In the last week or so, an interesting e-mail debate about the representation of poor people has developed amongst a number of academics and social policy professionals. Regular readers of this blog will be aware that some of the issues that the North East Child Poverty Commission is particularly concerned about are public attitudes towards people on low incomes, myths that surround them and how they are represented by politicians and the media. These issues have been covered in the Weekly Round ups in the blog in recent weeks.
Below are some extracts from the conversation that has been taking place:
“It is certainly the case that there is an inter-generational pattern of experiencing spells of worklessness which in effect indicates the exposure of poorer people across generations to the disadvantages of flexible labour markets and poor work. That is not the same however as inter-generational total benefit dependency which implies no real connection with work generation on generation.”
Professor David Byrne, Durham University
“The myth needs to be challenged every time it is uttered. What have IDS’s officials produced in evidence? If any single ‘family’ [do they mean household of unrelated people?] could be found, what does this say about the profitability of its members to local employers and the capability of the local jobcentre staff to do their boasted job of helping people into work they are meant to do? His department and its contractors are incompetent? There are also unemployed people whose disabilities are not outwardly visible [psychological and personality conditions] — these too are subject to mythology about living on the dole or malingering. At a time when even the visibly incapacitated are publicly abused, the situation of the non-visible may be even worse in terms of prejudiced discriminations of the mythological kind government ministers and their acolytes purvey.”
Professor John Veit-Wilson, Newcastle University
“Ministers are being allowed to get away with remarkable accounts of life on low incomes. I believe that the actual words used by Iain Duncan Smith need closer attention as they provide an indication of how far the presentation of ‘benefit dependency’ has gone at the ‘highest’ levels of government. In the Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture in March this year the Secretary of State responsible for welfare reform spoke of those on benefits who ‘have seen their parents, their neighbours and their entire community sit on benefits for life…’ This is not a slip, he repeats it: ‘The Universal Credit is about understanding that people who have been out of work all their lives…and have never seen a family or even a community member in work…have to see the financial benefits from taking up employment’. What evidence did he have for this? OK, it can be quoted to provide a remarkable insight into thinking at the ‘highest’ levels in government, but in the last week he and others appear to be building on this sort of line to dismiss existing poverty measures because extra on benefits will only mean more on drugs and alcohol rather than more on children.
I think that descriptions such as ‘out of work all their lives…and have never seen a family or even a community member in work’ and their repetition takes myth-selling a stage further. They raise questions about the ways in which policy issues are being reframed to ensure acceptance. The pathological construction of others as them the poor, if not paupers, in contrast to us as hard-working taxpayers pushes them away into a separate underclass in the worst ‘Down with the Poor’ and earlier traditions. In Who Runs this Place?, his last edition of The Anatomy of Britain, Anthony Sampson remarked on the similarities in Britain of the first decade of this century with the first decade of the last. He was mainly writing about the distribution of power, wealth and respect. Perhaps we need to go back to the presentations of pauperism in the late 19th century – see, for example, Peter Keating’s editing of Into Unknown England, 1866-1913.”
Professor Adrian Sinfield, Edinburgh University
Many thanks to the contributors for their permission to use the comments above
Gaffney, D (2010) The myth of the intergenerational workless household,