Skip to main content

In the Chancellor’s recent autumn statement, benefit cuts were announced that could potentially mean a loss of £5000 per year for people with disabilities and mental health challenges if they are unable to secure remote work. This sent shockwaves throughout the community, many taking to social media to share their concerns and fears. It remains to be seen what the reality of these proposals will look like, but it made me think about the impacts of austerity on the disabled community and whether divisive welfare cuts have contributed to hate crime. Austerity is defined as the harsh reality of government spending cuts to reduce national debt (Cambridge Dictionary 2022) and its prevalence in public consciousness was clear when austerity was declared the word of the year in 2015 (Cambridge Dictionary 2015). As Tomlinson (2017) states, modern-day austerity is very different from its post-war incarnation. There is no sacrifice to benefit society by channelling savings into public spending, (such as recovery after WW2 and the establishment of the NHS), rather the opposite; public spending is being sacrificed to reduce the national debt. One of the most controversial areas of cuts has been to welfare support and the negative impacts of these cuts have been widespread.

The scapegoating of people on benefits is nothing new and comes from the very top, driven by a media portrayal creating moral panic among the general population that makes folk devils – enemies of the people if you will – of those who need social assistance (Morrison, 2019). The popular view of benefit claimants is that they are scroungers (Bogue, 2019). This portrayal developed its own TV genre labelled poverty porn (Jensen, 2014), led by the Jeremy Kyle show, described as scrounger-baiting for public entertainment. Other series such as Benefits Street, fuelled stigmatisation according to Bogue, not just for the participants of these exploitative shows, but anyone else perceived to be of a similar background. This stigma has been shown to result in people not taking up the benefits they are entitled to, thus depriving themselves and compounding the impact of poverty, but also directly impacting their self-worth (Baumberg, 2016). TV Critic Charlie Brooker lamented the title of Benefits Street for its design to antagonise viewers, noting that the lives of those featured would undoubtedly be negatively impacted due to the amount of hate they would receive (Brooker, 2014). Such is the regularity of this rhetoric, that the demonisation of people claiming benefits has been normalised to the extent that their suffering is viewed as entertainment fodder for a derisive viewership (Burnett, 2017).

This disparaging austerity rhetoric has created an ever more uneven society through the ‘othering’ of certain communities; those on benefits, immigrants and the disabled for example, who are seen as different, or less deserving (Ryan, 2020). Then Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that migrants were filling employment gaps created by a welfare system that encouraged the British not to work, therefore immigration could not be controlled until welfare reform had been undertaken, playing on the publics belief that immigration is a threat and further elevating immigrants and those on benefits to folk devil status (Burnett, 2017). Burnett argues that legitimising public resentment normalises hate and this will undoubtedly lead to hate crime increase. This is echoed by Bray et al (2022), who note that hardship leading to competition for remaining services can encourage negative outlooks of other competing groups which, in turn, can see increases in hate crime. The impact of hate crime is sorely underestimated. It sends a message, not just to the victim, but to the victims’ wider community, that they are unwelcome, or different. This can create a sense of vulnerability and fear for the victim, their family, and anyone who identifies with a victim of hate crime (Chakraborti and Garland, 2015). The psychological impact is often greater than for a non-hate crime, including behavioural reactions such as avoidance and dressing to appear less visible, while increased nervousness, depression, intrusive thoughts, suicidal ideation, shame, and losing self-esteem are evidenced psychological consequences (McDevitt et al, 2012). This is substantiated by Chakraborti and Garland who recognise the prevalence of anxiety, anger, and fear among victims with psychological consequences outlasting the physical scars of attacks.

The rise in disability hate crime as a result of austerity measures has been stark. Disabled people have disproportionately suffered as a result of government austerity measures targeting cuts on benefits and social care, thus being disadvantaged nine times more than the average person, while those with the severest disability needs are impoverished by up to nineteen times that average according to Duffy (2013), who states that public conditioning to believe that abuse of the benefits system is cause for austerity measures is dangerous rhetoric. Ryan (2020) confirms this, asserting that the demonisation of the disabled has become socially acceptable. The public shift in regard for disabled people has seen a rise in disability hate crime, with one survey showing that one in six disabled people said they had been attacked verbally or physically because of a perception that they were benefit scroungers (Quarmby, 2015). The use of the work capability assessment (WCA) was substantially increased as a means of cutting benefits and many disabled people were suddenly told they were fit for work. Pring (2017) calls the wielding of the WCA an act of austerity violence which ultimately was directly connected with the suicide of a disabled man judged fit for work in 2015, by a coroner investigating his cause of death. Yet Mills (2018) considers that the impact on the general public of such tragedies is minimised by a media that highlights existing mental health issues and minimises links to austerity cuts, despite evidence that worry, and anxiety are key triggers for austerity suicides; a recognition that anxiety and nervousness encapsulate a life impacted by austerity. McGrath et al (2015) agree, citing evidence that austerity cuts wear people out both physically and psychologically due to the repetitive damage they cause, likened by Ryan (2020) to being punched repeatedly.

McGrath et al (2015) highlight five key psychological costs resulting from austerity, firstly humiliation and shame, (which Chakraborti and Garland (2015) identify as being a potential hate crime symptom), derived from feeling less worthy than others and being made to feel that they have done something wrong, such is the rhetoric surrounding claiming benefits. They go on to argue that fear and distrust are a direct result of intentional misrepresentation of certain communities whereby the general public perceives them as being untrustworthy, and that societies who are mistrusting have higher instances of mental health problems. Isolation and loneliness are seen as fundamental consequences of austerity where policies responsible for enhancing these consequences are a risk to mental health outcomes. Akhter et al (2019) acknowledge the links between deprivation, stress associated with living on a low income, and isolation, particularly for the elderly and disabled in their study of mental health inequalities in the northeast.


The phrase ‘all in this together,’ widely used to promote unity as we headed into austerity, was again used to encourage the stoicism needed for tackling Covid-19 (Hastings 2021, p.137). Bridger et al (2020), asserted a difference in people’s attitudes to austerity versus Covid; the latter being perceived as applicable to all and therefore rallying people together, whereas austerity rhetoric, built on division and blame, resulted in less social responsibility. The reality was that Covid 19 was no different from austerity when health inequalities were revealed

Hate crimes also rose during Covid-19, with a proven rise in attacks against Chinese people from those looking to apportion blame for the pandemic (Gray and Hansen, 2021). Disabled people, already at greater risk of catching the disease and among the least likely to be able to access necessities, faced months in isolation, and the emergency finances used to support people did not necessarily cover large swathes of the disabled community (Ryan, 2020). But on top of this, discrimination increased with figures showing disability hate crime actually rose by over 50% during lockdown, with many of the crimes taking place online in the form of verbal attacks (Leonard Cheshire, 2021), motivated by a pandemic perception that disabled people were virus spreading and taking up valuable resources, reiterating the unconscious bias that disabled lives are less valued by society than able-bodied. (Pring, 2020). The pandemic may have loosened its grip, but the austerity rhetoric that resurfaced due to Austerity 2.0, designed to shore up the fiscal black hole left by the six-week Truss administration (Helm and Inman, 2022) has not, and if proof of this were needed then the Chancellors autumn statement was it. Yes, there are undoubtedly huge financial considerations for the government to make, but demonising innocent, defenceless people as a means of justifying the unjustifiable is not the answer. When will we learn?


Akhter, N., Mattheys, K., Warren, J., and Kasim, A. (2019) Minding the Gap, in Bambra, C. (ed)(2019) Health in Hard Times, Austerity and Health Inequalities. Bristol: Policy Press, pp.171-200.

Baumberg, B. (2016) The stigma of claiming benefits: A quantitative study. Journal of Social Policy, vol.45, iss.2, pp.181-199.

Bogue, K. (2019) The Divisive State of Social Policy, The ‘Bedroom Tax’, Austerity and Housing Insecurity. Bristol: Policy Press.

Bray, K., Braakmann, N., and Wildman, J. (2022) Austerity, welfare cuts and hate crime: Evidence from the UK’s age of austerity. Journal of Urban Economics [Online] Available from:

Bridger, E. K., Hewett, A., Straker Welds, M., Harris, C., & Moulin, L. (2020) Fair’s fair? What psychologists should understand about austerity and ways to broaden the role of psychologists to combat it effects: Insights from Make My City Fair (Birmingham). The Psychologist, vol.34, pp.32-36.

Brooker, C. (2014) Benefits Street – poverty porn, or just the latest target for pent-up British fury? The Guardian [Online] 12 January. Available from:

Burnett, J. (2017) Austerity and the Production of Hate, in Cooper, V., and Whyte, D. (eds) (2017) The Violence of Austerity. London: Pluto Press, pp. 217-224.

Cambridge Dictionary (2015) ‘Austerity’ announced as Cambridge Dictionaries’ Word of the Year. [Online] 15 December. Available from:

Cambridge Dictionary (2022) Austerity. [Online] Available from:

Chakraborti, N., and Garland, J. (2015) Hate Crime. Impact, Causes and Responses. (2nd ed) London: Sage.

Cheshire, L. (2021) Lockdowns trigger surge in disability hate crime. Leonard Cheshire Foundation. [Online] 06 October. Available from:

Duffy, S. (2013) Briefing on how cuts are targeted. The Centre for Welfare Reform [Online] Available from:

Gray, C., and Hansen, K. (2021). Did Covid-19 Lead to an Increase in Hate Crimes Toward Chinese People in London? Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, vol.37, iss.4, pp.569-588.

Hastings, A. (2021) Are we ‘all in this together’? Reflecting on the continuities between austerity and the COVID-19 crisis. In Steer, M., Davoudi, S., Shucksmith, M., and Todd, L. (eds)(2021) Hope under Neoliberal Austerity, Bristol: Policy Press pp.137-146.

Helm, T., and Inman, P. (2022) Revealed: the £30bn cost of Liz Truss’s disastrous mini-budget. The Guardian [Online] Available from:

Jensen, T. (2014). Welfare Commonsense, Poverty Porn and Doxosophy. Sociological Research Online, vol.19, iss.3, pp.277-283. [Online] Available from:

McDevitt, J., Balboni, J., Garcia, L., and Gu, J. (2003) Consequences for Victims in Perry, B. (ed) (2003) Hate and Bias Crime, A Reader. Abingdon: Routledge.

McGrath, L., Griffin, V., and Mundy, E. (2016) The Psychological Impact of Austerity: A Briefing Paper. Educational Psychology Research and Practice, vol.2, iss.2, pp.46-57.

Mills, C. (2018) ‘Dead people don’t claim’: A psychopolitical autopsy of UK austerity suicides. Critical Social Policy, vol:38 iss:2, pp:302–322.

Morrison, J. (2019) Scroungers Moral Panics and Media Myths. London: Zed Books.

Pring, J. (2017) Welfare Reforms and the Attack on Disabled People, in Cooper, V., and Whyte, D. (eds) (2017) The Violence of Austerity. London: Pluto Press pp.51-58.

Pring, J. (2020) Coronavirus: Fears over ‘face covering hate crime’ as new laws go live. Disability News Service [Online]. Available from:

Quarmby, K. (2015) Disability hate crime motivation survey – results [Online] Available from:

Ryan, F. (2020) Crippled: Austerity and the Demonisation of Disabled People. (2nd ed). London: Verso

Tomlinson, J. (2017) Managing the Economy, Managing the People. Narratives of Economic Life from Beveridge to Brexit. Oxford: Oxford University Press.