by Steffan Smith

Who are the poor? Why are they poor? And what keeps them so? These three simple questions are central to the way in which we as a society approach the welfare needs of our poorest people.

To sift society’s answers, of which there are many variants, quickly reveals that there are two major and contradictory ways of understanding the source of poverty. The first way of thinking puts the individual at the centre of the picture, seeing affluence and destitution as straightforwardly reflective of individual worth; this is a central tenet of the right wing worldview. By contrast, the second way sees the individual as a small part of a larger system that they cannot dictate, pawns of varying levels of power cutting a path within set bounds; this is fundamental to the left wing worldview.

With the right’s approach, the poor’s poverty is seen as an individual failing, symptomatic of an inferior character: unintelligent, overly promiscuous, pathologically criminal and doped up on dole. The poor’s poverty is their problem; low lifes, whose low wealth reflects a lack of worth and whose circumstances deserve no sympathy, fit, it seems, for nothing more than the jeering judgment of Jeremy Kyle and his sniggering audience. We have all come across this unforgiving assessment, I’m sure, not only in media and political speeches, of which it is endemic, but in our daily lives, at countless table side and bar top discussions with family, friends and colleagues.

A fair appraisal… the second, leftist approach suggests not. Instead of focusing all attention upon the gritty unpalatable effects of poverty and identifying them as its causes, as the first approach does, the second way seeks to fully understand the broader social and economic world within which the poor person exists. Seeing ‘them’ sympathetically, as part of society, its responsibility and a reflection of its inequalities and scarcities. Holding poverty to be a circumstance that any one of us might, should fortune turn, be cast into or indeed born to.


With this vision, poverty’s genesis is found to be located, outside the individual, in the latent inequities of our society, the incapacity of unfortunate people and the impersonal rumblings of our economy. An alternate landscape emerges, where poverty stems not from the inferiority and intransigence of the poor person but from a lack of entry level, secure employment, and the frailty of our bodies (and minds), coupled with long established inequality.

These opposed framings are centrally important to our present (and past) political debate on poverty and the ‘what to do’ of welfare in particular. Indeed, when the Conservative incumbents warn of welfare dependency and benefits culture, as they have done often and loudly of late, they do so guided by a faith in the factual soundness of an individualist interpretation of poverty. A logic that presumes cutbacks in welfare will spur a surge of the ‘work-shy’ for the supposedly abundant job vacancies, and not a desperate grab for the balaclavas and polishing of the pistols.

the Tory rationale, and its individualist underpinnings, fails to capture the realities of livelihood pursuit for those at bottom of the pile

One need not look far to see first hand how the Tory rationale, and its individualist underpinnings, fails to capture the realities of livelihood pursuit for those at bottom of the pile. Indeed, my main insight, following two months assisting at the Salvation Army’s homeless drop in centre in our very own Norwich, is that poverty and choice are opposites.

Contrary to the ideological illusion deftly woven by our current welfare adverse government, the impoverished whom I worked with were there for three major reasons: number one, they were incapable of selling their labour for cash; number two, they did not possess capital assets to live off; and number three, they were able to work but there was no available secure employment, with adequate hours to guarantee their survival. These people are destitute not by choice but by virtue of misfortune and lack of opportunity. They rely, either temporarily or permanently, upon the welfare payments we as a society rightly underwrite.

The true scandal played out in countless small sufferings across our nation is, as I encountered on a daily basis, not the prevalence of scrounging benefits fraudsters. It is in fact, the staggering inefficiency of the welfare system. An administrative mess that ensures urgent applications, sent via Basildon Benefits Centre, often take two months to clear, in a purgatorial wait where it’s not uncommon to face 3 months of process without payment. What does one do in the meantime?  When legitimate livelihoods fail criminality will always prevail.


Depressingly, of the two ways of understanding the cause of poverty, the first, unforgiving, individualist narrative, garners the greater currency in society today. With the most recent poll, early last year, finding that around 59% of British citizens feared that a culture of dependency is birthed by benefits.

But do not despair, the Trade Union Council, who commissioned the poll, found that such opinion reflected a lack of information on the part of the public and not necessarily an intractable resentment of the needy. A point evidenced by the fact that when those queried were split into three groups according to their knowledge of the benefits system 71% of the most ignorant category thought their to be a culture of dependency, compared to less than 46% of those most knowledgeable. So, it seems that informing our fellow citizens about the realities of poverty, i.e. the lack of choice and stacked odds that make welfare necessary, is more essential than ever if we are to retain and improve our embattled welfare system.

We as a society must not lose sight of the truth. The welfare system is there to safeguard all who must sell their labour and all who can’t. It is an acknowledgement that choice is a luxury and misfortune strikes without discrimination. The Conservative Party’s rhetoric on Benefits is designed to divide us, fortunate worker from unfortunate, ‘striver’ from ‘scrounger’. Let us contest this poisonous illusion and, in doing so, maintain our compassion and perspective.

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