unable to pay the loss of benefits out of their own pocket. At the same time, downgrading is frequently not an option: there simply are not enough smaller social housing properties within the local social housing stock to house the displaced and moving into the private rental sector remains impossible for people who cannot afford to put down a deposit. The effects of the policy have begun to make themselves felt: research shows that 96 per cent of those affected by the policy will be stuck in their current homes, facing arrears, potential eviction and homelessness. Meanwhile, many of the vacated properties will remain empty as the government struggles to find sufficiently large enough families who can meet the criteria of need.
By forcing tenants out of their homes, the bedroom tax also breaks up family homes and communities. Take, for instance, the elderly woman who acted as a carer for her sick husband and who is told to leave her two-bedroom council house as soon as her husband has died. Or the couple who can no longer afford to stay in the council house where they once raised their children because their children’s bedrooms are no longer in use. Or the single mother who was once offered a house by the council when escaping a violent husband and who is now forced to leave the home that offered her safety and protection. The effects of these processes are gendered and hit the most vulnerable the hardest: single mothers, the elderly and the disabled are those who will be most affected by the loss of family homes and their local neighbourhoods. As a recent high profile case of a woman committing suicide over her eviction notice shows, for many, this may make life, quite literally, unbearable.
Perhaps most seriously, the bedroom tax fosters feelings of resentment among those affected by it. And here lies the real hidden danger of means-tested policies: the bedroom tax encourages boundaries that divide its losers from its winners. Those who are penalised by means-tested benefits feel hard done by, and harbour hard feelings against those who may take their place. Meanwhile, the few who are considered to be in need are made to feel that they are unjustly taking away from others, causing widespread stigma and shame.
At a time when social justice is no longer on the agenda of mainstream political parties, these processes may not only reinforce popular feelings of disenchantment but also act as ammunition for the divisive rhetoric of right-wing parties. While the long-term effects of the bedroom tax remain to be seen, it may well be the case that it constitutes not only a violent attack of the welfare state but also of solidarity among the most vulnerable sectors of society itself.