Language is a weapon used to make 'others' of people in poverty

4th Feb 2013

The language being used in the debate on welfare reform is demonizing people living with poverty, says Gary Rae.

Are we being tough on people in poverty and not looking closely enough at its causes?

Some journalists still use shorthand. It’s really handy. Some politicians use shorthand. It’s really dangerous.

Language, as a tool, is never neutral. It’s used and exploited by me, by you, by journalists and by politicians. A tool can easily become a weapon and here lies the greatest danger; not just in the characterisation of people living with poverty, but in their demonization. Intentionally or not, we are doing what Professor Ruth Lister calls ‘Othering’ The Poor: making them into 'convenient strangers', subject to ridicule, subject to reform, subject to ignorance.

In the current debate on welfare reform, people in poverty are casually labelled as economic burdens, or even bereft of morals. Popular polls, supposedly proving public support for cuts, are often cited by politicians and journalists as justification for reducing the welfare budget during “tough times”. Some of this commentary is contaminated with a hint of wrong-doing.

Lest readers see this blog as the ramblings of a soft liberal-type: waste and fraud is wrong and those who allow waste and commit crimes should be held to account. That said, according to the Department for Work & Pensions’ own figures, last year we overpaid 0.7% of the welfare budget due to fraud. Compare that with an estimated £70 billion lost through tax evasion. The entire out-of-work benefits bill is 3% of our gross domestic product.

So let’s keep calm, provide the evidence and tell the story of those ‘hard-working families’ (thought I’d borrow that phrase from the Politicians’ Book of Clichés) struggling with their daily lives. At JRF, we’ve taken a closer look at the people behind the percentages.

Seventy years on from the Beveridge Report, little appears to have changed in how we describe some of our fellow citizens – a theme to be developed by my boss, Julia Unwin, in her Toynbee Hall lecture later this month.

You’re familiar with the words “don’t be a shirker, best be a worker”. We all love a striver, never be a skiver. Cartoon clichés can reinforce Party political loyalties and help meet deadlines, more easily than carefully crafted, well-researched articles and broadcasts – to be clear, there are plenty of those around as well.

In her blog, my colleague Abigail Scott Paul talked about the risk of broadcasters’ in particular, resorting to lazy stereotypes of ‘problem families’ on ‘sink estates’. The inescapable conclusion being, these people are ‘A Problem to Society’.

Beware the shorthand, because the facts are often lost in translation and manipulation. As a Mr T. Blair nearly said, I’m not one for soundbites or quote-grabs, but it could appear, through the language we use, that we’re being tough on those in poverty and not looking closely enough at its causes.