Poverty Myths


In a recent column for The Scotsmani, the former Labour minister Brian Wilson highlights important research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, showing how people’s attitudes to poverty have changed over the years.

I want to look at this research – and Wilson’s column – from a values and frames perspectiveii.

I will outline the main findings of the JRF research. I will argue that the attitudes expressed in the research arise from a weakening of progressive values and a strengthening of conservative ones.

I will argue that Wilson’s reaction to the research reflects how conservative values have been strengthened in the leadership of the Labour party – and therefore among Labour supporters.

Finally, I will argue that if we are to change attitudes to poverty and social protection, we need to express progressive values through consistent, authentic frames.

The JRF research found that, over the last three decades, the attitudes of people in Britain towards social security and people in poverty have come closer together.

Unfortunately, they are uniting around much a harder set of attitudesiii.

Two-thirds of the public now identify an explanation for child poverty that relates to the characteristics and behaviour of parents, compared to the 28% who say it is down to broader social issues. 

Fifteen per cent of the public in 1994 thought people lived in need because of laziness or lack of willpower, compared to 23% in 2010. Support for the view that people live in poverty because of injustice in society fell from 29% to 21% over the same time period.

I would argue that this is a result of people’s attitudes being influenced by strengthened conservative values. Conservatives believe that morality is based around authority and self discipline. It has been argued that these values give rise to the following principlesiv:

All of us are individually responsible for our own destiny. If you succeed, it’s because you deserve it; if you fail, it’s your own fault. You’re on your own, and you should be. No coddling.

With enough self-discipline, everyone can pull himself or herself up by the bootstraps. The government has no responsibility to help people who have fallen behind, because it’s their own fault, caused by lack of discipline and morality. Charity is an act of individual virtue, not a responsibility of government.

Cognitive psychologists argue that we all have a mix of conservative and progressive valuesv. Some of these values are stronger in certain people than others. And they can be strengthened in individuals over time when framing – language, images and metaphor – is used to engage them.

The JRF research shows that people’s attitudes were once much more closely based on progressive values. This has changed. I would argue that is because conservative forces have been successful in creating frames that engage conservative values, strengthening them over time and weakening progressive values.

Research supports this theory, finding that rising stigma of people on benefits is probably linked to negative frames found in the mediavi.

In his column, Wilson acknowledges this theory:

It is easy to find explanations for this: the steady drips of Daily Mail poison against benefit claimants, the bogus figures exemplified by Iain Duncan Smith’s latest humiliation at the hands of the UK Statistics Authority, and so on.

But Wilson then goes on to say that people’s hardening views on poverty and social protection are also a result of their direct experience.

…it would be delusionary to conclude that none of the attitudinal changes stem from valid sources rather than from the success of right-wing propagandists. Indeed, that would be insulting to those who have formulated their views on the basis of experience.

By saying that this hardening of attitudes is based on ‘valid sources’, I would argue that Wilson has himself been influenced by strengthened conservative values around poverty. If people’s changed attitudes are valid, then the conservative values that they are based on must also have validity. By putting forward that argument in a public forum, Wilson is not only expressing attitudes based on conservative values, he is actually contributing to the strengthening of those values himself.

When conservative values are strengthened, progressive ones are weakened.

Wilson says the research shows that ‘there is a limited public appetite for welfarism’. The use of ‘-ism’ is interesting. It frames support for welfare state as an ideological belief – a totem of faith – rather than a practical implementation of progressive values. By supporting social protection, we are no longer progressives – we are ‘welfarists’.

But if we are to move beyond ‘welfarism’, what should we do? Wilson makes some policy proposals.

…everything points in the direction of investment in breaking the cycle of inter-generational dependency on the benefits system.

Rightly or wrongly, the conclusion many reach is that [unemployment] is a matter of choice, underpinned by benefits, rather than exclusion. The way to address that is… by investing in our own vocational education.

It is interesting to note here that empirical evidence has proved that ‘inter-generational dependency on the benefits system’ is largely a myth. Research – also by the JRFvii – has shown that examples of two generations of complete worklessness in the same family are very rare. The JRF researchers could find no examples at all of three generations of worklessness in the same family.

The ‘culture of worklessness’ is a frame used to strengthen conservative values and weaken the progressive values that our social security is based on. It is telling that Wilson has accepted this frame to the extent that he puts forward concrete policy proposals for a problem which, research shows, largely does not exist.

Wilson’s second policy proposal suggests that unemployment can be solved by individuals undergoing extra training. Again, this is not supported by empirical evidence. Unemployment is a product of our economy, and no amount of vocational education will provide work for everyone in an economy where there are eight JSA claimants for every vacancy in Scotland, rising to 40 claimants per vacancy in West Dunbartonshireviii.

Both these policy proposals show the influence of strengthened conservative values on Wilson’s own attitudes. Both proposals look at poverty and worklessness as being the responsibility of individuals. They are an expression of the conservative ‘bootstraps’ principle.

Although Wilson is no longer an elected representative of the Labour party, I believe his expression of conservative values is an example of the party leadership’s change in values over the years.

It is no surprise then, that the change in values of the party leadership has been followed by a change in values – and therefore attitudes – among the party’s supporters.

The JRF research says that the hardening of attitudes to poverty are most marked among Labour supporters: just 27% of supporters cite social injustice as the main cause, down from 41% in 1986; while those identifying laziness and willpower rose from 13% to 22%.

Labour supporters also increasingly hold the view that welfare recipients are undeserving (from 21% in 1987 to 31% in 2011) and that the welfare state encourages dependency; some 46% say if benefits were not as generous, people would learn to stand on their own feet, up from 16% in 1987.

To many of us on the left, these attitudes are largely alien. Whatever party we belong to, whatever tradition we are part of, we hold common progressive values that underpin our politics.

We have empathy for other people – we feel a connection and a kinship with others and we see recognise that our lives and our well-being are intimately bound up with theirs. And from that empathy, we feel responsibility – to work with each other for the betterment of us all.

From these two fundamental values, some principles flow. We want to protect ourselves and those around us. We want everyone to lead meaningful, productive lives. We want freedom, and opportunity and fairness. We want equality, because our empathy extends to everyone. We want shared prosperity, so that everyone has an income that allows them to lead a socially-acceptable life. And we want a strong sense of community, because we believe that no-one can achieve all these things on their own.

If we want to change people’s attitudes around poverty and social protection, a values and frames approach suggests doing so from the basis of these fundamental values. These values are powerful and have underpinned major societal change through history. We should not be afraid of expressing them in an open, authentic way.

And we should be confident that these values are shared by everyone in society, to a greater or lesser extent. Our task is to create language and metaphors that consistently engage people’s progressive values and strengthen them over time. And when their progressive values are strengthened, people’s attitudes to poverty, social protection, redistribution of wealth and a whole range of other issues, will change.

It is a big task, but it is one that will prove vastly more fruitful than adoption of the conservative-influenced policy proposals put forward by Wilson.


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  1. Cozmiester says:

    Really enjoyed this well thought out article. Views are definitely hardening towards welfare and it’s dangerously worrying.

  2. David Briggs says:

    If you are going to pursue the work shy into taking a job, the jobs must be available for them to take. Not jobs with nil pay in ‘Poundland’, but in a workplace where decent money can be earned without the need for any of the welfare benefits that the Coalition and their adherents want to diminish. They have no intention of growing the economy to create the work. If these policies continue there will be serious societal unrest in the not too distant future.

  3. Siddhartha says:

    If we seriously desire for a corruption-free society, decent political atmosphere, has to put genuine commitment at our own end, as you know most of the communities (such as Bengali or Tamil) in this sub-continent are covered by ‘Culture of Poverty’ (hopelessness), irrespective of class or economic strata, lives in pavement or apartment. Nobody is ashamed of the deep-rooted corruption in this society at heart, decaying general quality of life, bad Politico-Governance, poor work place, weak mother language, continuous consumption of common Social Space. We love to become parents only by self-procreation (mindlessly & blindfold supported by lame excuses, driven by the very animal instinct) depriving their(the children) fundamental rights of a caring society, fearless & dignified living. Never search for other positive alternative gesture, adopting reasonable values for a passionate way of parenthood, deliberately stop giving birth to any child him/herself here till it improves up to the mark, co-parenting children those are born out of extreme poverty, instead. Introduce reasonableness in way of life among Commoners. If a pure freedom is desired, from vicious cycle of poverty, rotten capitalism need to involve ourselves in ‘Production of space’ movement, quality Politics would certainly come up. – SB, 16/4, Girish Banerjee Lane, Howrah -711 101, India.

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