Playing into the populists’ hands

John-HoughtonThose of us opposed to the coalition’s spending cuts in the poorest parts of the country need to be careful about the language we use when describing their impact.

Talking about ‘meltdown’ and social desolation plays into the populists’ hands. They’re the ones, in the parliamentary briefing rooms and right-wing tabloids, who want to present every benefit recipient as a feckless free-loader, entirely dependent on the imaginary largesse of the state. And every poor neighbourhood as a de facto ghetto filled with the underclass of ‘Broken Britain’.

Accepting their premise, that people on benefits are hopelessly dependent on the state and have no resourcefulness or resilience of their own, does a deep disservice to people living in poverty.

I’ve been concerned about this danger in how we use language when arguing against the cuts since David Blunkett warned, in 2011, that the abolition of the area based grant was would lead to a ‘post-Soviet’ meltdown and ‘scavenging on the streets’ in his native Sheffield.

Politicians use hyperbole to dramatise their point, and Blunkett must care deeply about the people in the city he still represents.

Yet the idea that Labour councils had created mini-Soviets, using benefits and grants to buy the servitude of their citizens, is a fantasy right out of the comments section of the Mail Online.

If we accept the idea of hopeless dependence in deprived areas we give credence to the populist idea that ‘these people’ need a kick up the arse as an introduction to the real world.

The risk is even greater now because, with the cuts coming into force, the language I hear is even more apocalyptic.

None of what I’m saying is an attempt to downplay the real misery and pain that the cuts will cause. The bedroom tax – or ‘spare room subsidy’ as Iain Duncan-Smith and Cameron tried in vain to re-spin it – is a particularly mean-spirited and spiteful change, causing widespread anxiety for the sake of a tiny, theoretical saving.

Yet I often go back to the best book I’ve ever read about poverty, welfare and their human implications when thinking about the real-world implications of benefit cuts.

Jason DeParle’s American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare tells the story of America’s radical, Republican-inspired welfare reforms of the 1990s and their impact on Angie, Jewell ad Opal, the three women of the title.

In essence, the reforms made benefits conditional on some form of work. It’s hard to generalise as the reforms were implemented at state level, with huge variation. Some states sought to abolish all benefits and make the poor the responsibility of churches and charities. ‘God, not government, will be the saviour of welfare recipients’, declared the Republican governor of Mississippi. Democrat states were more likely to tie benefits to education and training leading to work, as opposed to a crude model of workfare.

In the run-up to the changes, the debate had split on equally predictable partisan lines. Republicans welcomed the day when ‘welfare mommas’ would have to stop getting high, sleeping around and leeching off the taxpayer. Democrats and liberals warned of dire consequences, of mass pauperisation, of children sleeping rough on grates for warmth.

What really happened, as DeParle demonstrates in remarkable detail, fitted neither ideological template. Angie, Jewell and Opal, like millions of others, did what they always did to get by. They helped each other, with childcare, with favours, with their own skills. They worked, sometimes legit, sometimes not, often both at the same time.

When the support given to them by one prop, the state, was reduced they lent a bit more heavily on the other props they’d built up over the years; family, friends, favours and their own fortitude. That’s the necessary reality of a life lived managing the weighty burden of the rest of society above you.

They were never as dependent on the state as the right had fanatically feared or the left had shamefully assumed.

A different time, a different place, a different political culture, I know. But there’s something in DeParle’s analysis that we shouldn’t forget today.

The cuts are hurting. That’s what cuts do; they slash beyond the social fabric into human blood and muscle.

We shouldn’t downplay the pain they will cause. But nor should we paint such an apocalyptic picture that we legitimise the pernicious idea that people living in poverty are hopelessly dependent on already meagre benefits. That would be an even greater assault on the dignity of the poor than anything George Osborne can come up with.


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Peter Smith
Peter Smith
10 years ago

An interesting read John, Thanks.
A most annoying negative potrayal I see regularly are on the adverts about benefits cheats. These show a young man or woman jumping out of a van or car after a days work. They go home or into a pub and then the sinister music starts and we fed a voice over about how they have been deceiving us all and we should make sure we call in and report any such behaviour.
What is not requested is any follow up on anyone else involved – what about the builder or hairdresser who are employing these people for cash, no national insurance paid; what about the people who are happy to get their hair done cheaply or who employ a local builder and expect a discount for cash with no VAT paid?

John P. Houghton
John P. Houghton
10 years ago
Reply to  Peter Smith

Hi Peter,

Thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog.

Yours is a version of the theme I was talking about; the misrepresentation of people living on benefits / low incomes. In the cases I was describing, they are portrayed as helpless – and by insinuation, hapless – victims. In the cases you describe, they are dodgy cheats.

Both very damaging and unfair.


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