I spoke to a campaigner about the demonisation of the welfare state.
Collage by Marta Parszeniew
Benefit claimants tend to get a pretty hard time. In 1989, 60 percent of the British population agreed that the government should spend more on welfare; in 2011, support had dropped to below 30 percent and looks set to continue plummeting. Is this part of Thatcher’s legacy – the fruition of an ideology that encouraged us all to compete and regard those at the bottom as lazy and feckless? Or a symptom of Daily Mail demonising and shows like Gypsies On Benefits & Proud, which are essentially those headlines stretched out into primetime programming?
Whatever the reason, things aren’t looking good. A report published on Tuesday found that nearly a million people living on benefits have been abused because of their financial situation, with over 200,000 claiming to have been physically attacked. Responding to the report on Twitter, one user wrote that her husband had been called a lazy cripple for being on benefits; another claimed to have been called a scrounger while they were out in their wheelchair.
I called Katharine Sacks-Jones, head of policy and campaigns at Crisis UK – and spokesperson for the campaign group Who Benefits?, which commissioned the report – for her take on its results.
VICE: Were you shocked about what you found out from this survey?
Katharine Sacks-Jones: We were shocked, but we sadly weren’t surprised. We’ve heard these kinds of stories before – people facing discrimination and abuse – and we wanted to look into it further with the research. What we found was pretty horrific. Hundreds of thousands of people were telling us they’d faced discrimination – they’d faced verbal abuse and, in some cases, physical abuse as well. And it’s not even just them – people are telling us that their children are being bullied at school.
Did the respondents specifically say that they were attacked because they were on benefits?
Yes, that’s exactly what we asked. It wasn’t just, "Is this something that’s happened to you coincidentally?" It was asking, "Do you face any abuse as a result of being on benefits?" So, on the discrimination front, what people told us was that they struggle to access housing because landlords often won’t let to people on benefits. Many of us will have seen "no DSS" on the ads for housing – DSS is an old term for Department of Social Security, but some people still use that on the ads. It’s nothing to do with people not being able to pay the rent, it’s just discrimination, plain and simple.
That's presumably got to make people feel marginalised.
Lots of people were saying about how it made them feel – how they were made to feel like the dregs of society, in one woman’s words. For most people, needing support from benefits can be quite demoralising, and to have that compounded by feeling that people are looking at you in a certain way and making judgements about you, and that slipping over into discrimination and abuse, just makes the situation worse for people.
One woman told us that she’d had to flee from an abusive partner with her children, had needed housing benefit, got it and really welcomed the support and benefits, but couldn’t find a landlord who would let to her because so many people – landlords and letting agents – turned her away simply because she was in receipt of benefits, even if she could pay the rent. One 62-year-old man suffering from a heart condition and a lung condition, who's unable to work, says he’s been verbally abused and shouted at in the street.
Yeah, I read about people being victim to that kind of thing.
Since we’ve launched the report, many people have shared similar stories via social media of being shouted at, being attacked and their children facing bullying just because they receive benefits. One of the women who shared her story on Twitter had a walking stick and said people on the bus had said ‘you’re obviously putting it on’.
There seems to be a bit of conflicting evidence on this on both sides. One side says attitudes towards benefits claimants have softened in the last few years, the other says attitudes have become gradually more negative since the late-1980s. Which side is right?
There might have been a slight upturn in attitudes in the last survey, but if you look at trends the British Social Attitudes Survey shows people's views getting a lot tougher towards people on benefits. There was a little bit of an upturn in support for people on benefits during the last recession in the late-1990s, but this time people haven’t got more sympathetic.
What do you think has caused that?
I think it’s really complicated to identify what the cause is. There seems to be a kind of vicious circle, which is between public opinion, political dialogue and the way the media portrays things. As each one of these toughens over time, they reinforce each other. It’s hard to point out causally what’s happened, but that seems to be the trend we’ve seen in recent decades.
A few headlines that don't seem very keen on benefit claimants (Photo via)
What kind of role has the media played?
Some in the media choose to highlight some real extreme examples of benefit claimants, and that has a big impact on where the debate is going. In some of the shock TV programming, and in some news outlets, there does seem to be a trend towards presenting people on very low incomes in a very negative light – so-called "poverty porn". I think that’s a really worrying trend, and we do see that feeding through into people actually facing discrimination and abuse.
It seems you only have to open a newspaper or turn on the TV these days to see some extreme case of someone on benefits. What we never hear is the reality of over 5 million people on benefits who need the support and who are in low paid work, have lost their jobs or have become ill. They just don’t get a hearing at all. Instead, there’s this kind of continual focus on extreme cases in shows like Benefits Street – that’s all we seem to hear.
The truth of the matter – far more mundane, as it is – is that the vast majority of people who need support from benefits are just anyone who’s had a bit of bad luck and need to get back on their feet, or are people who’ve got longer term conditions and need the support in order to live with dignity. It can’t be right that we live in a society where losing your job means you’re shouted at in the street, or being ill meaning that your kids face abuse at school.
More stuff about this kind of stuff: