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In 1753 John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said: “So wickedly, devilishly false is that common objection, ‘They are poor, only because they are idle’.” Wesley was correct then and in a country where in-work poverty has increased to the point where the majority of children living in poverty are in working households, the evidence is overwhelming that he is still correct today.
Despite this, the British Social Attitudes Survey tells us that UK citizens increasingly believe that poverty can be best explained by the faults of the poor – notably an unwillingness to work – and Church Urban Fund research shows that church-goers agree.
The Lies We Tell Ourselves: Ending Comfortable Myths About Poverty, a report published last week, seeks to highlight how we have come to believe things which are so demonstrably untrue, and challenge the many myths which cloud our judgement when it comes to understanding UK poverty; and, most importantly, the communities and people who struggle under it.
The first of the six myths challenged in the report is the idea that poverty is caused by people not wanting to work. In 1994/95 the number of people who the government now term “workless” peaked. Prior to the Banking Crisis the number of long-term unemployed had dropped dramatically, the number of unemployed had declined, the number of people out of work and receiving disability benefits had declined, and the number of lone parents not working had also declined.
After the Banking Crisis only unemployment increased (the other categories of “workless” continue to decline). Despite the length and depth of this recession, we are well short of the 1994/95 levels of “worklessness”. Over a period where the status, job security and wages of the low paid all declined, it is both surprising and encouraging that people became increasingly committed to the workplace.
It is curious then that this was the time when many politicians and think-tanks began to talk of a “culture of worklessness” and “welfare dependency”. The most repeated piece of evidence for this, used by welfare reformers from all parties, was: “There are families where no one in three generations has ever worked”. This is an attractive sound-bite, but one for which there was never any real evidence.
The report highlights how other questionable facts, dodgy statistics and unrepresentative stories have been used to paint a false picture of those in poverty and on benefits. Just two examples:
• The Chancellor used the example of a families receiving £100,000 in housing benefit when announcing benefit caps. According to the DWP only five out of five million claimants receive this much (but with a very puzzling margin of error of plus or minus ten).
• The government announced that over a million people had been “workless for a decade”. Evidence for a “culture of worklessness”, perhaps? No – only 0.1% were unemployed for a decade. The vast majority of the million were sick or disabled. Was that the impression a reasonable person would get when the figure was used? Interestingly, there were more people terminally ill for a decade than unemployed for a decade. Do they suffer from this “culture of worklessness” too?
We call these “comfortable myths” because a world were poverty visits only the bad, the lazy and the feckless would be a more comfortable place to live. A world where paying money to the poorest creates dependency and an incentive to be lazy would be one which could afford to have lower taxes. A world where poverty and wealth are deserved would be a more just one. There is no evidence that that is the world we live in and it is a matter of grave concern that many have been convinced that it is.
The Lies We Tell Ourselves: Ending Comfortable Myths About Poverty does not make any policy suggestions but instead highlights the lies, misapprehensions and prejudices which underpin much of our debate around poverty. We are well aware that we do not have a complete understanding, nor do we have a monopoly on the truth. But what we are seeking is a truthful conversation which treats those living in poverty with respect. The simple hypothesis is that if a policy cannot be justified using the truth, then it is likely the policy is unjustifiable.
Guest blogger Paul Morrison is a Policy Advisor for the Joint Public Issues Team of the Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed Churches, with responsibility for Business and Economic Affairs.