Why it’s time to tell a new story about UK poverty

With an MP’s comments about unemployed people and benefits sparking outrage, Nicky Hawkins of the FrameWorks Institute looks at how this affects public attitudes to poverty.

Conservative MP Ben Bradley apologised last week for his remarks about a "vast sea of unemployed wasters" and for suggesting benefit claimants should have vasectomies.

Bradley also faced criticism for saying public sector workers should quit if they don't think they're paid enough.

It’s natural to feel outraged by news stories like this. They tap into a deep – and justified – concern about the demonisation of people experiencing poverty. The fact that Ben Bradley has recently been tasked with improving the Conservative Party’s image adds an element of farce. It’s a story that’s ripe for indignant social media sharing.

But why does this story make us feel the way that we do and why did Bradley feel that these were appropriate remarks to make?

Understanding public attitudes to poverty

At the FrameWorks Institute we’re completing a two-year investigation into public attitudes to poverty in the UK for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. We are trying to get a better understanding of why people say and think the things that they do about poverty. Our findings add some important dimensions and depth to this furore.

While many of us feel that Ben Bradley’s views are offensive and upsetting, he is far from alone in holding them. At some level, we all hold ideas that his underlying message taps into.

Our research reveals the dominant patterns of thinking about a given issue. When it comes to poverty in the UK, there is widespread belief that an individual’s success or failure is the sole product of their motivation and choices. These deep beliefs are held by those in Bradley’s party, but also among those across the ideological perspective. It’s why the steady diet of stories featuring ‘strivers' and ‘scroungers’ has proved so effective in building support for welfare cuts.

How does righteous outrage affect public attitudes?

The problem is that when people express righteous outrage in reaction to Bradley’s statements several things happen to public attitudes:

  1. Arguing against the idea of ‘self-makingness’ actually activates this idea of self-makingness. Pushing back against the idea of ‘unemployed wasters’ reminds people of their deep-seated belief that we all make our own fates in life – even those who might not like Ben Bradley’s particular choice of words.
  2. Over time and through repetition, the ways that these comments are debated bolsters the very ideas and beliefs that people think they are contesting.
  3. It tells people who do identify with Bradley that you think they are wrong, which alienates whole groups of people and amplifies social and cultural divisions.
  4. It projects a moral superiority that makes people who are undecided about these issues feel self-conscious about their indecision. It prompts them to disengage from the debate in order to preserve their self-image.

There’s plenty to be concerned about when it comes to rising levels of poverty in the UK. But instead of feeding our outrage and sowing further division, let’s channel our energy into telling a new story.

We’ll be discussing our findings at launch events in London and Edinburgh next week.