Poverty: Public Attitudes and Welfare Myths

Evidence from a recent opinion poll suggests that public attitudes towards those experiencing poverty and hardship have taken a worrying turn. It appears that levels of empathy and sympathy for people finding themselves in these circumstances are falling which has undoubtedly been fuelled by a mainstream media determined to stigmatise the poor and a political class content to further marginalise and penalise them for ‘failing to make responsible choices’ which it is argued is the reason for their plight. However, these ideas are supported by a series of dangerous myths alongside the burying of some inconvenient truths.

Since 1983 the British Social Attitudes Survey has been monitoring and tracking changes in peoples’ social, political and moral attitudes and as such offers us a critical gauge of public opinion on a range of issues, including attitudes towards welfare provisions. In the most recent, 33rd edition, of the British Social Attitudes Survey (NatCen, 2017) it is reported that social attitudes towards welfare spending reflect a significant fall in empathy and sympathy towards the poor and increasingly advocate a reduction in financial support in the form of welfare payments. When asked ‘would you like to see more money spent on welfare’ in 2015 31% of people disagreed with this statement, compared with 15% when the same question was asked in 1989. This represents a significant change in the level of empathy for those in need of support, with twice as many people saying that they do not support an increase in welfare spending. Furthermore, when asked specifically about whether they ‘would like to see more government spending on benefits for unemployed people’ in 1998, 22% of people agreed with this statement compared with only 17% of people in 2015. There was also a reduction in empathy when asked if they ‘would like to see more government spending on benefits for parents who work who are on very low incomes’ with 68% supporting this idea in 1998 reducing to 61% in 2015. However, the biggest fall in empathy was found when participants were asked if they ‘would like to see more government spending on benefits for disabled people who cannot work’, which went from 72% in 1998 to 61% in 2015. These trends in social attitudes were reinforced when people were asked if they ‘would like to see less government spending on benefits’ with the percentage of people agreeing with this statement rising from 35% in 1998 to 45% in 2015. Surveys such as this offer an indication of how social attitudes are shifting from a position which locates poverty as a ‘communal’ responsibility, which we all share, to one which locates it as an ’individual’s’ responsibility. It is not surprising that this change in attitudes has taken place in an era which has seen the controversial work of Charles Murray, who argued that those people who experience poverty are in fact engaged in making an individual lifestyle choice which is devoid of the necessary moral values and who blamed the welfare systems which facilitate this dynamic, growing in social and political influence.

The way in which the poor are perceived and located in broader society has been the subject of much debate in recent years and was the subject of a recent book entitled ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class’ by Owen Jones (2011). In his book Jones, who is a journalist and political commentator, argues that:

‘The British working class has become an object of fear and ridicule. From Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard to the demonization of Jade Goody, media and politicians alike dismiss as feckless, criminalized and ignorant a vast, underprivileged swathe of society that has become stereotyped by one hate-filled word: chavs.’

The book explores how media and political discourse has positioned the poor working class as a significant social problem and comments that ‘the term ‘chav’ now encompasses any negative traits associated with working-class people – violence, laziness, teenage pregnancies, racism, drunkenness, and the rest’ (Jones, 2011, p8). This concept is routinely reinforced by the mainstream media whose headlines include ‘Single mothers have created generation of ‘uber-chavs’ who are costing taxpayer a fortune’ (Daily Mail, 10/2/2009), and ‘It’s time middle classes stood up to ‘chav culture’’ (Daily Express, 27/1/2009). These articles feed an emerging ‘moral panic’ about the lack of socially responsible morals and values amongst these ‘chavs’ and advocates an authoritarian approach to their moral correction. What is particularly shocking is the casual use of this derogatory term both in the mainstream media and in everyday conversations. It has become perfectly acceptable to label people as ‘chavs’ and express our disdain about their behaviour and lament their irresponsible and selfish lifestyles, which are the result of an over-generous welfare system. This has undoubtedly legitimised welfare reforms which have sought to reduce spending with the poor disproportionately carrying the burden of the cuts.

An interesting explanation of this set of social attitudes has been offered by Lister (2008) and Killeen (2008) who observe the emergence of the concept of ‘povertyism’, described by them as the process by which the poor are ‘othered’ and subsequently labelled as ‘inferior or of lessor value’ and constructed ‘as a source of moral contamination, a threat, an undeserving economic burden’. This process operates in two key ways, it firstly locates the poor as inferior and somehow deficient in terms of the ideal or normal responsible ‘citizen’ and therefore in need of our moral correction. It also importantly secures the identity of those who are not labelled as ‘poor’ or a ‘chav’ as upstanding and valuable members of society possessing the necessary moral fibre to instruct the immoral and irresponsible. Therefore, we are increasingly encouraged to think of our position in society as either a responsible, independent, self-sufficient and morally upstanding citizen (us) or as an irresponsible, dependent and morally deficient scrounger (them). The former being encouraged to cast their judgement on the later.

Challenging the myths

Of course, this presumption of individual blame which locates the ‘us’ (morally upright responsible citizen) and ‘them’ (morally deficient irresponsible poor) binary relationship is completely flawed as it fails to take account of a whole range of factors which contribute to an individual’s economic position in society. In addition to this, this presumption operates on the basis of some widely-held myths about the realities of welfare support. One key example of this can be found in the perception of the social security system. Once again, the media play a significant role in their portrayal of the ongoing ‘moral panic’ about benefit fraud which suggests that there is widespread evidence of poor people defrauding the welfare system. Headlines such as ‘Benefits cheat mum who scrounged thousands by claiming she was single is caught after posting pictures of her wedding on Facebook’ (The Sun, 7th December 2016) single out the individuals who defraud the system and articles entitled ‘Revealed: The most bizarre benefit frauds of 2016 – including a woman claiming to have superpowers and a ‘BLIND’ driver’ (Mail online, 31st December 2016) both imply the widespread problem of benefit fraud as well as mocking the stupidity of these irresponsible ‘others’. This media discourse is further legitimised and amplified by policy responses which also suggest that benefit fraud is a significant national problem. In the recent white paper ‘Universal Credit: Welfare that Works (2010)’ clear reference is made to its aim to make the benefits system fairer by tackling poverty, worklessness and welfare dependency. It goes on to locate unemployed lone parents as a particular target for intervention and makes reference to strengthened conditionality which will be supported by a new system of financial sanctions to tackle benefit fraud. The following Welfare Reform Act 2012 which provided the legal power to enforce the white paper makes clear reference to capping benefit payments, introducing tougher penalties for benefit fraud and delivering fairness to those claiming benefits and to the taxpayer. This welfare reform agenda clearly signals the government’s intentions to crack down on the significant problem of benefits cheats (them) whilst acknowledging the concerns of the responsible taxpayer (us).

However, when we examine the realities of this situation it becomes clear who is in fact presenting the most significant threat to the national interest. The Department for Work and Pensions in 2014 stated that £1.2 billion was lost through benefit fraud (down from the £1.5 billion detailed in the Fraud, Error and Debt Taskforce report of 2010). This figure is dwarfed by the conservative estimate of £15 billion lost through tax fraud in the Fraud, Error and Debt Taskforce report in 2010. It is widely reported that in fact the true extent of tax fraud is likely to be much bigger with the Public and Commercial Services Union estimating that tax evasion was in the region of £85 billion and tax avoidance is £19 billion (Murphy, 2014). Therefore, it is clear that the cost of benefit fraud is minimal in comparison to the money which is defrauded by tax evasion/avoidance largely committed by the wealthy. However, the most significant figures which refute the benefit cheat myths are those which outline the extent of unclaimed benefits. In 2016 the Department for Work and Pensions stated that £2.4 billion of Job-seekers allowance went unclaimed, £2.9 billion in Income Support went unclaimed, £4.6 billion of Housing Benefit went unclaimed and £3.1 billion of Pension Credits went unclaimed (DWP, 2016). Therefore, it appears that more than ten times more benefits went unclaimed (£13 billion) than was fraudulently claimed (£1.2 billion) and in fact almost one hundred times more money was lost through tax fraud (£109 billion) than through benefits fraud (£1.2 billion). Therefore, the real problem lies with tax cheats and not benefit cheats.

Mark Cronin

Senior Lecturer in ECEC

(Adapted from: Cronin, M. (2017) ‘Why do we need to think about poverty and social exclusion?’ in Cronin, M., Argent, K. and Collett, C. (eds.) Poverty and Inclusion in Early Years Education. Oxon: Routledge, pp11-33.)


Birchall, G. (2016) ‘Benefits cheat mum who scrounged thousands by claiming she was single is caught after posting pictures of her wedding on Facebook’, The Sun, 7th December. Available online at: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/2346572/benefits-cheat-mum-caught posting-pictures-lesbian-wedding-facebook/(Accessed: 22nd February 2017).

Dathan, M. (2016) ‘Revealed: The most bizarre benefit frauds of 2016 – including a woman claiming to have superpowers and a ‘BLIND’ driver’ Mail online, 31st December. Available online at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4076338/The-bizarre-benefit-frauds-2016-including-woman-claiming-superpowers-BLIND-driver.html.(Accessed: 3rd May 2017).

Department for Work and Pensions (2014) Fraud and Error in the Benefit System 2013/14 Estimates (biannual). Available online at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/371459/Statistical_Release.pdf (Accessed: 3rd May 2017).

Department for Work and Pensions (2016) Income-Related Benefits: Estimates of Take-up Data for financial year 2014/15. Available online at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/535362/ir-benefits-take-up-main-report-2014-15.pdf (Accessed: 3rd May 2017).

Department for Work and Pensions (2010) Universal Credit: welfare that works. Available online at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/48897/universal-credit-full-document.pdf (Accessed 3rd May 2017).

Dolan, A. (2009) ‘Single mothers have created generation of ‘uber-chavs’ who are costing the tax-payer a fortune, claims deputy head’ Daily Mail, 10th February. Available online at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1139886/Single-mothers-created-generation-uber-chavs-costing-taxpayer-fortune-claims-deputy-head.html#ixzz0sj0edHxQQ Accessed: 3rd May 2017).

Fagge, N. (2009) ‘It’s time middle-classes stood up to ‘chav culture’ Daily Express, 27th January. Available online at: http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/82062/It-s-time-middle-classes-stood-up-to-chav-culture (Accessed: 3rd May 2017).

Jones, O. (2011). Chavs: The demonization of the working class. London: Verso Books.

Killeen, D. (2008) Is poverty in the UK a denial of people’s human rights? York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Lister, R. (2008) ‘Povertyism and “othering”: why they matter’, Challenging Povertyism: TUC Conference, London: 12 October 2008.

Murphy, R. (2014) The tax gap: Tax evasion in 2014 – and what can be done about it. Available online at: http://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Documents/PCSTaxGap2014Full.pdf (Accessed: 3rd May 2017).

NatCen (2017) British Social Attitudes Survey 33rd Edition. Available online at: http://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/latest-report/british-social-attitudes-33/introduction.aspx (Accessed: 22nd February 2017)

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