Do we blame people for being in poverty?

9th Dec 2011

What do we in Britain think about people in poverty? Julia Lewis explores public attitudes to poverty.

I was listening to Radio 4's Today programme this week, on the subject of what we in Britain think about people in poverty … 'lazy' and 'lacking in willpower'. And it set me off thinking.

You won't be surprised to hear that JRF has published a lot of work about people in poverty, and attitudes to poverty. In fact, we thought public attitudes were sufficiently important for us to fund an entire programme on the subject. This is because people’s attitudes can have a direct impact on the day-to-day quality of life of people experiencing poverty. Our research has shown that public awareness of UK poverty is low but attitudes are often harshly judgemental of those on low incomes.

The British Social Attitudes survey suggested that 54% of Britons believe social security benefits are too high and discourage people from finding jobs, up from 35% in 1983 when the study was first carried out. And 25% say people live in need because they are "lazy or lack willpower". This is a worrying trend, and shows that the recent public discourse blaming people for their own poverty has clearly taken hold. And it's worrying that these views have formed in the absence of any deep understanding about the facts and realities of poorer people's complex lives – an issue spotlighted by our research into public attitudes towards poverty. Our annual monitoring and analysis of poverty statistics also provides the facts.

But it's not all gloomy. Most people (38%) see it as an inevitable part of modern life or (19%) as injustice in society. These views have remained stable over the last two decades. And 58% think there is "quite a lot" of poverty in Britain today so people do accept its existence, with 82% agreeing that reducing child poverty in Britain is "very important". So it's not as bad as I heard it on the news.

People in poverty are very often working. When the Chancellor talks about people whose curtains are shut, for many it will be because they have been cleaning all night or working night shifts in a care home, or similarly exhausting jobs. And this kind of poorly paid, insecure work doesn’t, by the way, necessarily lift people out of poverty.

Research done on attitudes towards people in poverty in previous recessions has shown an increasing sympathy for people on low incomes: this one uniquely seems to blame people for their poverty. It will be interesting to see whether the fact that more people are now experiencing the realities of life on a lower income changes the survey results next time.