Equity warns Universal Credit cut ‘favours’ posh creatives over working class talent
A much-criticised cut to Britain’s Universal Credit welfare payment threatens to tighten the grip of upper middle class privilege on the nation’s arts and entertainments sectors , writes Mark Cantrell— we’ll all be the poorer for it
STRANGE as it may sound, October’s cut to Universal Credit benefit payments threatens the future of the arts in the UK.
That’s because it will make it harder for working class people to break in to the industry, says the trades union Equity. The organisation has warned this will undermine efforts to improve diversity and representation within the arts and entertainment sectors.
“The pandemic has already compounded our industries’ historical problem of elitism by disproportionately impacting under-represented groups and especially those from working class backgrounds,” said Equity’s general secretary, Paul W Fleming.
“By removing this vital safety net for many creative practitioners, the Government is now making it even harder for those without a privileged background to break into and remain in entertainment.”
While many may argue that talent will out, come what may, an affluent background makes it easier to get a foot in the door and be noticed; certainly it makes a career in these sectors that much easier to sustain.
We’ve all heard the cliché of the struggling actor waiting on tables. Likewise, the ‘Withnail & I’ trope featuring out-of-work thesps surviving on benefits as they pursue their next break.
It can be a notoriously precarious business, after all, even for those with a family safety net to fall back on. For those of more limited means, however, the hurdles can easily become gates firmly locked.
Again, the response might be, tough: if you can’t afford to sustain your way in the creative industries on your own ‘merit’, then you’ve no business being in the business — go and get a ‘proper job’.
That’s one way of looking at the issue, for sure; if you like playing hard-ball with the nation’s reflection of itself. Some take the view that a lack of representation risks worse than cultural stagnation, but a denial of opportunity, a loss of talent, and a restricted perspective when it comes to expressing modern society.
If arts and entertainment reflect only a narrow slice of Britain, don’t we become so much narrower and insular in our outlook?
Maybe — for a nation so fixated on Brexit — that suits the mood. An anti-elitist stance was a major theme of the whole shenanigans, though, so it’s not a good look to abandon the arts to a — socially, culturally and economically — privileged elite.
“[The] withdrawal of the £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit directly undermines the culture secretary’s recent commitment to level up opportunities in the arts,” Fleming added.
‘Woke’ on class
NADINE Dorries, appointed in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent cabinet reshuffle, proved something of a controversial choice for the post: she’s seen in some quarters as an ‘anti-woke culture warrior’.
Such a stance is spine-chilling for those concerned with nurturing greater diversity and representation in Britain’s culture sector, for fear her appointment signals a loss of interest in opening up the sector to people of colour, LGBT+, people with disabilities and other groups, but she’s evidently happy to play the class card.
Ironically, that’s a rather ‘woke’ thing to do, given working class cuts across all kinds of inter-sectionalities, be they sexuality, gender, ethnicity, trans, disability and the like. None of these are the preserve of the socially conscious posh, after all, but it seems unlikely this is what she had in mind.
In an interview with The Sun in early October, she decried the difficulties people from working class backgrounds face when it comes to breaking in and forging a career in culture and entertainment. These days it pays to be posh, she argued. The BBC was her prime target, as she declared she would use her appointment to ‘level up’ opportunity for working class kids.
Easy to say, of course, especially to a famously (should that be infamously?) pro-Tory newspaper, but Britain’s cultural and economic divides are deep-rooted and long-standing, and will take more than populist sound-bites to break.
‘Levelling up’ has become something of a leitmotif for Johnson ‘s government — he even renamed (and effectively demoted) the former Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities, headed up by Michael Gove MP.
The trouble is, nobody is entirely certain what the term means, if anything. Such is politics.
Too posh to benefit
DORRIES may be an unlikely champion of diversity and opportunity, but she can certainly find ammunition to use against institutions like the BBC. However, the national broadcaster is hardly alone in being a supposed ‘bastion’ of class privilege.
Much the same can be said across the creative sectors. It’s a long-standing — possibly very British — problem. Indeed, according to research published in September by the Creative Industries Policy & Evidence Centre (PEC) the UK’s cultural industries are among the most elitist in the country.
To address the class imbalance and become as socio-economically diverse as the rest of the economy, the creative sectors would need to employ as many as 250,000 more people from working class backgrounds. That’s quite a shortfall.
“As we rebuild following the Covid-19 pandemic, it is vital that we widen access to opportunities created in high-growth, high-skill parts of the UK economy, like the creative industries,” said the PEC’s Heather Carey.
“Our research provides definitive evidence on the causes of class imbalances and sets out an ambitious and wide-ranging programme of change to enhance social mobility into the creative economy.”
Dave O’Brien, of the University of Edinburgh and also the PEC, added: “[T]here is a clear class crisis across our cultural and creative industries. If the research ends debate over whether there is class discrimination in cultural jobs, the question of how to address that crisis is still open.”
Clearly, there’s a long way to go to break that class ceiling. Cutting back on the nation’s social security safety net doesn’t help matters, though.
Working class gets little credit
UNIVERSAL Credit has had a chequered and controversial history. Created as much for those in work as for those who are unemployed, it long predates Brexit, having gone live in 2013.
Since then, as it has been rolled-out in phases across the country, it has earned much criticism for poor design and implementation, as well as for changes made to the original premise that gutted many of its claimed advantages over the legacy benefits it replaced.
Over the years, a range of bodies — charities, academic institutions, thinktanks such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), parliamentary committees, even the UN — have catalogued a disastrous impact on poverty: short version, it’s driven many recipients ever-deeper into the mire.
Allied with various ‘reforms’ to the wider Welfare State, cuts to benefit payments, a cap on the overall amount of benefits claimants can receive, and a draconian system of sanctions, Universal Credit has proved a major driver of rent arrears, along with food and energy insecurity. Reliance on food banks, virtually unheard of 10 years ago, has risen catastrophically.
Then, of course, in 2020 Covid-19 swept through Britain. The full social and economic impact of the pandemic, and the measures implemented to deal with it, are yet to make themselves fully known. But it’s human agency that will decide the outcome for the better — or the worst — in the coming months and years.
The Government introduced the £20 a week top-up to Universal Credit payment to help mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic, as workers were placed on furlough for the duration of lockdown, or else lost their jobs to the crisis. Arts and entertainment sectors were particularly hard hit.
In a very real sense, the uplift simply acknowledged — in deed if not in word — that the amount of benefit paid pre-pandemic was never sufficient to provide an adequate safety net for low income households.
Now that top-up has gone, losing families some £1,000 a year, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak ended what he always said was but a temporary measure. The impact is expected to be severe, especially in the face of rising prices and an emerging cost of living crisis.
In the run-up to the cut, there was widespread concern about the impact on low income families — among them key workers such as in healthcare and supermarket retail staff who turned out to be essential during the height of lockdown — not to mention those who have lost their jobs. For many, the uplift proved a vital lifeline that just about kept them afloat.
The Chancellor seemingly acknowledged this during his Budget speech this month, when he made some critical changes to Universal Credit that supposedly serve to mitigate the impact of the uplift’s end.
First, he raised by £500 the amount people can earn before they see reductions to their Universal Credit payments. Second, he reduced the taper rate — the amount payments are reduced — from 63% to 55%, meaning claimants get to keep more of their benefit.
In theory, this is supposed to help ensure work pays. That’s always been the hard-sell mantra since its inception. But as the experience of Universal Credit has demonstrated in past years, this has too-often proved anything but. It should also be noted that the latter taper rate was the original one intended, before the Treasury stepped in to demand a higher claw-back rate.
Even so, for many the taper — old or new — is akin to a tax imposed on the incomes of lower earners far greater than rates imposed on wealthy taxpayers.
For many commentators, Sunak’s partial u-turn on Universal Credit still leaves much to be desired. While it may help some low-income working households, it will do nothing for those who are unemployed and looking for work, or who are unable to work. And there’s still that cost of living crisis.
As the JRF tweeted:
Where does that leave creatives reliant on Universal Credit? In much the same place as their peers in other sectors of the economy. But the fear is many of them may be forced to abandon their creative careers. Our national culture can only be the poorer should that come to pass.
Is there no equity?
WITH that, we return to Equity.
Poverty beckons for many of its members, the union warned. In late September, ahead of the deadline for the end of the £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit, it released the findings of a survey of members, claiming that over half expected to face financial hardship.
Out of 780 members who took part in the survey, 69% were claiming Universal Credit. Of them:
- 53% said they would experience financial hardship if the uplift was removed
- 41% would not be able to meet housing and other essential costs
- 33% would be prevented from seeking work in the industry
- 32% would be likely to go into debt or increase their debt
- 35% would not be able to pay their bills
- 51% of Equity members who receive Universal Credit or other welfare have been forced to look for work outside the industry by a work coach
As one member quoted in the survey said: “The Universal Credit I receive covers rent and bills, but I struggle heavily with food and travel in the second half of the month.”
Covid-19 has already “compounded” the art’s historical problems of elitism by disproportionately impacting under-represented groups, Equity said, especially those from working class backgrounds.
“It’s difficult enough to break into the creative industry — I have always had to work other jobs to support myself, and this feels like another way of preventing low-income individuals from having a career in the creative industries,” another member said.
All told, Equity fears an “exodus” of talent — especially younger workers — because of the hardships the workforce are likely to face. Of course, there are those mitigating changes the Chancellor introduced in his Budget, but quite what difference they will make in real terms is as yet unclear.
Some may be unmoved by all this. Maybe we’re comfortable with a creative and cultural landscape that is largely middle class, white, straight and cis, but it’s a scene that erases many Britons — and their perspectives — from the frame.
On the other hand, some may feel uncomfortable singling out workers in the cultural industries like this; why should they receive special treatment over people struggling to make ends meet in other walks of low-income life? Why indeed?
In truth, it’s not about singling them out. This isn’t about lucky breaks or lack there-of for starry-eyed individuals.
Yes, in part, it’s about who gets to shape the narratives, who gets to tell the tales of modern Britain, and who decides. Then there’s the nurturing of creative talent a sector vital to the UK’s economic performance requires to remain competitive on a world stage. But this isn’t all there is to it.
Just as important, it’s about forging a social security safety net that is worthy of the name. A Welfare State fit for purpose — to lift people out of poverty, rather than somehow ‘police’ its boundaries — is a system fit for everyone, whether they aspire to a career in culture and entertainment or not.
Still, for those of us outside the industry, it might seem little to fuss over — just another tale of hardship in these hard times — but the creative industries say much about who and what we are as a society.
The story of Equity’s members is but one tale in this, told as part of a wider whole; an ensemble performance that explores the kind of country we want to be. One where people are raised up and have the opportunity to realise their potential; or one where privilege not merit ranks success?
Strange as it may sound, Britain’s welfare culture has more than a minor role in deciding how this drama ends. That’s the universal conundrum.