They didn’t teach me how to be poor

10 Jul

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!


Posted by on July 10, 2012 in Uncategorized


3 responses to “They didn’t teach me how to be poor

  1. Paschal Lynch

    July 10, 2012 at 10:12 pm

    It is clear we need answers – Mr (Gideon) George (Oliver) Osborne has a heck of a problem to balance the country’s books. There is a £81,000,000,000 in year deficit in 2012 alone.

    The biggest area of spending is social protection at £207,000,000,000.
    I am sure the government have just said – we need to save some money – oh lets go after 10% of that! It is understandable to try to go after the biggest area of spend – it is much more logical than going after the smallest area of spend.

    What is a country to do?

    (Sorry for the one sided argument – think of it as a little challenge)

  2. lisawilsonie

    July 14, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    There is so many things that a Government can do! Though, your comment is one of real importance. It is this argument that provides the backbone behind many of the Governments claims. It is the only way. We’re all in this together. The Big Society. You know, the usual arguments that have been made!

    I am a little weary of having this discussion alongside figures from MSN money – so I am going to use figures that NI Secretary of State Owen Patterson used at a recent debate I attended on Welfare Reform (though they are similar to yours). The welfare reform intends to make £18 billion in cuts across the UK, the Government is currently borrowing £242,000 a minute – for every £4 spent by government £1 is borrowed. In Northern Ireland we will spend almost £1.5 billion on out of work benefits this year. And as Owen Patterson puts it “In Northern Ireland 200,000 people are stuck on out of work benefits unable or unwilling to take advantage of the job opportunities that are being created.” Though at the same time there is recognition from Owen Patterson and David Cameron and George Osborne that we cannot go on increasing benefits without ever tackling the root causes of deprivation and the need for additional support for people in helping them both prepare for work and to stay in work. At the same time businesses are being subsidised to take on contracts which exploit individual effort – I’m talking about the Workfare policies – people are expected to work for roughly the same as Job Seekers allowance – while the business is being rewarded by between £3800 and £13700 per person as an ‘incentive’ to ‘hire’ these people. So here the money is still being spent by Government, it is just conceptualised differently.

    For me all of the austerity cuts have become a discussion about deserving versus undeserving. In deciding where to make these cuts we are inevitably making a decision about who is deserving and who is undeserving. What effort do we reward and how much do we reward effort by. So by demonising welfare benefits and forcing people to work and take responsibility we are ignoring the economic and social conditions that produce poverty and inequality. Firstly, by promoting the workfare programme and rewarding this employment for roughly the same as JSA we are reproducing poverty and inequality. We are ignoring the inadequacies of the low wage labour market. Secondly the current welfare to work programmes and the entire ideological justification behind getting lazy, unmotivated people off benefits and into work is based on an assumption that there are sufficient jobs in the economy, there is sufficient child care support, those with a disability can always be supported into work and that any job is better than no job. This is fundamentally wrong. There are 2 people chasing every vacancy in the best economic areas, 35 per vacancy in the worst – and 6 per vacancy across Great Britain (There is no comparable data for Northern Ireland as of yet!). And, for me, the argument that any job is better than no job is wrong. We need to start thinking more thoroughly about the environment and sustainability – our leaders should forefront this.

    So what is a government to do – well we treat people on low incomes much more harshly than we treat middle or high earners. We hear little about the mass increase in banker’s bonuses since the 2008 recession. We hear little about how building contractors and landlords often rely on the Government to pay housing benefit for their tenants, otherwise they wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgages. We hear little about the NHS staff whom are allowed to work privately – whilst they are receiving an annual salary from the Government as a NHS worker. We hear little about the subsidies that employers receive to keep their businesses a float. Most of what we do hear about all of this is positive. The Government say that this is incentivising innovation. But my concern is how can the Government incentivise the low income worker towards innovation? How can one be innovative if they are constantly choosing between eating and heating? We are living in a world that rewards monopolism. We are living in a world whereby doing better than others is rewarded. We are living in a world whereby we are taught not to care about who we leave behind. When I look onto the world that’s what I see, and it saddens me. We can make these cuts, without punishment.

    So what is a government to do – how about reducing the financialisation of the economy so that it is relative to services and manufacturing? This would help with both the elasticity of the economy (prices rise as GDP increases) and help to rebalance the skills set of our population with the market. The Government admits to the over reliance on financial services, yet are doing little to change this.

    We could also revalue sectoral growth in manufacturing. Wealth and assets are often over valued and over financialised.

    And well – what is the Government to do – perhaps the one I know most about – how about rebalancing rewards between the richest and the poorest as a means to balance the books (debt repayments can still be made). We reward some jobs extremely well, yet put such a low value on others. We need to think long and hard about what we mean about deserving and undeserving. We reward some people so much better than others. How can we justify this?
    I mean to eradicate child poverty by 2020 (the Government target) we need to commit to spending £19 billion. We are moving further from this if most of our cuts are being made to those who need it most, those who already live in poverty.

    In the long run, social structural factors are hugely underemphasised when some people struggle to make ends meet – individuals are constantly being told that they must find their own way out – but why? We live in a world, whereby we HAVE the resources to help each other, why not look in that direction? For me, the political will to tackle this has disappeared. I am just urging you not to let your will disappear.

    Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has Margaret Mead

  3. Cian McCorley

    July 16, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    Paschal, as a man I know to be a logical thinker, I think it would be interesting to get your reaction to this documenary film. You’ll need to set aside 2.5 hrs to watch (or split it in two like I did) but most of the arguements in this come down to one thing, logic, but yet in the world we live in it seems as though we couldn’t be any farther from this. The objective of the film is to highlight an world economy that does it’s job, which is to ensure the welfare, welbeing and development of the human race


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