Instead of trying to poke fun, lay blame and stigmatise people in poverty, let’s have a more constructive debate in the media, says Abigail Scott Paul.
The media spotlight is again on benefit claimants. My Big Benefits Family aired on Channel 5 last night, following fast on the heels of its sister series Benefits: Too Fat To Work. Yesterday, The Sun ran a double page spread on The Welfies awards for those ‘with talent for playing the benefits system’. Together, they entrench some of the most persistent myths about people living in poverty:
- People are better off on benefits than working. This is simply not true.
- People have large families in order to claim benefits. Actually, nearly 9 in 10 couple families with three or more dependent children have either one or both parents working.
- People on benefits are lazy and don’t want to work. In reality, 8 out of 9 people are looking for work or are prevented from doing so by their circumstances.
- People on benefits are defrauding the system. According to the Department for Work and Pensions, only 2.1 per cent of total benefit expenditure was overpaid due to error and fraud.
But however much we and others bust these myths, public debate remains divisive and misleading, pitting the "deserving" and "undeserving poor" against each other. TV programmes and so-called ‘poverty porn’ continue to treat ‘the poor’ as if they are a separate group of people with a completely different way of life.
Having watched My Big Benefits Family last night, it is hard to see any other point to the show than blaming and shaming the family that was featured in it. The Twitter reaction to it reflected a stereotyped view that poverty is simply caused by people’s bad choices.
And yet our most recent research on public attitudes shows that the public do not really believe that personal actions and choices are the root cause of poverty in the UK. Those who lived in areas of high deprivation felt that what others might view as poor choices and priorities could be seen as manifestations of the long-term structural and current economic barriers experienced by people living in poverty. In the words of one participant in Liverpool:
"There’s no money, no jobs, services are getting cut all the time. That’s what leads to crime, drug addiction, family breakdown. They’re the result of poverty, not the cause."
In the fight against poverty, public attitudes matter hugely. And while the public agrees that Britain has a problem with poverty, we need to need to move the debate on from the blame game to one that is positive and focused on solutions.
- JRF and Full Fact will be monitoring the statistics and narratives used by the media and politicians to describe people in poverty in the run-up to the General Election.