The Price of Austerity in England

Source: The Nation

Kev Standishday is a personable, middle-aged social worker in the British county of Northamptonshire, a 90-minute drive northwest of London. He dresses casually, his face dominated by a striking white pointed goatee. While Standishday’s specialty is counseling troubled families, these days he works for the public-sector union UNISON, commuting by car to a two-story brick office building from the picturesque village of Little Harrowden, where he lives with his wife and five kids.

There is no secondary school in Little Harrowden, so Kev’s daughter has to take a bus each morning to the nearby town of Kettering. The county ended up in such a mess in the austerity years following the 2008 financial crisis that it had to file for bankruptcy in 2018; as a result, those bus trips are no longer subsidized. So now the Standishdays have to pay £700 a year (nearly $1,000) for the privilege of sending their child to school. The cost hurts.

As a social worker in a cash-strapped county, Kev saw his pay essentially frozen for several years. In a feckless attempt to balance its books, Northamptonshire took thousands of county employees out of national pay-and-conditions contracts, imposing wage freezes, unpaid furloughs, and other cost-saving changes. But that presented new challenges. “We can’t recruit and retain staff,” Kev says, “because conditions are so poor.”

Since 2010, UNISON estimates, the cost of living has increased by 27.6 percent. During that time, however, county employees received only 5.5 percent in wage increases, translating into a huge decline in living standards for workers who weren’t paid much to begin with. Kev says a teaching assistant in the county these days tops out at about £14,000 ($18,000) per year. As a result, there’s been a brain drain, with qualified people moving to higher-wage locales.

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