The Conservative-led government is rolling out Britain’s most sweeping welfare reform since the 1940s, taking aim at the ballooning bills in cities such as London, where a few families receive as much as $160,000 a year to ensure economic diversity and quality housing for the poor in some of the priciest districts in the world. Yet as benefits are rolled back, academics are warning of a major side effect: an exodus of the poor from central London in numbers not seen since the demolition of soot-caked Dickensian slums in the 19th century.
London’s population shift may emerge as one of the most dramatic examples of the deficit-busting crusade taking place across Europe and now under serious debate in Washington. On this side of the Atlantic, cash-strapped nations from Greece to Ireland — drowning in debt in the wake of the Great Recession — are rolling back famously generous welfare programs that they can no longer afford.
Few have been as ambitious as Britain, where the government’s push is igniting a fierce debate about the fading European ideal of a right to a good life despite one’s economic standing.
Critics say the reforms could result in a polarization of the classes in this city of 8.6 million, ultimately giving rise to American-style ghettos. Over the next four years, experts say that roughly 82,000 poor families are likely to be forced from expensive apartments in central London and, quite likely, into cheaper accommodations on the fringes of the city or beyond. By 2016, one University of Cambridge study shows, the cuts would leave only 36 percent of London neighborhoods accessible to low-income earners, down from about 75 percent in 2010.
“Families are going to move from inner London to outer London, and as rents keep rising, they’re going to have to move even farther out,” said Helen Dent, chief executive of Family Action, a London-based charity. “This is going to change the nature of London.”
The archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has decried the reforms, calling them “social zoning” that would push out the poor. London Mayor Boris Johnson went further, describing them as “Kosovo-style social cleansing.” Although he backed off those comments after stinging rebukes by fellow conservatives, the comparison remains particularly poignant for Shpejtim Kastrati, 25, whose family fled to London from Kosovo in the 1990s.