What does it mean to be ‘resilient’ in the UK today?

People may be more used to hearing the term ‘resilient’ in relation to disaster preparedness, communities united against domestic extremism, or even in terms of the strength of the economy. However, resilience can also be linked to people’s everyday survival.

The stories I have been listening to are not particularly uplifting. Though talking with people about how they deal with the issues they face helps provide some perspective. Many people I have been talking to face many challenges to do with housing, employment, disability and sickness. As a result of this, they also tell stories about having to deal with the organisations that are supposedly there to help them. Therefore the issues many people have to deal with go beyond the original crisis point. In some cases, the extra issues caused by trying to get formal assistance, and/or the issues created when there is a problem in the administration of that help, can actually lead to the crisis deepening.

A particular example of this is when people find themselves in arrears, be it with the bank, the housing association, the council or so on. It becomes a case of needing to prioritise which bill is paid first, if any, or which debt can be strung out for longer. Which payment can be ignored, and which missed payment will bring the bailiffs knocking? I do not really understand why bailiffs are sent out in the cases where a council may be involved – it is highly unlikely that the people who have not paid their bill will have all that much in the way of valuable goods. Looking at the wider picture, people who find themselves in arrears, particularly rent arrears, can find themselves in an impossible position. If you are in the position where you cannot make your rent in the first place, even to the extent that you receive financial support from the state, how exactly are you ever pay off your arrears? And of course, it is not as simple as just getting on your bike (if you even have one) and looking for a job. Many experts we have talked to (and of course the multiple examples in the newspapers) have said that there are simply not enough jobs for the people looking for work. Add to that the fact that some people may be able bodied but have to spend most or all of their time caring for a relative, how are they in fact supposed to get the extra money to get back in the black?

From my perspective, the welfare state in the UK cannot be relied on. At a macro level, British society has all but accepted discourses of deserving and undeserving that compel welfare claimants to profess their deserving of their support; to show that they are morally pure. A requirement that is not found with other sections of society (apart, of course, for some migrants). At the meso level, there are numerous issues surrounding clerical errors and perhaps even deliberate delays in sending out vital documents (though I wouldn’t want to level this accusation without hard proof). Again, there have certainly been plenty of exposes on how the government massages the unemployment stats, taking a very liberal view on what actually qualifies as ’employment’.

Those in work do not necessarily have it any easier. Zero-hours contracts provide no job security and a precarious wage. It is becoming more common that if someone is successful at getting out of the ‘benefits trap’, they end up on a low-wage, zero-hours contract (which they, of course, should be grateful for). Yet this carries its own problems. Many people on these contracts are still dependent on some kind of benefit (such as housing benefit, or income support) because they simply do not earn enough to pay the bills. Add to this that one accident at work, or one bout of sickness, and you are back into  a state of crisis.

Yet there are a handful of publications and studies that document how people in such positions are, or can be, ‘resilient’. Somehow they make ends meet, they keep the lights on, they feed their families… But they do not necessarily ‘live’, rather they survive. When asking people where they see themselves in 5 to 10 years, hardly anyone has been able to answer the question. Instead the common answer is ‘I can’t see that far. I’m just living day by day’. The academic literature (originating in ecology and psychology) says that resilience is the ability to bounce back from crisis. In general this means bouncing back to the status quo. In a social and political world that is currently framed by neoliberal discourses, giving people the capacity to bounce back to the status quo is seen as acceptable and even desirable. Helping people help themselves means making sure that they do not experience absolute poverty and destitution.

This is not good enough. If resilience is to mean anything, it must involve transformation and transcendence. Bouncing back to the status quo, unless we’re talking about a middle class household that has experienced crisis, means sustaining the bare minimum of living standards. Considering we can’t get away from the fact that having a life in modern Western society involves paying for things, how can this be seen as resilience? Resilience needs to mean transcending your situation; actually achieving the ‘social mobility’ myth the Conservatives are currently peddling to us. I’m all for empowering people to achieve great things, but we are kidding ourselves if we think our ’empowering’ welfare state or the Big Society does anything close to this. A point I made in my British Politics article was that New Labour’s ’empowering’ welfare state simply gave people more responsibility without the wherewithal to discharge their new duties. This has become almost a caricature in the tenure of the Coalition.

I can see more merit in the idea of resilience being the ability to avoid crisis, rather than to bounce back. But for that to be the case all citizens need to have a suitable level of resources (financial, social, cultural, political) to deal with the issues they face. And if we want resilient citizens, we need this to be reflected society-wide. Let’s have a resilient welfare state that doesn’t bow to pressure to reform, to become more ‘economical’, to legitimise itself through punishing people seen to be undeserving of help (undeserving according to whom? Why?). This means changing how we as citizens see and approach the welfare state; it involves a significant culture change.

To enact such a culture change, maybe we also need to understand resilience as resistance. Resisting the negative stereotypes, the stigma, and the demands to jump through degrading hoops. Becoming resilient in the face of a moralising discourse of deserving and undeserving that transposes the moral code of one class onto society as a whole.

What does it mean to be resilient in the UK at the moment? To me, it seems to be simply getting by, keeping your head down, and hoping that sometime, somehow, things will improve. It’s not good enough, and as one of the richest societies on earth it is damning.

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