New Internationalist

Prejudice Against The Poor

Issue 115

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BIAS AND THE SOCIAL ORDER [image, unknown] How myths are spread

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Prejudice against the poor
'They spend their money on wrong things like bread and jam and then go out to bingo.' Most people are persuaded in the West that we have no poverty, and even if we have it must be the individuals own fault. So attention is diverted from those who are doing well within a system of social injustice. Peter Golding looks at the myths about the poor.

‘Primary poverty has been largely eliminated...The historic objective has, in Britain, largely been attained.’

THAT was the triumphant boast proclaimed in 1965 by social democratic theorist and British Labour Minister Anthony Crosland. It was a sadly premature judgement. But its legacy has been the dogma that poverty is yesterday’s problem, the guiding philosophy in recent years of every welfare state. If poverty remains, this vision implies, it is to be found either among small marginal groups in the population or is the just reward of wilful indolence.

Yet throughout the post-war period welfare spending has increased. The steady rise in the numbers of the elderly, the rapid increase in single parent families, and the failure of national insurance to provide even a poverty line income has pushed vast numbers down through the safety net onto rock bottom income maintenance schemes. In Britain social security spending in 1977 was 20 times its 1950 level, and together with social services accounted for over a quarter of all public expenditure. By the 1970s industrialised countries were spending far more than they ever expected on income maintenance, somewhere between 10 and 20 per cent of Gross Domestic Product. Yet an EEC survey in 1976 found that most Europeans denied that poverty existed.

This was not an easy paradox to explain away. Poverty had gone, cast into the dustbin of Victorian misery by the miraculous forces of industrial expansion and enlightened welfare administration. Yet at the same time the weary tax payer watched aghast as vast sums were channelled into solving a problem that was supposed not to exist The answer for the establishment was simple. We were spending too much on the wrong people. It was time to police the system back into line.

The cry is universal. The Reagan administration reassured voters that ‘the war on poverty has been won except for a few mopping up operations’. The new President’s Senior Domestic Policy Adviser wrote that the mopping up would include enforcing support of dependents by those who have the responsibility and are shirking it’. In Australia the crimes of 'dole bludgers' were a prominent feature of the 1975 election campaign, and newspapers were filled with outraged tales of ‘dole dollies’ shamelessly exploiting the largesse of the state. The new Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, got much mileage from accusing the Labour government of being soft on welfare cheats, and told Australians ‘life wasn’t meant to be easy’. Opinion polls showed that nearly half the Australian population thought the rise in unemployment was due to indolence among the young. In Canada in 1978 the government announced a million dollar advertising campaign to expose dole cheats. As Canadian unemployment hit peaks unprecedented since the Great Depression, television and newspaper commercials rammed home the message that welfare abuse was rife and had to be stamped out

These measures got widespread support. Some research carried out in Britain by myself and Sue Middleton, Images of Welfare, suggested why. In a major survey people were asked about wealth and poverty in Britain. When asked to describe who they had in mind when thinking of the rich, one in eight thought of royalty, especially the Queen, or ‘Lords and people like that’. Another major category of answers was that of pop stars or sports celebrities, either mentioned by name or generically. Only 6.2 per cent mentioned inherited wealth and 6.9 per cent mentioned owners of big business, shareholders or possessors of wealth as distinct from high incomes. Riches were generally seen to accrue from an unpredictable slice of good fortune (‘One just has to look around, after all you read in the papers about people winning premium bonds or football pools,’ said a 57 year old female clerical worker), from the due rewards for merit or effort, or from a skill with money and things financial beyond the scope of the less able.

When asked a similar question about the poor it was the elderly who were mentioned most frequently. Yet by 1979 only just over half of those living in or on the margins of poverty were pensioners. Many of those rejected the existence of poverty entirely. Few mentioned the low paid and the low paid themselves were the least likely to mention this group as in poverty. Yet even two million people live in households which earn their poverty were pensioners. Many of them cent above the state poverty line.

The majority of people felt the gap between rich and poor had diminished. Widespread faith in the egalitarian achievements of progressive taxation, generous social security, and aggressive wage bargaining by unstoppable trade unions buttressed a view of the world in which, as a teacher’s wife put it, ‘Professional people have been squeezed to help the poor.’ Nobody believes this more than the poor themselves. A 63 year old pensioner living on £22 ($44) a week was adamant that 'There’s no need for anyone to be poor if they go and ask for help.' The bias of the establishment has to be powerful for that pensioner not to recognise her own position.

People are of course aware of distant privilege and advantage, but they are aware more often of the new four-door station wagon outside the neighbour’s house or of a friend’s kids’ Disneyland souvenirs. Wealth and fortune are masked from view by the prevalent belief in the corrosive success of taxation. Such resentment as exists is aimed down at the feckless few at the bottom rather than upward at an invisible privileged stratum.

Our survey asked people about the causes of poverty. The largest category of answers made reference to the financial ineptitude of the poor: not managing household budgets very well, incurring ill-advised hire purchase commitments, not saving, and so on. Far more than any other reason poverty was seen to result from the failure of the poor to control money going out of the home, rather than from society’s failure to get a decent income into the home — a classic case of 'blaming the victim’. ‘Those who have no money must be inadequate,’ said a shopkeeper’s wife, ‘They spend their money on the wrong things living on jam and bread but then they go to bingo.’ The second most popular explanation was that in an open meritocracy such as ours the poor were simply those who lack the skills, intelligence or initiative to win a good wage in a competitive labour market. It is the kind of argument which tells 20 youngsters chasing the one job available that their chances will be improved if they get their hair cut and keep their hands out of their pockets at interviews. Thus on the one hand it is widely believed that little or no poverty persists, other than an unavoidable degree of hardship in old age. On the other hand, where poverty is recognised, it is explained in terms of the individual culpability of its victims. Far more people relate poverty to the incompetent spending of incomes rather than to an unfair distribution of income and wealth.

Not surprisingly a general scepticism about the extent of poverty nourishes a lively suspicion about the policies ostensibly designed to tackle it. In the same survey six out of ten people thought social security benefits were too generous and too easy to get. Nearly half thought too much was spent on welfare and social security, twice the proportion who thought too little was spent. Four people out of five thought too many people depend on welfare and seven out of ten felt welfare has made people lazy. The expansion of welfare is seen as a virus consuming the moral fibre of the nation. And the most avid believers are those on the margins of poverty themselves.

Living on the edge of the welfare state induces fears that are readily aroused at a time of economic recession, fears about welfare scroungers, the idle poor, and immigrants. Both welfare and race can freely tap veins of myth, stereotype and scapegoating that make the burden of national economic decline easier to bear.

Lacking an alternative comprehension of the causes and circumstances of poverty those on its margins feed desperately and divisively on the rich culture of contempt.

Bias in Britain against the poor operates in two ways. First, the mass media organise popular anxieties around a series of insistent themes, both strenuously denying the existence of real poverty (a figment of the misguided imagination of academics and dogooders) while replaying the motif of ‘scroungerphobia’. Hostility to social security claimants rose to a hysterical crescendo in the mid 1970s as a vast army of super-scroungers and dolecheats marched across the pages of the popular press. In 1976 no fewer than 31 per cent of all news stories in the British press dealing in any way with social security or social services were about ‘abuse’ of social security. This rediscovery of an ancient demon — the sturdy beggar, the vagabond, the rogue — played on a vibrant set of folks’ memories to create a orgy of resentment and moral contempt.

At the same time no platform has existed on which to raise the banner of the poor. The Left and social democratic press has been decimated by the inescapable economics of the modern newspaper industry, while the Labour Party right through the 1960s and 1970s clung to the dogma that poverty is residual, and can only be attacked through growth not through redistribution.

The result has been to turn the poor into the whipping-boys of recession. In a culture which draws little distinction between economic failure and moral inadequacy poverty is more expediently punished than alleviated. Latent antipathy to social security and claimants could be mobilised by the deep anxieties felt by many people. As net real incomes dropped by some 10 per cent between 1972 and 1976 and more low paid workers were dragged into the tax net (the threshold dropped from 58 per cent of average earnings in 1971/2 to 44 per cent in 1975/6), the numbers claiming social security were unavoidably increasing. It was not difficult to force attention onto the problem of ‘incentives’ rather than low pay, so that the deprived in work were encouraged to be outraged at the apparent affluence of those below them rather than the considerably more real advantages of the privileged above. The situation has intensified as taxation of the poor has increased.

Between 1978/9 and 1981/2 the combined tax and national insurance burden for those on half the average wages increased by 92 per cent, for those with five times the average wage the burden has been cut by 5 per cent.

Concerns like these made it easy for Britain’s Thatcher government to hack away at the incomes of the poor dependent on the welfare state. Major legislative changes in social security in 1980/81 will produce ‘savings’ in 1982/3 of about £1800 million. In the United States President Reagan, floating on the same moral tide, has sliced $1.8 billion off the 1982 food stamps programme.

Simultaneously the drive to police the poor has intensified. The number of prosecutions for social security offences rose from 7700 in 1970 to 26,100 by 1977. The emphasis on fraud was reflected in staff deployment. The number of special investigators grew from 248 in 1970 to 447 in 1978. Redeployment of local office staff produced an increase in those working on fraud from about 600 in 1975 to over 1000 in 1978. The number of Unemployment Review Officers, the officers concerned with rooting out ‘work-shyness’, has been rapidly enlarged from 300 in 1978 to 880 by 1980. The process was accelerated in February 1980 when the Conservative administration announced a number of anti-fraud measures including the redeployment of 450 staff and an additional 600 staff to work in fraud and abuse investigation.

The selective concerns of authoritative morality can be judged by noting the estimated £5175 million ($10 billion) of untaxed income in the ‘black economy’ in 1980/81, and the increasing sums (£73 millions/$ 140 million in 1980) of evaded tax written off by the Inland Revenue as irrecoverable. In 1980 the Inland Revenue Staff Federation estimated total income tax evasion as between £1000 million and £3000 million ($2 billion to $6 billion), compared to detected social security fraud of £4 million. Yet the number of Inland Revenue fraud staff has repeatedly been cut, and costs less than one fifth of social security fraud investigations.

Unemployment in the richest 24 countries in the world is now 28.5 million, and will probably soar to 35 million in just three years time. It will be an uphill struggle for the prevailing ideology to disguise the hardship this causes.

The poor have been a nuisance, a threat and a financial burden throughout history, and explaining their continuing and irritating presence has been a persistent problem for the ideologists of capitalism. Earlier centuries have classified, victimised and criminalised the poor. The supreme achievement of 'welfare capitalism' has been to render the causes and conditions of poverty almost invisible. In a society so firmly gripped in an ethic of competition and reward failure must be seen to be morally culpable. Blaming the victim remains the framework for our conception of poverty, the justification for our bias against the poor.

Peter Golding is Research Associate at the Centre
of Mass Communications, University of
Leicester and co-author with Sue Middleton of
Images of Welfare.

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