We are living through the severest economic depression since the 1920s with accelerating unemployment, flat-lining growth and a sharp rise in poverty levels across Europe. That much seems indisputable. But two questions that have created societal discord and, in some cases like Greece, severe upheaval are: who is to blame for this crisis and how do we get out of it? A worrying trend in the public debate on these questions is the increasing use of stereotypes that are designed very specifically to blame the poor for their own poverty. ‘Shirkers’, ‘skivers’ and ‘scroungers’ have all too evidently and readily entered public parlance to denote the idle working-class, content to coast on benefits rather than do a day’s work. A graph capturing the number of times the word ‘scrounger’ is used by UK newspapers (excluding The Times and Financial Times) from 1994 to 2012 shows a spike in usage from just over 500 at the start of the 2008 recession to 3,500 in 2012 (Edwards, 2013).
The press in Britain may be taking its cue from the government with the British Chancellor, George Osborne, in a speech to the 2012 Conservative party conference asking ‘where’s the fairness for the shift worker leaving home in the dark hours of the morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of the next door neighbour sleeping off a life in benefits?’ (Guardian, 11 April 2013). Anna Coote and Sarah Lyall from the New Economics Foundation regard Osborne’s contrasting of the ‘strivers’ as hard working, reliable and socially responsible with the jobless ‘skivers’ as unreliable and unproductive as ‘pure fiction’. Coote and Lyall suggest that ‘people hardly ever choose to be in or out of work’, something determined by the wider economy. They add that Osborne’s comments ignore the legion of unpaid carers at home and in the community without whom ‘the economy would grind to a halt’ (Ibid).
Osborne’s cabinet colleague, Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has contributed to the stereotyping of the poor by suggesting that ‘the biggest indicator of child poverty identified by members of the public was not income but having a parent addicted to drugs or alcohol’ (Guardian, 31 January 2013). This view of child poverty is sharply contradicted by a new report by UNICEF on child wellbeing (April 2013) showing the UK sandwiched in 14th place between Hungary and the Czech Republic on ‘relative child poverty’ rates in advanced economies. Kate Pickett of the Equality Trust believes that this ranking is less a reflection of national wealth and more about ‘the choices we make in terms of goals and policies’. She adds that if government ministers believe that children are only poor because their parents are feckless and workshy, they're [also] wrong – the majority of poor children live in working households’ (Guardian, 8 May 2013).
So, what are government ministers trying to achieve by characterising (or caricaturing) the poor, as Deborah Orr (Guardian, 2 February 2013) puts it, ‘as a kind of self-inflicted moral freak show, to be examined, gawped at and despised’? Well, the obvious answer is that the government wants to shift the debate on poverty away from the structural causes of inequality and the failings of their policies by drawing public opprobrium toward the ‘social cost’ of the unemployed.
And a recent poll (January 2013) commissioned by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) suggests that this tactic is working. The poll found evidence of ‘widespread ignorance about spending on welfare, the reality of unemployment, the generosity of benefits and the level of fraud’. For example, on average poll respondents think ‘41 per cent of the entire welfare budget goes on benefits to unemployed people, while the true figure is 3 per cent’. They also believe ‘27 per cent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently, while the government's own figure is 0.7 per cent’. Overall, the poll found that 42 percent of people believe that benefits are too generous and 59 percent that it has created a ‘culture of dependency’.
These myths about benefits are accruing widespread acceptance despite the government imposing a 1 percent cap on benefits until 2016 (Guardian, 8 January 2013). Even by the government’s own assessment, the decision to cap benefits will hit the poorest 10 percent of households hardest and represents a de facto cut in income for the poor and disabled (New Statesman, 8 January 2013).
The underlying causes of poverty in Britain and many of its European partners, have not been spending on welfare but the austerity measures implemented in response to the global financial crisis. In Britain this has resulted in ‘the most swingeing programme of cuts and tax increases for 90 years’ (Guardian, 26 February 2013) as ‘slash and burn’ economics have been waged to disastrous effect. Earlier this year the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released research ‘suggesting that it had significantly underestimated the damage European austerity would do to EU growth rates’ (IMF, January 2013). The research argues that European governments ‘need to deprioritize debt reduction in favor of measures that actually boost economic growth’ (Ibid).
Rather than heap blame and the social cost for economic inertia on the poor, we need to advocate a new political course away from austerity toward job creation. This means investing in sustainable social enterprises that are intrinsic to national economies rather than shaping national economies to accommodate international capital. It means introducing more equitable taxation systems and protecting, not privatising public services. We should also support Amnesty International in calling on European governments to ratify a new international treaty ‘which would protect human rights that are under threat from austerity policies’. ‘This treaty allows people to take a case to the United Nations if their human rights (which include adequate housing, food, water, sanitation, health, work, social security and education) are violated’ (9 May 2013). We need to strengthen social protections for the vulnerable rather than make them scapegoats for the failings of government.
Amnesty International, ‘Irish Government must protect human rights under threat from austerity’, available: http://www.amnesty.ie/news/irish-government-must-protect-human-rights-under-threat-austerity, accessed (12 May 2013).
Edwards, Gavin (1 May 2013), available: https://twitter.com/GavinEdwards77/status/329203347208949760/photo/1, accessed (10 May 2013).
Guardian, ‘MPs vote on 1% benefits cap: Politics live blog’, 8 January 2013, available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/blog/2013/jan/08/mps-vote-benefits-cap-live-blog, (accessed 10 May 2013).
Guardian, ‘Three-quarters of local authorities to put up council tax for poorest families’, 31 January 2013, available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/jan/31/child-poverty-measure-drug-alcohol, (accessed 10 May 2013).
Guardian, ‘George Osborne hasn't just failed – this is an economic disaster’, 26 February 2013, available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/26/george-osborne-has-not-just-failed, (accessed 10 May 2013).
Guardian, ‘Strivers versus skivers: real life’s not like that at all’, 11 April 2013, available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/apr/11/strivers-v-skivers-divisive-notion, (accessed 10 May 2013).
International Monetary Fund (IMF), ‘International Monetary Fund Admits It Severely Underestimated Cost of Austerity’, 3 January 2013, available: http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2013/01/03/1395321/international-monetary-fund-admits-it-severely-underestimated-cost-of-austerity/?mobile=nc, (accessed 10 may 2013).
New Statesman, ‘The poorest and the disabled are hit hardest by the benefit cuts’, 8 January 2013, available: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/01/poorest-and-disabled-are-hit-hardest-benefit-cuts, (accessed 10 May 2013).
Orr, Deborah, ‘Today's poor are depicted as a freak show, just as the Elephant Man was’, Guardian, 2 February 2013, available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/02/poor-freak-show-elephant-man. (accessed 10 May 2013).
Pickett, Kate, ‘Rising child poverty in the UK makes us all poorer’, Guardian, 8 May 2013, available: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/08/rising-child-poverty-uk-poorer (accessed 10 May 2013).
Trades Union Congress, ‘Support for benefit cuts dependent on ignorance, TUC-commissioned poll finds’, available: http://www.tuc.org.uk/social/tuc-21796-f0.cfm, (accessed 10 May 2013).
UNICEF, Child Well-Being in rich Countries: A Comparative Overview, April 2013, available: http://www.unicef.org.uk/Images/Campaigns/FINAL_RC11-ENG-LORES-fnl2.pdf, (accessed 10 May 2013).
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