In the latest of a regular series of columns from the Poverty Alliance, Peter Kelly raises the issue of language and stereotypes in welfare, and the impact of damaging use by the UK Government and media.
It is quite clear now that the gloves are off for the UK coalition Government in respect to welfare. The budget in June this year highlighted very clear the direction they intended to take the welfare system. Capping Housing Benefit and freezing Child Benefit gave us an indication of what was to come. At the same time, restricting child tax credits to those with an income above £40,000 was presented as evidence of the fairness of the first round of cuts. The decision to end Child Benefit payments has been presented in much the same way.
But this was just the opening act. The real impact came in the announcement of the savage cuts that were part of the Comprehensive Spending Review.
A 12-month time limit on the Employment Support Allowance clearly identifies the nature of the welfare system that is desired. This is coupled with a proposed 10% cut in council tax benefit for those who have been claiming for more than a year than one year. In addition rules are going to be changed to increase the number of hours couples need to work to be eligible for working tax credits.
So much for family friendly policies or work life balance!
Of course we could have expected these cuts. The coalition has been nothing but consistent in their focus on cutting the deficit. However, as many others have pointed out, the changes announced go beyond efforts to drive down the deficit. What is taking place is an effort to change the relationship between the individual and the state. And with this effort comes a tougher language that emphasises the responsibilities of individuals to look after themselves, and a language the plays down the role of thestate in ensuring that everyone can lead a dignified life.
Returning to the language of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving poor’ is an essential part of changing this relationship between the individual and the state. If comprehensive, collective responses to social inequity are to be dismantled, then we need to show that only some are deserving of support. It is increasingly clear that for many Government Ministers in the future the basis of how we support our fellow citizens should be based not on their needs, but on the moral worth of their claim.
This goes well beyond the language of ‘rights and responsibilities’ or ‘hard working families’ that the previous Labour Government deployed. In the months leading up to the publication of Iain Duncan- Smith’s ‘radical’ welfare reform proposals we have seen the increasing use of language that demonises people on low incomes and the places they live.
From Jeremy Hunt’s attacks on the irresponsibility of people with large families who live on low incomes, or the Chris Grayling’s use of private credit rating companies to look into the spending patterns of those on benefits, Government Ministers are keeping up a consistent attack on those living on benefits.
And of course, much of the mainstream media happily falls into line, using the same language as that used by the Government. Radio 4 is as happy to use the misleading notion of ‘welfare ghetto’s’ as the Daily Mail is to repeatedly refer to benefit scroungers.
But in the midst of the deepest cuts to public spending and a radical programme of welfare reform, should be we really be too concerned about how the Government and media describe poverty and ‘the poor’? It would be a mistake to ignore this language. It makes it more difficult to defend the services that people on low incomes need, and to argue for more resources to address poverty and inequality.
It also has a real effect on those living on low incomes, stripping people of the dignity and respect to which they are entitled. It’s time for our politicians and media to ditch this stereotypical talk, and treat everyone, regardless of their income, like humans.