The public cost of personal hardship: evaluating the hidden expense of cost-cutting measures on social wellbeing’ conference was hosted at CRASSH and convened online from 24 – 25 April 2023. It brought together 10 presenters from the UK, Europe, and Canada, to discuss the effects of austerity measures, pandemic uncertainty, and inflationary pressure on inequality, social unrest, public policy, and life chances. It also hosted four keynote speakers, including Daniel Edmiston (University of Leeds), Mia Gray (University of Cambridge), Johnna Montgomerie (King’s College London), and Andy Pike (Newcastle University).
The conference attracted consistent and sustained engagement from participants and registrants, with attendance at 15 – 20 people for any given session. Conferences and workshops that are entirely online certainly have limitations: they limit organic conversation between sessions and can result in whole days spent in front of a computer. However, they have benefits that should also be taken into account, such as ease of engagement for participants with busy schedules, limited budgets, or those who are located outside the country. I found this a useful option as an early career researcher organising my first conference, as it minimised administrative tasks and organisational costs in a way that allowed me to focus on conference themes, schedules, and speakers.
The conference was comprised of eight sessions over two days, including two three-speaker panels and two keynote talks each day. Although many participants were drawn from within the academy, I was also happy to receive interest from those managing the effects of austerity on the ‘frontlines’, in the charitable sector and in local government. In addition to perspectives from Anglo-America and Europe, talks from Nicky Shepard, CEO of Abbey People in Abbey Ward, Cambridge, and Cllr Sam Davis, city councillor for Queen Edith’s Ward in Cambridge, shone light on the growing deprivation plaguing the university town itself, inviting us to consider relationships between economic activity and growth with deepening inequality. We also had opportunities to think about disparity in Cambridge in relation to the presence of the collegiate university, and its effect on housing prices and availability, jobs, and local geography. These conversations set a productive tone for engagement with academic work over the course of both days, whilst highlighting the importance of working and engaging with communities and stakeholders not just in research itself, but in framing and understanding problems requiring attention from the outset.
Topics covered on Day One included ongoing effects of poverty, the overlooking or exclusion of certain groups from plans for economic growth and restructuring, and the politics of managing personal debt and the household. Daniel Edmiston provided the first keynote talk to begin the conference, with a discussion of his work on ‘deep poverty’ and ‘permacrisis’, or the state of unrelenting economic and personal crises to which British households have been exposed since the 2008 financial crisis. This entrenches disruption and inequality, making it hard for struggling households to stabilise their situations. The next session, ‘Panel 1: Economic restructuring and the effects of exclusion’, featured papers from Ronjon Paul Datta, Niamh Mulcahy and Ariane Hanemaayer. Ronjon Paul asked us to consider how personal hardship is framed and whose is prioritised in the civil sphere, whilst Ariane and Niamh examined how a failure to prioritise improved housing conditions in the North of England has led to reduced life expectancy among owners and private sector renters. The final session of the day was a keynote address from Johnna Montgomerie, who spoke about the management of household debt on a daily basis and the costs to individuals and households of living with debt and uncertainty.
The second day began with a panel session on ‘The role of policy in creating or mitigating disparity: Institutionalising help and hardship’. Mark Fabian explained how academics can help co-produce policy with community stakeholders and residents as a way of improving wellbeing. Matthew Sparkes addressed the documented benefit on the mental health of indebted people that ‘credit repayment holidays’ introduced during the pandemic had had. Jonathan Warner looked at the necessity of trust from low-income or precarious households in government policy as key to understanding whether they will take up incentives meant to improve their circumstances. Andy Pike provided the first keynote talk of the day, discussing the increasing exposure of English local authorities to financial risk as a result of losing a substantial amount of funding from central government since 2010. The next panel session was ‘The weight of expectation: personal hardship in places and periods of prosperity’; a talk from Cllr Sam Davis examined the experience of poor households in a well-off Cambridge ward, whilst Elise Dermineur Reuterswärd looked at the decreasing assistance available to households in Sweden, which is often understood as a successful social welfare model. A talk from Addison Kornel highlighted the increasing difficulty of Canadian households in Windsor, Ontario in buying a house, which is often considered to be culturally important. Mia Gray’s keynote rounded out the conference on the final day, with an elaboration on the institutionalisation of precariousness through austerity measures and market fluctuations.
As the first conference I organised, the Public cost of personal hardship ran smoothly, with minimal disruption. Although I learnt a little more about promotion in advertising calls for papers and for registration which may change how I approach such things in the future, CfPs and registration calls nonetheless reached places I had not anticipated, generating new forms of participation, and yielding a range of interesting responses which ultimately enabled fascinating discussion. With a number of interested collaborators, the next step for this project is an edited collection, which will help continue the conversation with participants, in addition to allowing us to fill some gaps by inviting chapters from other experts and commentators who can expand topics or themes that could not be addressed in full within the time constraints of the conference itself.
Conference panels and keynotes playlist:
The conference received financial support from CRASSH and Lucy Cavendish College, with administrative support from Nicki Dawidowski, Conference and Events Manager at CRASSH.
Niamh Mulcahy is Alice Tong Sze Research Fellow at CRASSH and Lucy Cavendish College. As an economic sociologist, she specialises in household debt and financial inequality, and her research, in collaboration with two local authorities, considers the effects of increasing