Debt in the Age of Austerity
Updated: May 30, 2021
This short post is a summary of a chapter written in a recently published book, Debt and Austerity: Implications of the Financial Crisis. My chapter is the seventh in the book, appearing on pages 151–175. The chapter is called: ‘Austere Social Reproduction and the Gendered Geographies of Debt,’ and can be accessed here.
In the chapter, I introduce a new concept: austere social reproduction. Social reproduction can be defined as all the work that goes on in society, outside of formal waged labour, that ensures the safe renewal of life. To use Silvia Federici’s definition, social reproduction describes ‘the complex of activities and relations by which our life and labour are daily reconstituted.’
The burden of these tasks does not fall evenly. Different groups in society—along lines of gender, ethnicity, age and class, for instance—have historically been made more responsible (in the West, for example, we need only think of what is deemed ‘women’s work’ to see these inequalities in action). Social reproduction therefore has a politics: it is not natural, inevitable or homogeneous. Rather, people’s ability to ‘get by’ and survive is determined by policies, societal norms and acts of agency that are particular to different times and spaces.
Austere social reproduction
One such time and space is austerity. Marked by policies of withdrawal, welfare reform and cuts to social security, the last decade of austerity has seen reductions in the forms of state-provisioned, non-market support available to those tasked with social reproduction. Freezes (and, as a result, real terms reductions) to child benefit payments, the closure of Sure Start services around the country (that provided free and/or subsidised childcare and support), as well as other policies such as the household benefit cap, have all squeezed the incomes and resources available to those most economically marginalised.
Crucially, these cuts have interacted with pre-existing inequalities in social reproduction. In the UK, they have impacted on women—who are more likely to bear the burden of care, and more reliant upon the welfare state in general, than men. It is for this reason that numerous commentators have drawn links between austerity and growing gender inequalities—with the organisation Sisters Uncut going so far as to describe austerity as a project of “state sponsored violence against women.”
Where does debt figure in this? Contextually, ideas of debt are inseparable from our understandings of austerity—particularly the argument (now wholly disproven) put forwards by Conservative politicians that austerity was necessary due to public debt.
But debt is also thoroughly intertwined with the everyday way in which people ‘get by’ at a time of austerity. Given the withdrawal of state support for social reproduction, people often must seek other ways of plugging these gaps. For those most economically marginalised, debt is often the only option.
In the chapter, I use the experiences of Cheryl, a single parent living in the Valleys, to tell the story of this relationship between debt, austerity and social reproduction. Cheryl receives no support from her son’s father; given the high local levels of unemployment, she also does not have access to market-based means of improving her income. She is, therefore, reliant upon an increasingly frayed and porous social safety net.
Cheryl has turned to debt in order to meet the costs of raising her son, and is now in a position of unsustainable indebtedness—she is unable to make the down-payments, is threatened with bailiff visits and envelopes frequently arrive through her door making financial demands. She feels anxious about this, and ashamed. She feels that debt marks her out as a failure, as morally bad, and a ‘bad mother.’
Her account reveals the emotional geographies that accompany austere social reproduction. Her priority is not her own wellbeing in this situation: it is that of her son. She does all she can to protect her young son from the realities of their financial situation. Debt provides her with a temporary fix for continuing to perform the role of a ‘good mother,’ providing her son with the essentials and popular consumer goods that he desires. However, whilst it allows this provisional resolution in her finances, Cheryl’s mounting debts place her at increasing levels of risk—both of losing her home, and of the emotional costs of getting by in this way.
Cheryl’s story reveals the broader impacts of austerity that are not always clear when austerity is spoken about as an economic set of policies. Cheryl’s role as a mother is being compromised by the cuts, with debt emerging as an ‘in the meantime’ fix for keeping going in the present. But it has huge costs, for Cheryl’s mental wellbeing and financial sustainability.
To better support people like Cheryl with the uneven burdens of social reproduction, the state should be doing more to undo gendered inequalities—not less.