When I listen to arguments about how those living in poverty only have themselves to blame and how welfare payments pamper these lazy, unmotivated people, to be honest, I have a tendency to shut off; to stop listening. I’ve heard all of these arguments, spun in hundreds of different ways; they still don’t wash with me. For me these arguments are irrational, based on twisting the truth and playing a blame game which makes it easier for those not in poverty to accept and be proud of their own situation. After all, They deserve it! They’re motivated! They’re not lazy! We are taught to believe that life is what you make it, that there are no barriers to our progress except those which we create ourselves. We are taught to believe that if you reach your goals you are deserving of the success that comes with it; you obviously made sacrifices and chose that way of life! We are taught to believe that poor people chose that way of life, it’s their own fault. What they don’t teach us though is how to be poor. They don’t teach us how to make ends meet when there isn’t enough money to go around. They don’t teach us how to cope with the stigma, the embarrassment and the sense of failure one feels because they are poor. They don’t teach us how it’s inequality, unequal distribution of resources and stratification that keeps people in poverty. After all, all you have to do to escape poverty is stop being lazy, take responsibility, be motivated, quit scrounging. It is the gap between the reality of being poor and the negative perception associated with those who are poor that this piece is concerned. Additionally, this piece will comment on the mismatch that is often presented of how simple getting out of poverty is, and the actualities of lifting oneself out of poverty. It is the defamatory and vilifying treatment of those who are living in poverty by the recent Coalition government that provides the motivation behind this piece.
In a recent interview with the Independent on Sunday Cabinet Minister Eric Pickles stated that ‘we need to eradicate poverty…. [by being] a little less understanding [of those] fluent in social work’. Pickles went further stating that ‘Sometimes we’ve run away from categorising, stigmatising, laying blame… [we need to use] more forceful language”. Pickles made these comments alongside a claim that is currently being pushed forward by Government. The Government is claiming that there are 120,000 ‘Troubled families’ who are costing the state £9 billion a year. More serious than this the government is claiming that those suffering from multiple deprivations are the “source of a large proportion of the problems in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations” (Cameron, 2011).
Let me explore further my first concern regards the gap between the reality of being poor and the negative perception associated with being in poverty or multiply deprived. When following the commentary around which the Coalition has based their claims on the need to eradicate the ‘culture of poverty’ two things soon became apparent. Firstly, the much documented and repeated figure of what the government calls the ‘120,000 Troubled Families’ is based on a complete misuse of statistics and research. The 120,000 figure comes from an eight year old study on multiple deprivation which found that 2% of families surveyed had 5 or more of 7 characteristics: no parent in work; lives in overcrowded housing; no parent has any qualifications; mother has mental health problems; at least one parents has a long-standing limiting illness or disability; has low income (below 60% of median income – the mid-point of the distribution); cannot afford a number of food and clothing items. What is clear from the original findings of this research is that these people are multiply deprived and surely living in poverty. What is not clear by the way the figure is currently being utilised is the link between how these people living in multiple deprivations are causing a large proportion of our problems. Essentially families suffering from multiple deprivations are transformed into troublesome families with the implication that they are dysfunctional and cause trouble. In other words the government is actively front lining and promoting the perception, based on inaccurate data, that the poor are lazy, scum and shameless.
Secondly I became almost instantly aware of the anecdotal evidence that the government has a tendency to use when talking about the poor. It goes something like this “Take an alcoholic parent”, “Take a family where both parents are addicted to drugs”, “Take a struggling lone mother”. In fact every single piece of anecdotal evidence that the government uses is very much suited to the story. I have yet to hear of anecdotal evidence which goes like this “Take a PhD college graduate who can’t get a job”, “Take a young entrepreneur trying to get his feet off the ground” ,“Take a minimum wage worker” or all of the other zillion examples that I could give you regarding people I know who are in poverty but their ‘story’ doesn’t match the characteristics set down by the current Government of what someone in poverty looks like. Primarily I have yet to come across someone in poverty who boasts about it! The key reason why I’m writing this piece is because I feel that there is a need to present a case which illustrates to the powers that be that it is not just the feckless, the lazy, the unmotivated, and the scroungers who are living in poverty. There are also hard-working, motivated, highly educated, non-criminal, non-drug-addicts who are living in poverty. I know quite a lot. I bet most readers do too. By standing back and letting the government continue to erode away our welfare state through convincing us that the only people who use it use are those who can’t be bothered to do anything else about their situation, we are giving in to a future of being on our own, whereby the very social support system that we have built is snagged from right under our noses! By allowing them to convince us that it’s only those with the characteristics that they identify who are in poverty, we are giving in to a life of not only self-denial but also a denial of access to resources which we contribute to gathering.
The next concern of this article is to explore the misconception often put forward that getting out of poverty is easy. That those living in poverty only have themselves to blame because they choose that way of life. I can’t fully understand the logic behind this argument; I mean why would anybody choose a life of deprivation? Or put differently, if it is so easy to get out of poverty and poverty is only associated with negatives then, why would one choose to remain there? My only conclusion is similar to Furedi (2003), through the government promoting, creating and recreating an individualistic perception of poverty, which is chosen by those who suffer its consequences, the end amounts to nothing but an ‘attempt to dress up social problems as emotional problems’. Those who hold this view ignore the significant societal barriers which exist in society which often prevent certain groups from getting out of poverty.
The easiest way to illustrate this is through exploring the life of someone on minimum wage. Now consider what the actual cost is in your area for the following – housing (rented or privately owned), lighting, heating and hot water, food (3 meals a day), clothes, public transport or private transport to get to work for 5 days a week, communication (phone/internet), TV, entertainment (one evening socialising with a friend and one outing at the weekend), modest savings (for emergencies, treats etc).
In the end, any government which reckons it can save money tackling the problem of poverty is deluded!