To a lot of people in the U.S., the idea of a government loneliness program sounds like something out of a free-spending European dreamland, like locally sourced organic school lunches in Italy or months of paid paternity leave in Sweden.
Nice, if you don’t mind high taxes.
But in the United Kingdom, just such a campaign was introduced by a Conservative British prime minister whose government has been scaling back public spending for years, and that’s led critics to call loneliness a self-inflicted wound.
Along the Mersey River on England’s northwest coast, the tourist traps of Liverpool make it almost impossible to forget about the city’s most famous export.
Sheila Maitland was growing up here when The Beatles were still just a local band, and many Liverpool natives say their working class neighborhoods felt like big families.
“If you needed a slice of bread, we’d give you a slice of bread,” Maitland says. “If you needed a cup of milk, you’d knock next door, go over the road. Everyone on the street was your auntie. Go over to Auntie Mary. We never had much, but we never went short.”
In a country known for its British reserve, Liverpool’s warmhearted and funny residents seem more like American Midwesterners, and the city’s recent history might sound oddly familiar to people who grew up in places like the Ozarks, the Rust Belt or Appalachia.
Liverpool is a blue-collar town that’s spent decades trying to keep up while bigger, wealthier cities, particularly London, have become even wealthier thanks to industries like finance.
But many Liverpool natives say their situation has gotten even worse since the Great Recession more than a decade ago.
Shredding the safety net
In the aftermath of that crisis, the government embarked on a long-term program of spending cuts to reduce the deficit. These included cuts to welfare, police and local governments.
Senior care worker Su Benson-Carson started the volunteer-run Bridge Community Center in an old Salvation Army building in response to those cuts. She says many of her neighbors had nowhere else to turn after losing services they had depended on for years.
“Them services that were set up have actually failed people, and they’re still failing people by closing the doors,” Benson-Carson says. “They set all these services up for people with mental health disabilities, able-bodied people, elderly people, and yet, they pulled all the funding. So it’s like, I just don’t get it. I don’t understand it.”
When austerity cuts were introduced in 2010, the UK had a deficit of 144 billion pounds.
Like many austerity supporters, Mims Davies, a Conservative Member of Parliament from Eastleigh and the current Minster for Sport, Civil Society and Loneliness, says the cuts were difficult but necessary to get the country living within its means.
“None of these were easy, and many communities have had to take tough decisions,” Davies says. “I’ve been a local councilor. I was in that myself, so I understand that.”
Yet austerity opponents say the cuts have gone far beyond what’s fiscally responsible.
Austerity protests have brought hundreds of thousands of people to the streets in recent years. They accuse austerity supporters of using budget concerns as an excuse to tear apart a welfare system that’s been in place for generations.
“What we had is universal services,” says Maggie O’Carroll, chief executive of the Women’s Organization, a Liverpool nonprofit. “We had a safety net that if things went wrong in your world, you became ill, you became disabled, then the whole would look after the few.”
Critics say that austerity has stripped neighborhoods of community cornerstones like senior centers, libraries and safe public spaces, leaving people more socially isolated. They blame austerity for the steady uptick in poverty over the last five years.
Liverpool has seen the biggest local government cuts per person of any city in the U.K., according to Centre For Cities, which reports that, since austerity began, Liverpool’s local government budget has been reduced by nearly a third – the equivalent of more than $1,000 per resident.
Deteriorating mental health
The effects haven’t just been economic, according to Dr. Martin McKee, a professor of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
“We’ve really seen major deterioration in mental health, both in terms of how people described their health, but also in the extreme manifestation of mental health, which is suicide,” McKee says. “There has been an increase in suicides, particularly in those areas that have been most badly affected.”
Research also shows an increase in deaths among older people, particularly among those who have seen their services cut.
The National Health Service was technically spared from austerity cuts, but critics say the small funding increases it has received have not been enough to keep up with the population’s needs.
Yet McKee thinks that’s only part of the problem.
Like many researchers who have studied health declines in places like the Ozarks, he blames many of the problems on a sense of hopelessness among people confronting both poverty and an unraveling safety net.
“Increasingly, what we’re seeing is people are living a much more precarious existence. On the edge,” McKee says. “Where they may not know where their income is coming from week-to-week, for example. They’re more precarious in terms of their employment. The risk of job loss. Their income, the risk of cuts in their income. Precariousness in terms of housing.”
Many Britons have been troubled to see growing manifestations of poverty, like homelessness and church-run food banks, that were once rare in this country.
A recent United Nations report on poverty in the U.K. denounced the government, stating that “great misery” had been “inflicted unnecessarily.”
In the fall of 2018, the government announced that austerity was coming to an end and pledged new spending for healthcare, law enforcement and local governments. As part of its new loneliness campaign, the government said it would consider how policy decisions will affect social isolation and loneliness.
Yet critics say the new budget is still nowhere near pre-austerity spending levels and worry that things in the U.K. may never be the same. .
Five years after opening, the Bridge Community Center now offers adult education classes, counseling and
benefits assistance, among other services, but Benson-Carson says it’s still funded mostly by donations. They get no direct government money and have no plans to seek it.
It’s not that they couldn’t use the money. But Benson-Carson says that after years of watching funding cuts cause other programs to collapse, she doesn’t trust the government’s commitment to help people like those under her watch.
“At the end of the day, I’m not one of these that have set up something and are set up to fail,” Benson-Carson says. “I’m not gonna fail meself, so I’m not gonna fail somebody else.”
Editor's note: This is the third part of Loneliness Is Killing You, a five-part series on the health effects of loneliness and social isolation. KCUR reporter Alex Smith traveled to the United Kingdom to see how that nation is addressing the problem and what lessons the United States can learn from it. This reporting was made possible in part by a fellowship sponsored by the Association of Health Care Journalists and supported by The Commonwealth Fund.
Alex Smith is a health reporter for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @AlexSmithKCUR.