“Setting the record straight”?

Earlier this week the Centre for Social Justice published its response to the Joint Public Issues Team report about poverty myths, ‘The lies we tell ourselves’. Called ‘Setting the record straight’, the first page states that the much of the JPIT report ‘is based on serious misinformation and fails to give an accurate representation of life ‘on the breadline’ today’.

It is a really interesting read, for all kinds of reasons. The first myth tackled includes the issue of ‘dependency’ and ‘worklessness’. The CSJ report states that:

The report disputes the idea of ‘dependency’ as a serious issue. This is despite the latest available data showing that more than 20 million families are now dependent on some kind of benefit

which, as Tracy Shildrick pointed out on Twitter, starts with the very big assumption that everyone receiving benefits is ‘dependent’ on them. And is the idea that we can be independent of each other not an ‘insipid illusion’, as Marx suggested. Surely there are many people whose wealth is dependent on lots of low paid workers continuing to generate profits for them. My children depend on me. I depend on my employer for my income. Is the welfare state not supposed to be something which we can depend on when opportunities to secure other sources of income are not available to us?

Anyway, moving on to the issue of worklessness, Shildrick et al’s study of the idea of ‘cultures of worklessness’ was published by JRF last year (and didn’t get an individual CSJ repsonse interestingly) and it highlighted on a couple of occasions the belief amongst some practitioners that families where 3 generations of unemployed people existed:

In our own earlier research we have found that such views are popular amongst practitioners who work with the unemployed. In numerous interviews with ‘welfare-to-work’ professionals in Teesside, carried out over many years, the cultures of worklessness thesis has frequently been offered up to us as one of the main barriers to helping the unemployed into work (Webster, et al., 2004; MacDonald and Marsh, 2005; Shildrick, et al., 2010). (p13)

During eight months of ethnographic, community-based fieldwork, many strategies were used to recruit an appropriate sample (see Appendix 1). This included a set of meetings with local practitioners to help us locate families for interview. The idea of intergenerational cultures of worklessness was well-known to them. It was one that they often drew on in trying to understand the situations of the families with which they worked. For instance, a regeneration manager in Glasgow stated that he had heard, anecdotally, of families where three generations had never worked but stated that his organisation did not record such information. Similarly, a Job Centre Plus manager told us she did not know of any directly but she had also ‘certainly heard’ of families where three generations had never worked. It became apparent that most of these practitioner interviewees operated with a loose definition of the term ‘never worked’. They often meant families who experienced longer-term unemployment in different generations or families that were known to them because of their ‘multiple problems’, which might include periods out of the labour market. We met with more than 30 practitioners but none was able to direct us to potential recruits for the study (confidentiality of client records only accounted for this to a small extent). We believe this to be an interesting finding in itself; when pushed to identify families where ‘three generations had never worked’ these practitioners were unable to do so, despite their apparent belief in the existence of such families and their close engagement with local communities. (p18)

The CSJ report, however, presents statements from two practitioners as evidence that ‘intergenerational worklessness’ does exist:

At the charity we have worked for 11 years now with second and third generation unemployed…I can assure you that we do have/had clients whose grandparents became unemployed in the early 70s…and haven’t worked since. Indeed their children and grandchildren have suffered the same inactivity’.

‘There is no question that it doesn’t exist…in Portsmouth there are many families where there is unemployment through several generations. We need to be much more proactive about intervening early’

I won’t go into detail on the other myths that are addressed but there are some very interesting and, I would argue, confused points made in the report around issues such as poverty and addiction, benefit fraud and error (no mention of the scale of tax fraud or the scale of underclaiming of benefits – both much bigger issues that benefit fraud) and the role of social security or, as the CSJ prefer to call it, welfare.

We have blogged about the CSJ before (here and here) and we have highlighted the links between them and Iain Duncan Smith, who set them up. The CSJ like to call themsleves independent but if that isn’t itself a myth, it’s being a little bit economical with the truth. The current Director of the CSJ is Christian Guy who used to be Iain Duncan Smith’s speechwriter. The former Director of the CSJ, Philippa Stroud, is now Iain Duncan Smith’s Special Advisor, so there are some very strong connections there, at the very least. An interesting account of who knows who in relation to Duncan Smith can be found here, courtesy of Channel 4.

The role and influence of unelected, unaccountable think-tanks very close to (or even set up by) politicians was something that Bourdieu addressed on a number of occasions, including in the postscript to ‘The Weight of the World’. He states that ‘those who govern are prisoners of a reassuring entourage of young technocrats who often know almost nothing about the everyday lives of their fellow citizens and have no occasion to be reminded of their ignorance’. He then goes on to make the point that

‘social science today is up against anyone and everyone with a claim to interpret the most obvious signs of social malaise … It has to deal with all these people, too clever by half and armed with their “common sense” and their pretensions, who rush into print or to appear on television to tell us what is going on in  a social world that they have no effective means of either knowing or understanding.’

Finally, for one of the best critiques of the role of the Centre for Social Justice in debates around welfare reform, I would strongly recommend people read this paper by Tom Slater of Edinburgh University where he highlights the role they play in ‘manufacturing ignorance’ around the causes of poverty.

Best wishes,


2 responses to ““Setting the record straight”?

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