Vulnerability seemed to be last week’s buzz word. Are people on JSA with mental health problems “vulnerable”? Should society only support the “most vulnerable”? Is Cameron’s targeting of the “most vulnerable” a progressive policy?
By now your blood will probably coming to the boil and you’re likely to be screaming at your “interactive device” of choice. I really don’t blame you – “vulnerable” has become a toxic word in a toxic society with toxic Government policies.
The Social Model of Disability describes how society disables people. However, “vulnerability” seems to be a very different sort of model, artificially created to describe those who are “worthy” of help, to differentiate them from the rest – and it’s a double edged sword.
In the current political climate, being “vulnerable” casts you as worthy but also demeans you, portraying you as passive, helpless and in need of benevolence. This appears to contradict the promotion of aspiration, and paints a very confusing picture. To function within this framework necessitates proving your own vulnerability to secure ever smaller crumbs of welfare, simultaneously almost writing yourself off from any dream or aspiration. This artificially created juxtaposition is profoundly demoralising.
What does it mean to be or feel vulnerable?
For some it is the fear that they can’t pay their rent and will become homeless. For others it’s walking home at night in the dark. Being vulnerable is, for most people, a case of “your life in their hands” – be that the hands of a surgeon, a mugger, a landlord or the DWP. Almost everyone feels vulnerable at some point, when an aspect of their life is controlled or significantly affected by others; it is part of the human condition.
Under the current regime, it seems that the more “vulnerable” you are, the more you are seen as worthy and deserving of support. It’s no longer about having needs met, it’s about being the “most vulnerable”. We have a new metric, a new way of dividing people.
So who or what is it that makes people vulnerable? I want to address one particular aspect – Government policies.
The Government is making some people increasingly vulnerable. The constant testing of sick and disabled people makes them vulnerable to savage cuts to their income – risking their homes, independence and health. The deliberate narrowing of the criteria against which they’re assessed to qualify for that income, and the policies that reduce that income in real terms, are creating vulnerability. Personal Independence Payment (PIP) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) are both examples of benefits available to meet specific needs, while the social sector size criteria (“bedroom tax” or “removal of the spare room subsidy”) and benefits sanctions are both reductions in benefit – reductions that take people’s income below the level that the State considers necessary to live.
There are other areas of Government policy that make people vulnerable, notably the provision of social care. A person whose care needs are not met is vulnerable. Provision of care to meet those needs should ensure that this vulnerability is negated – but it doesn’t. The extent to which the person remains vulnerable is dictated by the availability and quality of care provided, but given the cuts to social care budgets, both are likely to fall short of meeting the care needs. For those who need a lot of help, closing the Independent Living Fund (ILF) and handing the responsibility for care funding over to a postcode lottery of councils have created a new vulnerability – an “is your council rich enough, and will they meet your needs?” type of vulnerability.
In relation to housing, a person with an insecure tenancy is vulnerable, because whilst their housing need is currently met, it is a short step from housed to homeless, given the current housing crisis. For some this will be a real difficulty, for others it will be a disaster that could lead to homelessness and even premature death.
Reductions in the provision of equipment or equipment grants, Access to Work funding and numerous other seemingly small changes all increase people’s vulnerability; they all put people further from independence, increasing their dependence on other people, services and the State.
The irony is that all these changes make people more dependent – their lives are increasingly dictated by others, and they are therefore even more vulnerable.
To be the most vulnerable in society today means being the most dependent on support and the most in need of continuity and security. It’s ironic that most cuts and policies are making people more vulnerable; if the Government cuts savagely enough then everyone takes a step up the “vulnerability ladder” – or, perhaps more appropriately, takes a slide down the “vulnerability snake”.
The Spartacus Network of sick and disabled researchers and writers is currently working on a paper linking the “vulnerability” narrative with changes in benefits and support for those at greater risk of vulnerability than the majority of the population.
But if there is one thing that is universal about vulnerability, it is that people who are vulnerable are worried and frightened. Creating policies that make people more vulnerable is ultimately counter-productive, as it takes them further from the ideal of a productive, independent member of society.
By Caroline Richardson