Why are we tough on people in poverty but not its causes?

10:45 am - February 6th 2013

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by Gary Rae

Some journalists still use shorthand. It’s really handy. Some politicians use shorthand. It’s really dangerous.Language, as a tool, is never neutral. It’s used and exploited by me, by you, by journalists and by politicians. A tool can easily become a weapon and here lies the greatest danger; not just in the characterisation of people living with poverty, but in their demonization.

Intentionally or not, we are doing what Professor Ruth Lister calls ‘Othering’ The Poor: making them into ‘convenient strangers’, subject to ridicule, subject to reform, subject to ignorance.

In the current debate on welfare reform, people in poverty are casually labelled as economic burdens, or even bereft of morals. Popular polls, supposedly proving public support for cuts, are often cited by politicians and journalists as justification for reducing the welfare budget during “tough times”. Some of this commentary is contaminated with a hint of wrong-doing.

Lest readers see this blog as the ramblings of a soft liberal-type: waste and fraud is wrong and those who allow waste and commit crimes should be held to account. That said, according to the Department for Work & Pensions’ own figures, last year we overpaid 0.7% of the welfare budget due to fraud.

Compare that with an estimated £70 billion lost through tax evasion. The entire out-of-work benefits bill is 3% of our gross domestic product.

So let’s keep calm, provide the evidence and tell the story of those ‘hard-working families’ (thought I’d borrow that phrase from the Politicians’ Book of Clichés) struggling with their daily lives.

At the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, we’ve taken a closer look at the people behind the percentages. Here’s a glimpse at their stories, part of our work on developing an anti-poverty strategy.

Seventy years on from the Beveridge Report, little appears to have changed in how we describe some of our fellow citizens – a theme to be developed by my boss, Julia Unwin, in her Toynbee Hall lecture later this month.

You’re familiar with the words “don’t be a shirker, best be a worker”. We all love a striver, never be a skiver. Cartoon clichés can reinforce Party political loyalties and help meet deadlines, more easily than carefully crafted, well-researched articles and broadcasts – to be clear, there are plenty of those around as well.

In her blog, my colleague Abigail Scott Paul talked about the risk of broadcasters’ in particular, resorting to lazy stereotypes of ‘problem families’ on ‘sink estates’. The inescapable conclusion being, these people are ‘A Problem to Society’.

Beware the shorthand, because the facts are often lost in translation and manipulation. As a Mr T. Blair nearly said, I’m not one for soundbites or quote-grabs, but it could appear, through the language we use, that we’re being tough on those in poverty and not looking closely enough at its causes. 

Gary Rae is Senior Media Relations Manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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Reader comments

The figures stand in stark contrast – the extent of benefit fraud comes to less than a billion, 0.7% of the overall budget, while tax evasion estimates amount to about £70bn. This government has devoted both a considerable effort and an astonishing political resolve in pushing through the DWP’s changes to disability and other benefits. The callous treatment of the vulnerable, the authoritarian control and sanctions, along with the use of marginalising language, can only come from a determined ideological viewpoint.

Is it simply an attempt to throw a scare into the rest of society, pour encourager les autres? Or perhaps something else, like blunting the moral sensitivity of society-at-large? I do know that Iain Duncan Smith can now be found in the popular lexicon alongside such terms as ‘childcatcher’ and ‘news of the world’.

2. gastro george

“Why are we tough on people in poverty but not its causes?”

Because the rich like it that way?

It all comes down to power. The poor don’t have any. The rich have influence over politicians and the media. Only the truth and facts really matter.

I’m a little concerned about use of the word “we” in the title. I have a strong suspicion that if you sampled the public at random you’d find that most don’t really have a strong opinion on the subject either way – because most people are too busy trying to live their lives in quiet desperation (to plunder a wonderful phrase from Pink Floyd).

We can debate the pernicious influence of Ayn Rand and monetarism among other things, but ultimately it comes down to this. Politicians (especially on the Right) are tough on people in poverty because the millionaires and billionaires who funded their campaigns want it that way. The media organs that talk tough on people in poverty are by-and-large owned by the self-same plutocrats. As Lynne summarised it so eloquently, money is power and the poor have neither. I’d go a step further and say that anyone outside the richest few percent has barely any power either.

The wealthy (including the media barons) and their political toadies are currently engaged in one of the greatest deliberate misdirection efforts of public opinion in the last few decades. Anyone with an inquiring mind and a disposition to care about where things are headed knows damn well that the root cause of global financial hardship stems from the actions of the banking system during the previous decade, but I’d wager that almost all of them believe they can do bugger all about it. The wealthy are counting on a combination of this defeatist (if understandable) viewpoint and convincing just enough people that the blame lies with the poor and powerless to retain a hold on their wealth and position.

Poverty begins with the denial of access to our birthright, nature’s gifts of air water sunlight and LAND – land being the basis for food and shelter.

With the privatisation of the land, the landless poor are enslaved to those who own land, but the owners are looking for ways to rid themselves of labour costs. With the riches flowing to them, owners create or buy technologies to replace labour. To maintain social stability they need to pay welfare – resentfully – and only so much as to barely survive.

These thieves of human rights then use language to justify & reinforce their position. The Human Rights Declaration for example is about “property ownership” – “shelter” being no more than an aspirational goal which is entirely dependent on what they see as their “charity”, “good will” or “philanthropy” … subject to budget constraints & other priorities they may find for their profits. http://on.fb.me/UbyrlD

To reinforce their ambitions to reduce costs and maximise their profits they use demonising language also to “other” those they have robbed, and to force them to accept ANY demeaning task they are capable of. The welfare dependent are referred to as job snobs and bludgers etc and are ostracised until they can find a way to serve. Until then they are bullied by Centrelink and by the police on behalf of the landowning classes wherever possible, and they are shunned and resented by society – taxpayers who say “not in my backyard” to their very existence.

When dividing & impoverishing people becomes unsustainable there is increasing social unrest or even bloody revolution through which powerful leaders are ultimately incorporated by the wealth of the landed classes.

Historically this unrest has been a mere hiccough, but we are beyond using bows and arrows now and change via modernised violence is terrifying.

The opportunity I see for a brighter future for all is if we start using language that represents our natural rights and responsibilities to socially include the landless poor. see http://bit.ly/YD3L01


6. the a&e charge nurse

The fundamental dynamic will not change – this was all set out by Ethel Singleton in 1972, and I’m sure others both before and after her.

I must say I have seen few better unwritten talks to camera.


How have I not seen that before? A masterful (if somewhat bleak) summary.

Of course, the lie of the land has changed somewhat since then – and not for the better. Significantly, the “middle-class” perspective perpetrated by the Tory press these days is a misnomer, reflecting as it does the views of people who claim to be ordinary working stiffs, but are in fact wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice by 1970s standards.

bluepillnation comment number 4 is spot on.
IM glad to see some truth on here again
I’ve seen some really important comment go missing lately because they were deemed as being humor
when no one was joking

the way these scum have turned people on each other,an fueled the public to look down on people with disabilities, its a new normal
that cant be right, its disgusting,
we are morally going down the pan,

we criticize other countries for being brutes
yet we are becoming as bad as anybody..
as if it was not enough seeing atos making disabled people move into positions that cause them agony to determine if there entitled benefits is as disgusting as the USA torture policy

these people have no shame, the blanket targeting of people with severe and acute mental health issues, including patients who have suffered abuse in the hospitals we presumed were looking after them,is disgusting

a simple letter from the patients GP or there cpn and outreach team would have been enough to go on in many cases. no need for the brutish an costly atos treatment
Under the guise of saving billions this government has spent billions,(even more than labour did)
it has paid a French IT firm With No Mental Health
Experts Or Training to Manipulate an Deceive
an to Demonize Legitimate Disabled claimants, Fixing the system with must be outcomes, at the same time as brutal an harsh cuts to the most needy,
which has created pandemonium in services an put heavy costs an burdens on departments.
This government has wasted a bigger fortune an borrowed more than labour an claim to be saving money which is FALSE more spending more debts more
wars more cuts more creation of poverty more lies an corruption .

now we in April we have got the prospect of paranoid schizophrenics being told to share or downsize to a non existent 1 bedroom property
or bed sit in a shared house all of which could trigger relapse with terrible consequences not to mentions hundreds of pounds per day if they end up back in hospital wasting yet more money needlessly while claiming to be trying to save money

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