Poverty is not a lifestyle choice: Politicians, the media and the 'othering' of people in poverty

“What is poverty?  Poverty is a battle of invisibility, a lack of resources, exclusion, powerlessness… being blamed for society’s problems”  Speaking from Experience, Voices at the National Poverty Hearing, 1996

Politicians of all political parties need to be mindful of the impact of their use of language in talking about poverty, and must avoid any language which might be construed (or misconstrued) by the popular press as legitimising harsh, judgemental and negative stereotyping of all people on benefits as ‘feckless, underserving scroungers.’

Since the Election, there has been a worrying increase in language which stigmatises and blames people for their own poverty.  According to one source, those on benefits have been depicted as ‘scroungers’ 212 times in the Daily Mail alone since the General Election.[i] And over 170 stories in the media about ‘Benefit cheats’ in the past month alone.[ii]

The Prime Minister launched a “tough and uncompromising” crackdown on ‘benefit cheats’ on 10 August with the statement that “We need to do more to stop fraud – £1.5bn of hard earned taxpayers’ money is being stolen from the taxpayer. This is simply not acceptable”

The Chancellor of the Exchequer’s followed this up with an attack on the ‘completely out of control’ welfare bill by condemning those who have made a ‘lifestyle choice’ to live in poverty only last week. Or as the Financial Times reported it: “George Osborne is to cut a further £4bn from the benefits bill for the jobless, in a hard-talking clampdown on those whose “lifestyle choice” is to “just sit on out-of-work benefits”

Following the Chancellor’s intervention, the Daily Express launched a helpful readers debate with the headline: IS BRITAIN’S WELFARE BILL FAR TOO HIGH? OR IS THERE A NEED OUT THERE FOR GOVERNMENT HANDOUTS? MAYBE YOU THINK IT IS THE RIGHT DECISION TO MAKE FURTHER CUTS TO THE WELFARE SYSTEM? JOIN THE DEBATE…AND HAVE YOUR SAY NOW!.

The Daily Mail chipped in with a whole piece highlighting the 1.5 million Britons who haven’t had a job since they left school (or as they put it ‘have never done a day’s work in their lives’).  By line three the editorial line is clear:  ‘The figures will fuel fears that governments have cultivated a ‘Shameless’ generation dependent on the state.’  No matter that ‘Shameless’ is itself a shameless piece of media invention (aka drama), playing up the worst stereotypes of dysfunctional families fiddling the system.  Reality never got in the way of a good drama – and neither need it get in the way of a good Mail story designed to confirm its readers worst prejudices about ‘lives lost on benefit.’

In the work that Church Action on Poverty has done with people in poverty over recent years, one theme which consistently crops up is the way in which peoples in poverty feel that they are being blamed for being poor, and their own experiences, attitudes and ideas about what can be done to tackle it are held to be of no value whatsoever.    Underlying all of these myths is an attitude that poor people are in some way different from the rest of us – and that there is nothing wrong with us making sweeping moral generalisations about the character of ‘the poor.’  Ruth Lister has described this in terms of the ‘Othering’ of people in poverty.

According to Peter Beresford, professor of social policy at Brunel University: “Stereotypes at the level of little Britain’s wheelchair using Andy Pipkin seem to underpin the current government’s moral panic about welfare reform. They are likely to have the same destructive effects as their Victorian predecessors. Instead of saving money, they are only likely to damage lives and communities and undermine our self-image as a civilised society.”

Or as Klaus Doods put it in a letter to the Guardian: “Blaming the poor for their laziness and misfortune in life is a much repeated strategy and never seems to be connected with another kind of debate we might have about “lifestyle choices”. The alternative debate would focus on the rich and their lifestyle choices – tax avoidance (sorry management), second home ownership and a lifestyle which contributes far more to the human impact on climate than the poor via multiple car ownership and overseas flights.”

But it is, of course, much easier for politicians to criticize the ‘lifestyle choices’ of those who seemingly merit little public sympathy (and certainly are rarely afforded a public right of reply) than to challenge the ‘lifestyle choices’ of the rich and powerful who helped them get into power in the first place.

Wouldn’t it be a nice touch – and a chastening reminder – for politicians (and news editors) to have posted up in their offices the words of Matthew 25: 40 “…inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to Me”

Maybe I’ll send them all a copy…


[i] Joint Publish Issues Team Pre-conference briefing on Poverty in the UK. Sept 2010.

[ii] Google News search on ‘benefit cheats uk’, 16 Sept 2010

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