Loneliness in a Time of Austerity
Are we in the midst of a loneliness epidemic?
Researchers and health practitioners certainly seem to think so, producing study after study on the many negative health outcomes associated with an increase in social isolation and a decline in meaningful interpersonal relationships in contemporary society.
The UK is one of the first countries to address the issue on a national scale, appointing “the first ever government Ministerial lead on loneliness” in early 2018 to much fanfare. This was followed by the publication of “A connected society: a strategy for tackling loneliness,” an 84-page report outlining a multifaceted plan to reduce loneliness at home, at work, and in the community.
In many ways, the strategy is impressive. Informed by individual experience, institutional knowledge, and evidence-based research, it promises to fund a wide variety of worthwhile initiatives. In recognition of the role that urban planning can play in mitigating social isolation, it highlights the importance of accessible public spaces, inclusive transportation networks, and alternative housing models. It presents ideas like partnering with local businesses to make space available to community members after hours, training transit drivers to better support passengers with mobility needs, and conducting research on community-led cohousing solutions. Underpinning these proposals is a belief that well-developed community infrastructure strengthens social networks, a theory supported by decades of research, from William H. Whyte’s work on the importance of small urban spaces to Ray Oldenburg’s treatise on “third places” like cafes, bookstores, and barbershops.
When evaluated in the context of a decade of austerity measures, however, the UK’s loneliness reduction plan doesn’t look quite as rosy. In the wake of the global financial crisis, the government introduced drastic cuts to its welfare and benefits system, including stringent restrictions on eligibility and reductions to the amount of support provided. The detrimental impact of these policies on the country’s most vulnerable residents is outlined in a detailed statement released by the UN in November. According to some estimates, homelessness in England has risen 60% since 2010, while food bank use has quadrupled since 2012. Multiple studies have linked the country’s austerity policies to a spike in suicides. Due to significant cuts to the funding they receive from the central government, local authorities have reduced spending on social services by 19.2% since 2010-2011. Since then, more than 500 children’s centres and 340 libraries have been forced to shut down.
Years of disinvestment have left significant holes in the social fabric of communities across the UK. As the UN statement notes, “many of the public places and institutions that previously brought communities together, such as libraries, community and recreation centers, and public parks, have been steadily dismantled or undermined.” Seniors and people living in poverty, two populations with high rates of social isolation, are hit particularly hard by the loss of freely available programs and spaces.
Loneliness has many causes, from internal factors like low self-esteem to external ones like moving to a new city. This has led to varied approaches to “treating” the problem, with some experts proposing the use of CBT to challenge cognitive distortions and improve interpersonal skills, and others focusing on providing more opportunities for social interaction. But without directly addressing the damage caused by its punitive austerity measures, it’s hard to imagine how the UK’s new strategy can make genuine progress towards its goal of a more cohesive society.