Last Saturday, towns and cities across the UK saw a co-ordinated, mass protest against the so-called "Bedroom Tax". This protest, entitled "The Mass Sleep-out" consisted of protesters camping out in public spaces overnight, sometimes in quite nasty conditions, to draw attention to this policy.
Currently, the UK government offers a subsidy to unemployed and underemployed people to help pay for the cost of housing. This new policy (officially titled the "Under-occupancy Penalty") will reduce the amount given to people who are found to be living in accomodations with too many bedrooms.
The protesters I met in Darlington (as well as other critics) argued that this policy will lead to people being rendered homeless, as the reduction in benefit will prevent them from paying their rent. Thus, the Mass Sleep out was intended to show the inevitable consequences of the bedroom tax--namely, people sleeping in tents in English weather.
This policy strikes me as the worst kind of poor-bashing. Implicit in the Bedroom Tax is the idea that people on benefits are living way beyond their means, holding onto spacious flats when they don't need them, and living the caricature of the slobbish, greedy Chav so eloquently articlated and deconstructed in Owen Jones recent book. This same caricature exists in America. Indeed, the image of poor people buying and living in housing that they can't afford forms the backbone of conservative narratives about the 2008 financial crisis. Likewise, the image of poor people abusing social services has long been a popular discourse in the US, though it is highly racialized.
It is the very materiality of houses that makes the bedroom tax so cruel and impractical. Housing is not like other kinds of social benefits. It is not portable, for one thing. Moving house is not easy, nor is it particularly cheap, and the idea that the bedroom tax will force occupants to simply find more suitable accomodations belies the difficulty that people have doing so even in the best of circumstances. For people with limited or fixed incomes, moving house is not something easily or casually done and this policy forces that eventuality.
Likewise, the tax ignores the complexities and vagaries of family life. Under the scheme, any family with a spare bedroom faces reduced subsidies unless they move house, or fill the room. But the scheme makes no provision for the circumstances under which this takes place--a family member dying, a child moving out, etc... Furthermore, the concept of the bedroom as a discrete space belies the multivalent and productive ways in which people make use of rooms. To take my family as an example, we use our second bedroom as a workspace, as a place for family to stay when they visit, as a place to relax, as a place to store personal and financial documents, and a lot more. The idea that simply having a spare bedroom means that one is wasteful takes a crude and narrow vision of productivity.
But more than that, it is the very loaded symbolism of homes that makes this tax and its consequences so pernicous. As archaeologists have long documented, homes are more than just a roof over ones head. They are powerful emotional and affective "artifacts" that we invest with important social and symbolic dimensions. Homes are places of safety, of comfort, of family and its maintenence and growth. Conservative politicians, who publicly value family life as the bedrock of social order, seem to be taking a narrow view of its material manifestations in their policies.
The bedroom tax is part of a suite of policies proposed and enacted by the Conservative government of the UK as part of the Welfare Reform Act of 2012. This proposal is one of the key planks of the government's Austerity policy, designed to reduce government debt, of which welfare and social payments are a significant (though not overwhelming) percentage. Recent analysis has suggested that austerity politics is not the economic accelerator that its proponents claim. More forceful critics, such as David Harvey, suggest that austerity is a key political tool of class war, designed to shut down state social services and re-organize capitalist class relations.
For my part, I was inspired by the folks who came to the Darlington Mass Sleep out. They were articulate, committed, and fun people who clearly care about their community, and have a clear-eyed vision of its problems and potentials. Here's hoping that the government hears what they, and thousands more across the UK, have to say.