The Challenge of Challenging Poverty Myths

Stephen Sinclair, Glasgow Caledonian University

Most people in Britain are ignorant about poverty and welfare. This might sound rather superior or even sneering coming from an academic paid to study social policies. However the point is not to boast but clarify what is involved in challenging poverty and in particular prevailing false beliefs about it.

Evidence of the scale of misconceptions about poverty and those who experience it in Britain is well established and abundant. For example, about one third of people in Britain believe that more is spent on Jobseeker’s Allowance than on old age pensions. In fact £4.9 billion is spent each year on JSA compared with £74.2 billion on pensions. This is not merely a slight overestimate, it is the opposite of the case by a factor of 15. Similarly, the public grossly over-estimates the scale of social security fraud and abuse: 75% of respondents to the 2013Scottish Social Attitudes survey believed that ‘large numbers of people falsely claim benefits’ and estimate that about one third of all benefit spending is lost on fraudulent claims. However the UK government estimates that about only 0.7% of the total benefit bill is fraudulently claimed, compared to 2% lost due to administrative error.

It is important to try to correct such mistakes and not allow misleading claims or outright falsehoods to pass unchallenged. There are several excellent fact-checking sites and cases where Social Policy academics or campaigning organisations have rebutted misrepresentations of poverty and policy. Important examples of this include the work of the Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey team correcting some of the misleading claims which underpin the UK Government’s Troubled Families programme or Fran Bennet’s critique of Iain Duncan Smith’s commitment to redefine ‘child poverty’ as defective behaviour rather than a matter of resources and opportunities. A particularly notable example of challenging damaging and misleading images of poverty is the Poverty Alliance’s Stick Your Labels campaign, which has secured widespread political support in Scotland to avoid stigmatising language and portrayals of people experiencing poverty. Such responses will always be valuable and must continue, and providing evidence to challenge misrepresentations and ill-considered views is an important academics duty.

However ‘fact’ checking and corrections are not enough to challenge some of the views and accounts of poverty which have a hold on the British imagination. Some of the opinions on this issue are so wide of the mark and so firmly held that evidence alone cannot shift them. Some Social Policy academics have noted persistent indestructible zombie theories and concepts – ideas that somehow still remain alive, stumbling through the public mind and policy debates no matter how much evidence is produced to kill them off. A common example is the idea that poverty is attributable to a disaffected underclass or to young people who lack aspirations (as opposed to understanding just how firmly the odds are stacked against them). The resilience of some false beliefs means that they should be regarded as myths, i.e. ‘a conviction false yet tenacious’. Myths are not corrected by evidence nor shaken by argument. In fact contrary evidence is rejected as biased, and challenging arguments are dismissed, for example as the rhetoric of ivory tower academics detached from the ‘real’ world. In dismissing some public attitudes as myths there is a danger again of appearing disdainful, but in the face of intransigent resistance to evidence this risk must be faced. We might support a plurality of values in society and protect the equal right of all to express their views in welfare debates, but there is no democracy over facts. The challenge is that facts about poverty and welfare do not ‘speak for themselves’, they are filtered through frames of interpretation. These filter what people are able or willing to see. Such frames are not themselves questioned; in fact it takes a considerable effort even to realise that everyone sees the world through the frames we each have acquired. As George Orwell observed ‘To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle’; most people are not willing to make the effort.

Therefore, in one sense it is pointless to try to ‘correct’ or rebut myths; they should be regarded as something to be studied and explained[1]. This does not seem to provide much comfort for those trying to challenge mistaken views and false beliefs about poverty. However one implication is that is if we decide to wait for British public opinion to swing behind a commitment to seriously reduce poverty we could be waiting a long time. Instead of waiting for public support to catch up with the facts of poverty, political leadership is required to do what is right even if it might not currently be popular. The previous Labour government deserves some credit for showing such leadership: if they had waited for public concern to become animated then they would not have introduced the measures which contributed to reducing poverty among older people, which had been one of the greatest sources of the risk of poverty for about 50 years after WWII. Similarly, the pledge made in 1999 – and now effectively abandoned by the current UK government – to eradicate child poverty within a generation was not made in response to popular demand, although it proved popular when it was drawn to the public’s attention. It may be politic to wait for opinions to shift, but when the evidence is compelling and public opinions are based on ignorance and intransigent prejudice it is not ethical and certainly not courageous. If we always took that safe course then not only would there be no equal right to marriage in Britain but homosexuality would still be criminalised. Understandably, politicians would prefer to do not only what is right but also what is popular. Unfortunately, when it comes to challenging poverty in Britain this is a luxury that may be paid for by the avoidable suffering of those who most need protection from the misinformed and mystified.

[1] As I try to do in my forthcoming book: An Introduction to Social Policy Analysis: Illuminating Welfare (Policy Press).

Dr Stephen Sinclair is Reader in Social Policy at Glasgow Caledonian University