This post intends to discuss in some depth a worrying trend that I have noticed take hold in my local community, the trend being poor-bashing. This is not a particularly portentous issue in my community that has suddenly increased recently, it is worrying though because if one word was used to describe the economic outlook of the community I live in it would be poor. Despite this, the poor in this community and many others have bought into government rhetoric about the poor being societies greatest burden and that all claimants of state benefits are shirkers who provided nothing whilst the ruling classes in this mental image are placed beyond even a whiff of reproach, let alone punishment.
Unfortunately this method of divide and rule has always been amongst the most common tricks of the trade for careerist politicians who will pander to the haves and neglect the have-nots and time in this case has proven to not be a great healer. Later on in this scheme of thinking with a broad sweep of the painters brush,the unwashed poor will come to bear sole responsibility for their unfortunate current position. In this post I will aim to debunk some of the more commonly discussed ideas that are employed to tarnish the poor now as in the times of Dickens and Plato before him in an attempt to show how the most powerful in society have repeatedly aimed to turn society against its most vulnerable individuals as a method by which the crimes of those who hold a monopoly on power are whitewashed from common knowledge.
I draw most of my initial cues for my arguments from a recently published report that similarly aimed to put the lie to many of the most common arguments used to slander the poor and unemployed. The report published by a group of British churches which can be found here offers six central myths that are commonly used to defame the poor, mainly by the government and which later are to be regurgitated piece meal in the mainstream media for mass consumption. The report from early on in its discussion of these myths highlights the danger in accepting as common knowledge these ideas about the root of poverty. According to the report the inherent danger in accepting these received wisdoms blindly leads society as a whole to believe that the reasons for the existence of poverty are simple – not complex and consequently this allows the rest of society to avoid taking responsibility for creating a system in which poverty does not thrive and where the poor are cared for effectively. The first myth that the report discusses is:
- ‘They’ are lazy and don’t want to work – Such an expression already highlights the dehumanising way in which people have been lead to think of the poor. According to the report the most commonly held false belief is that all poor people are poor purely down to a lack of will to find employment on their own part. If such a ridiculous notion could ever be found to be true then I would dearly like to speak to these hordes of the unemployed who have worked out in a relatively short space of time an alternative form of economics which sees them willing to shun work despite crippling poverty. Ultimately I can only base what I write here on what I have read and what I have seen and experienced myself and as much as I hate it, I understand fully that packets of cowboy killers don’t come cheap and that ultimately if I want to sustain a habit of smoking or eating or staying indoors in a heated house at night that the best way to provide these things is to find gainful employment. Based purely on having come to this realisation all by myself I find the notion of multitudes of poor people not wanting to work and so jeopardizing their access to all of life’s niceties and necessities absolutely farcical. There is perhaps a hardcore of the poor in this country who do fulfil this stereotype of not wanting to work, but assuming this is the case because they are “lazy” is quite the leap in logic no ? I imagine in the case of the few who do not want to work that systemic problems such as a lack of proper training and long term unemployment play a far greater role in making people wish to stay unemployed rather than a notion of laziness. The report points out in its discussion of this myth that far more common than the traditional view of poverty is in-work poverty where the wages simply do not stretch far enough. This is the most damning indictment of the view of poverty as a result of not working possible, and in being such an indictment it also demonstrates that at least in the case of this myth that poverty has a systemic route in the sense that in the current environment wages no longer sustain those who are working just as hard to provide regardless of changing circumstances. I think a commonly used term for this would be striver perhaps;
- “They” are addicted to drink and drugs – There is a level of moral repugnance attributable to any discourse which blames the victims of a crime for that crime having been committed against them and this case is no different. To suggest that the poor are undeserving of support because they have moral flaws would serve simply to create a paradigm where no-one is worthy of support as the saying “no-ones perfect” aptly demonstrates the flaw in such reasoning. This myth however is amongst the most effective as there is an element of truth about it. As the report points out, addiction does have the potential to ruin lives and to cause poverty, not only for the addict but for all those around them who in their own way are dependent on the addict for support in some form. On the other hand though the report points out that in reality the spread of addiction is far wider throughout all of society than those who peddle this particular lie would have us believe. Another issue that eternally bothers me when I hear this argument is that it always assumes that the addiction came before the poverty rather than the other way around when so much research proves that one of the most common reasons that people turn to substance misuse is to blot out existing real world problems. Again in this case we see the blame falling squarely at the feet of those who are least able to defend themselves and this is a trend I am sure most readers will have pre-empted continuing through all six of these common myths;
- “They” are not really poor – they just don’t manage their money properly – Does it not seem instantly troubling to anyone else that according to this myth those who have the least money are the ones who are least adept at making their money stretch ? It seems counter intuitive to suggest that the poor are the wasters of money when those who have excesses of money can afford to throw their money away knowing that even if they were to throw say 10% of their weekly wage away they know they could still eat whereas those less fortunate any amount of money from a wage wasted is likely to impact greatly on the ability of the wage earner to provide. The report points out that in reality the poor have proven to be “adept, out of necessity, at managing on tight budgets and protecting their children from the worse effects of poverty” and highlights examples such as cutting down on food and even skipping meals as ways in which the poor have managed their budget in a situation where due to mismanagement at higher levels by the rich the prices of commodities and utilities have increased faster than inflation while support has decreased simultaneously;
- “They” are on the fiddle – Again, on the surface the argument that the poor are on the fiddle, or fraudulently claiming their benefits for those less familiar with British slang, doesn’t make a great deal of sense being as they are poor. If they were rich and there was no way to account for the source of their income then that would be a situation where I could foresee this being a realistic accusation, but the truth of the matter is that the people accused of gaming the system have no spare money. What I think we can see here is an attempt to drive home the message that in the view of the people who voice these arguments that the poor are a dishonest and conniving section of society who are therefore unworthy of the support of those who are more fortunate. Such a sentiment presumably takes as its basis the likely fact that due to the necessities of life the poor are likely to understand the benefit system and what they are entitled to and because of their knowledge of such matters are taken to be cheating the system for a fictional massive personal gain. The report identifies that in reality the benefits system in the UK has remarkably low levels of fraud with only 0.9% of the overall cost lost to fraud, a level of which the report points out is “the kind of levels that the tax system can only dream of”;
- “They” have an easy life – perhaps the most ridiculous of the commonly accepted myths is that those who are the lowest end of the social ladder have an easy life. Take for example the base rate for unemployment benefits for a young adult in the UK, in one year that person will have to survive on £2800 which when compared to someone working only 25 hours a week earning a wage of say £6 an hour is a full £5000 lower. The notion that in the UK £2800 is enough to survive on for a whole year is ludicrous and along with that so is the notion that anyone would happily chose to live on an insufficient amount of money for one year and consider this an easy life.
- “They” caused the deficit – I really did speak too soon when I pointed out that I believed the myth that poor people have an easy life to be the most ridiculous didn’t I ? The idea that the UK’s welfare bill was what caused the deficit is bizarre being as the government has bailed out banks, invaded Iraq and Afghanistan for no gain in safety to anyone and plans to replace an outdated nuclear submarine system that is so unlikely to ever be used that it is essentially redundant. Again the key here is to accept the idea that the poor are worthy of hatred for causing so many problems for the rest of us and then accepting any idea after that is easy enough.
I hope from viewing these myths that any British readers can see how bizarre the ideas we are asked to believe and have in time come to believe actually are. Our esteemed government is obviously the main source of these ridiculous myths as they serve to conveniently distract from larger issues such as the recent programme of quantitative easing which aimed at easing the UK economy as a whole yet resulted in the increasing of ” the personal wealth of the UK’s richest fifth of families by enough to pay for Jobseeker’s Allowance for over a century” the report points out. While the government is ultimately the main source of these myths, journalists have proven to be as bad as the government. I consider their mindless rehashing of stories about benefit queens with 11 children and other assorted horror stories to be a virulent dereliction of the journalists duties as someone who should challenge power rather than willingly spread the lies of the powerful through fear of losing contact with those in government.