“Poverty” isn’t strong enough to describe the misery so many face. We’re back to destitution

Liverpool, 2009. Image: Getty.

The Labour mayor of Liverpool on the return of Victorian poverty.

Destitution. Just think about that word. Over the past decade, we have moved on from talking about social exclusion, or inequality, or even just poverty. Now, such is the impoverishment of whole communities, buckling after a decade of deep public spending cuts, that we are using the language of the Victorian era.

More than 1.5m people experienced ‘destitution’ in the UK at some point during 2017. Not my words, but the description given by a team of academics in a major new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Destitution in the UK 2018,which provides a benchmark for what the term means in the modern era.

They conclude that destitution refers to experiencing at least two of six indicators in a ghastly basket of measures of extreme poverty. Has someone slept rough for more than a day? Or had fewer than two meals a day for two or more days? Have they been unable to heat their home for five or more days? Or light it? Do they have appropriate clothing and footwear? Basic toiletries? And is their income so low they might lack these basic essentials in the immediate future? 

The problem of destitution is clustered in many post-industrial urban centres. Unsurprisingly, Liverpool comes second after Manchester, with some of the poorer parts of London, the North East and West Midlands also included.

The legacy issues that remain from the 1980s – including ingrained, inter-generational poverty and high unemployment – are hard to resolve, when eight years of swingeing central government spending cuts have reduced the council’s budget by two-thirds, some £444m.

Nevertheless, Liverpool has made it a priority to support people and families who face dire personal circumstances. Our Citizens Support Scheme and other hardship funds provided crisis payments for more than 10,000 last year – and helped more than 3,000 people and families pay for home essentials. 


We have also invested an extra £1mto prevent hardship and homelessness through discretionary housing payments. Last year we made 11,000 such payments, supporting residents who are suffering due to a shortfall in state benefits caused by government welfare reforms.

Our approach has been to deal with crisis situations, in order to stave off calamities. In many cases, we are one of the few councils in the country to provide this range of support, investing £23.2m last year in preventing our poorest citizens sliding into destitution.

This isn’t just because we are committed to social justice – or because I myself grew up in grinding poverty and know exactly how life-limiting it is. No: we have an additional motive for supporting the very poorest citizens in our city.

 If we allow people to sink to the very depths of despair it costs more in the long run to pull them back up again into mainstream society, transferring the pressure onto other frontline services, particularly the NHS. Destitution is cruel and brutal – but it is also an inefficient way to run a society. Our approach sees social justice and economic efficiency working hand in hand.

 But the most galling aspect of the Rowntree report is how bad government policy is conspiring to make the situation worse:

 ‘People were pulled into destitution by a combination of factors: benefit delays, gaps and sanctions; harsh debt recovery practices (mainly by public authorities and utilities companies); financial and other pressures associated with poor health and disability; high costs of housing, fuel and other essentials; and, for some groups – including young people – even lower levels of benefits than for others, and for some migrants, no eligibility at all.’

A large part of the rough sleeping problem we face in Liverpool involves failed asylum seekers who are designated as having no recourse to public funds. They are left to fall through the cracks – which is why I have instructed my officers to ignore this heartless government diktat.  

Remember David Cameron’s boasts about the “big society,” and claims that “We’re all in this together?” The destitute are those failed by his empty rhetoric and the grinding effects of austerity.

Although we don’t have the resources we need to fix all the problems of destitution – mostly driven by factors outside of my control – when we can prevent someone shivering in a doorway, we will, regardless of the rules.

Similarly, we were the first city in the country to bring forward compulsory landlord registration in order to tackle tenant exploitation and drive up standards in the private rented sector. 

All too often, serious-minded reports like this come along and cause consternation for those of us on the political left, but barely skim the surface when it comes to shifting government policy. 

Let this damning report – exposing the reality of destitution in our country, caused by a decade of austerity – be the moment when even the stony-hearted in Whitehall say, “Enough is enough.” 

Joe Anderson is Labour mayor of Liverpool.

 
 
 
 

The risk of ‘cascading’ natural disasters is rising

A man watches wildfires in California, 2013. Image: Getty.

In a warming world, the dangers from natural disasters are changing. In a recent commentary, we identified a number of costly and deadly catastrophes that point to an increase in the risk of “cascading” events – ones that intensify the impacts of natural hazards and turn them into disasters.

Multiple hazardous events are considered cascading when they act as a series of toppling dominoes, such as flooding and landslides that occur after rain over wildfires. Cascading events may begin in small areas but can intensify and spread to influence larger areas.

This rising risk means decision-makers, urban planners and risk analysts, civil engineers like us and other stakeholders need to invest more time and effort in tracking connections between natural hazards, including hurricanes, wildfires, extreme rainfall, snowmelt, debris flow, and drought, under a changing climate.

Cascading disasters

Since 1980 to January 2018, natural disasters caused an inflation-adjusted $1,537.4bn in damages in the United States.

The loss of life in that period – nearly 10,000 deaths – has been mounting as well. The United States has seen more billion-dollar natural disaster events recently than ever before, with climate models projecting an increase in intensity and frequency of these events in the future. In 2017 alone, natural disasters resulted in $306bn losses, setting the costliest disaster year on record.

We decided it was important to better understand cascading and compound disasters because the impacts of climate change can often lead to coupled events instead of isolated ones. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, or UNISDR, claims: “Any disaster entails a potentially compounding process, whereby one event precipitates another.”

For example, deforestation and flooding often occur together. When vegetation is removed, top soil washes away and the earth is incapable of absorbing rainfall. The 2004 Haiti flood that killed more than 800 people and left many missing is an example of this type of cascading event. The citizens of the poverty-stricken country destroyed more than 98 per cent of its forests to provide charcoal for cooking. When Tropical Storm Jeanne hit, there was no way for the soil to absorb the rainfall. To further complicate existing issues, trees excrete water vapor into the air, and so a sparser tree cover often yields less rain. As a result, the water table may drop, making farming, which is the backbone of Haiti’s economy, more challenging.


Rising risk from climate change

Coupled weather events are becoming more common and severe as the earth warms. Droughts and heatwaves are a coupled result of global warming. As droughts lead to dry soils, the surface warms since the sun’s heat cannot be released as evaporation. In the United States, week-long heatwaves that occur simultaneously with periods of drought are twice as likely to happen now as in the 1970s.

Also, the severity of these cascading weather events worsens in a warming world. Drought-stricken areas become more vulnerable to wildfires. And snow and ice are melting earlier, which is altering the timing of runoff. This has a direct relationship with the fact that the fire season across the globe has extended by 20 per cent since the 1980s. Earlier snowmelt increases the chance of low flows in the dry season and can make forests and vegetation more vulnerable to fires.

These links spread further as wildfires occur at elevations never imagined before. As fires destroy the forest canopy on high mountain ranges, the way snow accumulates is altered. Snow melts faster since soot deposited on the snow absorbs heat. Similarly, as drought dust is released, snow melts at a higher rate as has been seen in the Upper Colorado River Basin.

Fluctuations in temperature and other climatic patterns can harm or challenge the already crumbling infrastructure in the United States: the average age of the nation’s dams and levees is over 50 years. The deisgn of these aging systems did not account for the effects of cascading events and changes in the patterns of extreme events due to climate change. What might normally be a minor event can become a major cause for concern such as when an unexpected amount of melt water triggers debris flows over burned land.

There are several other examples of cascading disasters. In July, a deadly wildfire raged through Athens killing 99 people. During the same month on the other side of the world in Mendocino, California, more than 1,800 square kilometers were scorched. For scale, this area is larger than the entire city of Los Angeles.

When landscapes are charred during wildfires, they become more vulnerable to landslides and flooding. In January of this year, a debris flow event in Montecito, California killed 21 people and injured more than 160. Just one month before the landslide, the soil on the town’s steep slopes were destabilised in a wildfire. After a storm brought torrential downpours, a 5-meter high wave of mud, tree branches and boulders swept down the slopes and into people’s homes.

Hurricanes also can trigger cascading hazards over large areas. For example, significant damages to trees and loss of vegetation due to a hurricane increase the chance of landslides and flooding, as reported in Japan in 2004.

Future steps

Most research and practical risk studies focus on estimating the likelihood of different individual extreme events such as hurricanes, floods and droughts. It is often difficult to describe the risk of interconnected events especially when the events are not physically dependent. For example, two physically independent events, such as wildfire and next season’s rainfall, are related only by how fire later raises the chances of landslide and flooding.

As civil engineers, we see a need to be able to better understand the overall severity of these cascading disasters and their impacts on communities and the built environment. The need is more pronounced considering the fact that much of the nation’s critical infrastructure is aged and currently operate under rather marginal conditions.

A first step in solving the problem is gaining a better understanding of how severe these cascading events can be and the relationship each occurrence has with one another. We also need reliable methods for risk assessment. And a universal framework for addressing cascading disasters still needs to be developed.

A global system that can predict the interactions between natural and built environments could save millions of lives and billions of dollars. Most importantly, community outreach and public education must be prioritised, to raise awareness of the potential risks cascading hazards can cause.

The Conversation

Farshid Vahedifard, CEE Advisory Board Endowed Professor and Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Mississippi State University and Amir AghaKouchak, Associate Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of California, Irvine.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.