By Daniel Silver, Co-Director, Social Action & Research Foundation

“There has never been less sympathy for people on welfare benefits…Just 19 per cent believe benefits are too low and are causing hardship….It shows that the public now accepts that locking people into the benefits system is not just costly and wasteful: it is also socially destructive and immoral.”
(Daily Telegraph, September 2012)

There is a huge gap between perception and reality that is shaping the wider public debate about the government’s increasingly punitive welfare reform agenda. Research by YouGov showed that the average public perception is that 41% of Britain’s social security budget goes on benefits to unemployed people, when the fact is that just 3% does. The reality simply doesn’t fit with the government’s rhetoric on ‘scroungers’ but the public widely believe it.

We must ask ourselves how this has happened. It is important.

The media clearly have a major responsibility in shaping public attitudes. The BBC3 programme ‘People like Us’ broadcast last year was advertised as depicting ‘real’ life in Harpurhey, north Manchester. However it received strong criticism from local residents, one of whom, Richard Searle described it as: “Jeremy Kyle-style, laugh-at-the-chavs type of television.”

Beyond these sensationalised programmes, the reality is that people who receive social security are people like us – research by the New Policy Institute showed that 40% of all working families with children were receiving benefits in 2012. However the consistent flow of information through the media creates a different perception in the minds of the wider public. Indeed, even people who are on benefits tend to distance themselves from those identified as ‘scroungers.’ Research by Shildrick and MacDonald showed that such dissociation from ‘the poor’ reflects long-running stigma and shame but is given extra force by current forms of ‘scroungerphobia’

Panorama’s “Don’t Cap My Benefits” was the latest in the production line of TV programmes that have focused on people receiving benefits. These programmes are perpetuating powerful myths, which resonate with the government’s welfare reform agenda: that our society is made up of scroungers that don’t deserve social security and life must be made tougher for them as they are a drain on the economy and public purse, and need incentives to work.

This is consistent with a view of the world that blames people for their own poverty.

The influential American political theorist Charles Murray identified an underclass of people who are not “merely poor, but often at the margins of society, unsocialised and often violent.” This focuses on stereotypes that explain poverty not through economic factors and social inequality, but rather as a result of the flawed characteristics of people living in poverty. However, the evidence shows that the majority of people want to work, but are often stuck within a cycle of low-pay and no-pay – forced into ‘welfare dependency’ by the labour market and not due to a particular lifestyle choice.

Imogen Tyler, Co-director of the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies, explains how stereotypes and stigmatisation are to be understood through their increasing use as a means of control as inequality rises and social security is eroded. Instead of challenging the government, scapegoats become the main focus of anger from the public. Through recent times, we have seen “refugees transformed into bogus asylum-seekers, unemployed young people into feckless chavs [and] people with disabilities into welfare cheats.” According to Tyler, such classifications of undeserving people “cut deep into popular consciousness, [and] are transformed into symbolic and material scapegoats for the social decomposition effected by market deregulation that has a negative, degrading impact upon us all.”

There is a role for the voluntary and community sector (VCS) in being able to challenge these damaging myths. People living and working in communities that are depicted in such crude (and at times inhuman) ways, know that the realities are very different to that shown to us through television screens and in the newspapers. The VCS has a particularly powerful part to play in supporting people desperately trying to find work, or who are struggling to put food on the table; it provides emergency relief for people who have been sanctioned through an increasingly cruel and irrational system; it works with incredible people who have overcome unbelievable challenges in their lives to succeed in spite of the huge inequalities in our society. Many people in the VCS know that these welfare reforms are socially destructive and immoral.

A journalist once told me that the media are not interested in covering poverty. If they wanted to, they could easily find it. However, these stories must be heard. The voluntary and community sector need to become more annoying and begin to demand attention in different ways – otherwise we could see our collective social security eroded further and further until we simply have no safety net left.

The media do make a difference in shaping public awareness of the realities of welfare reform. They shouldn’t just be left to it.