The Presentation of Poverty

 “I don’t know how people on benefits can say they are poor, they get everything paid for them, it’s the families on low working income I feel sorry for, as they have everything to pay for, and get no extra help, I say the work shy should all be neutered and not be allowed to have kids”

 Quote on BBC Radio Newcastle Facebook page, 23 November 2011

“We are creating a system which helps people work themselves out of poverty, a fair system that rewards responsibility, not a hand-out culture”[1]

 Iain Duncan Smith (2011)

“The Coalition is bringing in changes to welfare that will mean fewer people can abuse taxpayers’ money by wrongly claiming DLA. However, whilst we wait for these changes to come fully into effect there is a chance that more cheats have slipped through the net”[2]

 Quote from The Daily Mail, 22 November 2011 

Child poverty affects nearly 1 in 4 children growing up in the North East today; nearly 132,000 children whose health, education, experience of childhood and life chances are severely affected as a result of their family’s low income.[3] Children are at greater risk of poverty than other sections of society but, despite a relatively high political profile over recent years and the introduction of a legally binding target to ‘eradicate’ child poverty by 2020, the issue has often failed to connect with the wider public.

The quotes at the top of the page suggest that the presentation of poverty may be one of the main reasons why there is often a lack of sympathy towards families who are at risk of poverty. The Coalition Government’s ‘New Approach to Child Poverty’ places financial independence and, more specifically, work, at its core. Families who are prepared to ‘work themselves out of poverty’ and ‘do the right thing (and) take a full time job’ will be rewarded by ‘the system’[4]. The unspoken message is that families who are in poverty are not currently working hard enough and are not doing ‘the right thing’. The responsibility is personal, the failing individual. However, it is a little known statistic that nearly 6 in 10 children growing up in poverty today have at least one working adult in their household[5] and it is estimated, by the government, that nearly 14,000 people in the region are paid less than the National Minimum Wage[6].

The problem is not that people do not want to work or are not prepared to work hard enough or long enough. The problem is that there aren’t enough jobs for everyone to be employed and many of the jobs that are available are low-skilled, low paying, part-time and insecure. This situation is particularly acute in the North East, where we have the highest unemployment, the highest youth unemployment, the highest proportion of workless households and the lowest wages in the country, with some of the highest levels of child poverty outside central London. And yet research carried out on Teesside over a 12 year period has found an ‘enduring commitment to work’ in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the area, despite labour market experiences and a ‘churning’ in and out of employment that would dent most people’s resolve[7].

Politicians from all three main political parties, undeterred by evidence to the contrary, continue to talk of a ‘something for nothing culture’ or highlight the perceived behavioural flaws of ‘problem families’ and the government’s Child Poverty Strategy talks of the need for a culture change towards ‘recognising the importance of parenting’[8]. Sections of the media – both print and broadcast – have supported and extended this rhetoric with portrayals of benefit recipients as scroungers with a particularly unpleasant campaign apparently being waged against people on disability or incapacity benefits, with many of them being branded as cheats, benefitting from a ‘sicknote culture’[9]. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, in the wake of the riots, have been labelled as ‘feral’[10].

It is therefore unsurprising that public attitudes towards child poverty remain ambiguous at best. Few people would argue against trying to end child poverty and few politicians would dare to suggest that we need to increase suffering amongst children in order to build character, resilience or a good work ethic later on in life. But, in many cases, it would appear that the welfare and public sector reforms being proposed will have precisely that effect.

As long as people living on the margins are portrayed as being the architects of their circumstances, public attitudes will remain difficult to shift. In a recent survey conducted by the European Union, 85% of people surveyed in the UK thought that ‘poverty is a problem that needs urgent action by our government’ but only 12% felt that the government should increase social benefits or pensions. Most people felt that the government actions should be around regenerating poor areas and improving training and skills for individuals[11].

Challenging public attitudes in the region is one of the key aims of the North East Child Poverty Commission, recognising that the stigma attached to being poor and the social exclusion resulting from it are devastating effects of poverty.  One of the key actions arising from a national conference on child poverty organised by Children North East in 2011 was to ‘stop blaming the poor’.

One of the best ways we can do this is to raise awareness of ‘in-work’ poverty and the Commission will be carrying out a specific project looking at improving the working conditions of people in low-paid and/or insecure employment in the region. However, we also need to change people’s views of those adults in the North East who are unable to work either through a simple and straightforward lack of jobs, through caring responsibilities for children or other family members or through ill-health or disability.

Discussions have taken place recently about ‘re-framing’ the concept of child poverty to develop a more positive and inclusive discussion around good or decent childhoods[12]. Nobody wants to be identified as being poor and few people identify themselves as being in poverty and so, for many people with direct experience of poverty, the ‘child poverty’ agenda does not resonate or connect with the families it is intending to be helping. It has been said that the ‘unemployed’ are almost unique as a group of people because no-one wants to belong to that group and everyone seeks to differentiate themselves from the other members. If families living in poverty claim not to be poor and to be morally ‘different’ to others in the same situation, the struggle to build public support will always be an uphill one.

You will have noted that the three quotes at the top of the page all come from 2011. The perception of poor people as being active agents in their own disadvantage is not a new phenomenon however. Over 250 years ago, Adam Smith noted a similar situation when he wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that “we see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent”[13].

However, there is growing public resentment at the increasing gap between the richest and the poorest, new opportunities exist for communicating through social media and there is a lack of trust in more traditional media as well as politicians. Maybe, just maybe, we can now begin to ‘re-frame’ the debate about the causes of – and solutions to – poverty.

[1] A New Approach to Child Poverty: Tackling the Causes of Disadvantage and Transforming Families’ Lives, DfE, 2011

[3] HMRC: The revised local child poverty measure. Accessible at:

[4] A New Approach to Child Poverty: Tackling the Causes of Disadvantage and Transforming Families’ Lives, DfE, 2011

[5] Ibid

[8] A New Approach to Child Poverty: Tackling the Causes of Disadvantage and Transforming Families’ Lives, DfE, 2011

[13] The Theory of Moral Sentiments, A. Smith, 1790. Accessed at:


This post is an amended version of an article that appears in VONNE’s special edition of The Vine magazine, exploring the state of the North East in 2012 and looking ahead to some of the challenges and opportunities that the region faces in the coming year. The magazine is well worth a read for anyone interested in the region and contains contributions from a very broad range of persepctives.


One response to “The Presentation of Poverty

  • russell haggar

    I certainly believe that the Coalition Government’ s explanation of the causes of poverty in terms of the alleged cultural deficiencies of the poor amounts to an attempt to deflect attention from the structural inequalities which disfigure our society and are in reality the main causes of poverty.
    Of course the Pro-Conservative medi a are complicit in this attempted deception and I wish you every success in your efforts to illustrate the bankruptcy of the Government’s approach

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