Attitudes towards people living in poverty today are similar to that found by a study in the 1940’s when society’s opinions of war evacuees and people suffering from poverty were severe.
“Children were reported as dirty, inadequately clothed and badly behaved, and their parents were blamed as lazy and incompetent. Politicians and media reports supported this analysis.”
Today’s rhetoric suggests that although public opinion shifted following the Our Towns report in the 1940’s, which went some way towards the Beveridge reforms that paved the way for the modern welfare state, we are again seeing public attitudes towards people living in poverty harden.
People often hold erroneous views about welfare recipients and these views are reinforced by politicians and a “sensationalist media” that label the poor, unemployed and sick as shirker and responsible for their own situation. Such attitudes are believed to be leading to the dismantling of the welfare state, which was put in place to ensure that nobody became destitute as a result of losing their job, relationship breakdown, or becoming sick or disabled.
In response to these hardening attitudes a group of women working to support people living in poverty across the UK have launched a report, Our Lives: Challenging Attitudes to Poverty, which aims to give a voice to “people struggling to make ends meet, striving to support their families and trying to retain their dignity and self-respect in the face of grinding poverty and hardship.”
The report details the fear and humiliation people are suffering as a result of benefit conditionality and sanctions, which appear to go beyond their stated aims in many cases and are instead used as a punitive tool to harass people unlucky enough to have to rely on benefits. There are several case studies from across the UK that detail widespread fear and hopelessness as a result of public officials in benefit offices and private work programme providers having the power to seriously impact on the wellbeing of people they are supposed to be helping.
The report reminds us that out of work benefits account for just 4% of the welfare bill at £4.9bn, while spending on pensions is by far the highest at £74.22bn per year, which is only slightly less than JSA, ESA, DLA and Housing Benefit combined (2011/12 figures).
We are also reminded that families can end up being thrown into poverty as a result of domestic violence by the story of Tanya, who fled to a refuge with her two children after her son told a teacher that he slept with a hammer under his bed to protect himself and his sister from their father while she was working night shift. Tanya used to have 3 jobs and worked hard to look after her children, but is now living in poverty, her children wearing “stranger’s clothes”.
The report demonstrates that the routes into poverty are many, but getting a job is no guarantee that someone will get out of poverty – the majority of those now living in poverty are from households where at least one adult is in work.
The leaders of the main political parties want to cut welfare again following the General Election, “The authors of Our Lives believe this kind of brutality diminishes us all – rich, poor and everyone in between, “We can do better than this.” They hope that this report will be a wake-up call for the UK – the social safety net of the country is disintegrating, which is a risk to all but the most affluent.
Read the report
Welfare bill breakdown
A key aim of Glasgow’s Poverty Leadership Panel is working to challenge attitudes to people in poverty.