The UN, extreme poverty, austerity… and libraries

UK libraries in front line for helping people most affected by austerity

By Stéphane Goldstein

Last year, I wrote about how public libraries are increasingly providing advice and assistance for claimants of Universal Credit (UC) – the UK Government’s new framework for making social security benefits payments. I pointed out how this was starting to put pressure on some library services.

A few days ago, this issue cropped up again, from an unexpected source, in the context of a United Nations-sponsored report on poverty in the UK. The report is the outcome of a fact-finding visit by Professor Philip Alston, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. As part of his brief, Alston has toured a number of countries across the world. The UK leg of his programme involved meeting people living in poverty, but also representatives of civil society, front-line workers (including librarians), work coaches and officials across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

His conclusion is stark: 14 million people –  a fifth of the population – live in poverty, but in his view, poverty is a political choice; and austerity could easily have spared the poor, if the political will had existed to do so. The findings were widely reported in British media, for instance here in The Guardian and here in The Daily Telegraph (I deliberately mention both newspapers to underline that it’s not just the liberal left that has taken note of this). Perhaps predictably, the UK Government has chosen to condemn the report.

And what about libraries?

Of particular interest to this blog is the extent to which Alston has underlined the role played by public libraries. The report explains how UC claimants are increasingly expected to submit their applications online. But claimants are very largely from those segments of the population that are least digitally capable. The amount of digital assistance that they get from relevant agencies, such as Jobcentres, is minimal. So, as the report points out, “The reality is that digital assistance has been outsourced to public libraries and civil society organizations. Public libraries are on the frontline of helping the digitally excluded and digitally illiterate who wish to claim their right to UC. While library budgets have been severely cut across the country, they still have to deal with an influx of UC claimants who arrive at the library, often in a panic, to get help claiming benefits online”.

This happens in a financial context where library services are already under severe pressure. The report goes on to state that “between 2010 and 2016 more than 340 libraries closed and 8,000 library jobs were lost. Anyone can rely on public services like the library, but they are of particular significance to those living in poverty who may need to access a computer or a safe community space”.  And then, in a damning indictment of what Alston perceives as an abnegation of responsibility on the part of public agencies, he laments that “The compassion and mutual concern that has long been part of the British tradition has been outsourced. At the same time many of the public places and institutions that previously brought communities together, such as libraries, community and recreation centres, and public parks, have been steadily dismantled or undermined”.

And the report adds,”Key elements of the post-war Beveridge social contract are being overturned. In the process, some good outcomes have certainly been achieved, but great misery has also been inflicted unnecessarily, especially on the working poor, on single mothers struggling against mighty odds, on people with disabilities who are already marginalized, and on millions of children who are being locked into a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping”. In difficult circumstances, libraries are joining in efforts to alleviate this. But one wishes that there would not be a need for them to play this role in the first place.
Photo: Donald Street, Manchester – © Stéphane Goldstein