Challenging The Misconceptions about Poverty

Lesley Brennan

18 April 2013

Tackling poverty lacks whole-hearted public approval because it runs up against the negative perception of poverty and welfare benefits held by a  significant number of people.

There are some who regard poverty as too often being self-inflicted, plagued by drugs, and sustained  by laziness

My friend and council colleague, Laurie Bidwell , has already drawn attention to these  misconceptions (link) that I shall return to later in this article.

Today, the choice of a handful of extreme examples of benefit provision is being used to  shape the public debate and to form the basis of a government policy to reduce the benefits of millions .

However, what are the facts ?

Take, for example,  large families, where media stories dwell on a welfare system allegedly offering a lot more than a helping hand to a few such families.

However, here is a table (from the Department of the Works and Pensions) of the number of families in the whole of Britain in receipt of all out-of-work benefits :

Families in Britain in receipt of out-of-work benefits by number of dependent children

Number of dependent children Number of families
1 624,800
2 419,370
3 194,220
4 76,310
5 25,980
6 8,780
7 3,200
8 1,080
9 360
10 130
11 30
12 10
13 10



How characteristic are,say,those families with 8 or more children of the typical British family ?

Certainly not typical at all.

To take just one figure, in 2011, according to the Office of National Statistics, there were 4.6 million married couple families with dependent children in the UK.

Another misconception of the plight of the poor is  that they are poor because they choose not to work.

The name Olivier de Schutter is a name that does not spring quickly to mind.

Neither does his title “United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food” .

He visited the UK earlier this year to address a meeting organised by the Food Bank Charity, the Trussell Trust.

According to the Huffington Post, “ It is the working poor that most concern him, the fact that 62% of children in poverty are living in families where at least one of the parents has a job is ‘very striking’ ”

He said this was very worrying.

 “ It is really unacceptable. It shows wages are too low, people have to work part-time and not by choice, or that minimum wage legislation is not adequate. But it is worrying to see that in a country like the UK, “ he said.

He did not say that these parents are poor because of personal irresponsibility.

The reasons he cited refer to government policy and market forces..

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF)  produced a report last year indicating that in the UK there were over 6 million people who lived in households  where people worked could be classified living in poverty .

This number had overtaken the 5 million unemployed people living in poverty.

JRF’s Chief Executive Julia Unwin, described the level of in-work poverty as

" the most distinctive characteristic of poverty today".

Another misconception of the poor is that they “don’t try hard enough”

When there 4 Job Seekers Allowance for every registered job vacancy in Britain , this misrepresentation just founders .

People cannot try harder when there are no jobs for them.

Those who stand accused of not trying hard enough are the UK Government who have not tried hard enough to maintain jobs directly in the public sector or create them indirectly in the private sector  through large-scale public sector infrastructure projects.

Laurie Bidwell’s article refers to earlier contains details of a TUC-sponsored poll revealing the noticeable gap “between popular opinion and reality” on matters such as the value of unemployment benefits, what proportion on benefit spending does frauds account for, and the amount of the welfare budget spent on benefits for the unemployed.

A TUC-sponsored UK poll conducted by You Gov has exposed a significant gap between popular opinion and reality about matters such as the value of unemployment benefits, the proportion of fraud and the percentage of the welfare budget spent on cash benefits for unemployed people.

Here are the relevant passages from Laurie’s article :

 These differences between popular opinion and reality are about important current issues and what's more the misconceptions are held by a significant proportion of the electorate; us.

For example, this
poll revealed that:

"On average people think that 41 per cent of the entire welfare budget goes on benefits to unemployed people, while the true figure is 3 per cent.

On average people think that 27 per cent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently, while the government's own figure is 0.7 per cent.

On average people think that almost half the people (48 per cent) who claim Jobseeker's Allowance go on to claim it for more than a year, while the true figure is just under 30 per cent (27.8 per cent).

On average people think that an unemployed couple with two school-age children would get £147 in Jobseeker's Allowance - more than 30 per cent higher than the £111.45 they would actually receive - a £35 over-calculation.

Only 21 per cent of people think that this family with two school-age children would be better off if one of the unemployed parents got a 30 hour a week minimum wage job, even though they would actually end up £138 a week better off. Even those who thought they would be better off only thought on average they would gain by £59."

Laurie’s figures are reinforced by those in the report by the Joint Public Affairs Team >>>

These misconceptions arise through the actions of a relatively few dysfunctional indolent individuals or families being repeatedly portrayed by some politicians  as representing the typical behaviour of poor people in general.

Left out of this distorted analysis of poverty are the lives of the struggling millions of members of working poor and unemployed families which rarely receive their deserved attention as this would be at odds with the political agenda of portraying the extravagant as the norm for those on benefits.

While negative stereotypes of those on benefits circulate , these people do not answer back because they do not have the means to do so.

The political solution to poverty is an economic one, an employment-led one.

Expanding the economy to create jobs to provide a more secure economic future would also change personal behaviour – with a positive outcome for the individual, the family and the rest of all in society.

The creation of good quality full-time jobs is at the centre of that expansion of the economy, replacing the hardship that comes with zero hours contracts, underemployment and in-work poverty.

The remedy for poverty remains a good, well-paid, full-time job.


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