Brian Wilson: Blaming the poor for their poverty

The turn of the previous century marked a change in attitudes towards poverty. Picture: Getty
The turn of the previous century marked a change in attitudes towards poverty. Picture: Getty
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WE increasingly hold individuals rather than society responsible for dependency on benefits, writes Brian Wilson

At the dawn of the 20th century, Seebohm Rowntree carried out a survey in York which concluded that 30 per cent of the population were living in extreme poverty.

circa 1895:  Barefooted slum children of London in the late 19th century.  Collection - Leonard Russell  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

circa 1895: Barefooted slum children of London in the late 19th century. Collection - Leonard Russell (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This conclusion helped to inform the Liberal reforms of the succeeding decade.

Crucially, the weight of political opinion shifted from regarding poverty as the product of individual fecklessness to recognition that society had a collective responsibility for the conditions in which people lived. In other words, if 30 per cent were subsisting in poverty – far more than previously acknowledged – they couldn’t all be feckless.

Strangely enough, I had renewed acquaintance with that little slice of history by glancing at revision which my son was doing for his Higher History. Yesterday morning, he had just gone off to face that ordeal when I went online and acquired a distinct feeling of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

For there was a brand new study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which had this as its headline conclusion: “The report identified a trend in which the public has become increasingly likely to say that individual characteristics rather than societal issues cause poverty.” The debate, it seemed, may be heading for full circle more than a century on.

Of course, the context of that debate has changed. Poverty is not what it used to be. The slums have gone, the welfare state has long since kicked in, the iron grip of the employer has been loosened. Definitions of poverty are now relative rather than absolute; based on percentages rather than the prevalence of disease and starvation.

Yet the substantial movement in public opinion against “societal” explanations may seem surprising; even more so that it was most pronounced among Labour voters, of whom just 27 per cent identified “social injustice” as the main cause of poverty, compared with 41 per cent in 1986.

In the same period, the proportion of Labour voters who agreed that if benefits were not as generous, more people would “learn to stand on their own feet” increased from 16 per cent to 46 per cent. The proportion of all respondents who believe unemployed people could find a job if they wanted one has doubled to 56 per cent.

Just as the Rowntree study of 1901 could not be ignored by politicians, neither is it realistic to believe that these latter-day findings can or should be either. They send a clear message that there is a limited public appetite for welfarism and, in the case of Labour voters, the implication is that those who are closest to the realities may also be least convinced about the outcomes.

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 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.

When an impeccable source such as Rowntree indicates that open-ended advocacy of state benefits as a response to poverty has a much more limited market than even 20 years ago then it is sensible to listen. The Tories know that already, which is why they regard the current benefit cuts as much less of a political liability than may be commonly assumed.

To thwart them, their opponents must come up with something more creative than either an uncritical defence of the benefits system or a me-too rush in the direction of populism. Those of us who believe in the inherent virtue of a comprehensive, caring welfare state should have the highest level of vested interest in defending its purpose.

The Rowntree findings do not imply any lack of support for the founding principle of the welfare state: that government has a duty to intervene in order to protect people from the consequences of sickness, unemployment and other misfortunes. The movement of opinion is linked to a perception that the system is embedding dependency in a way that was never intended.

An illustration lies in the responses on child poverty. An overwhelming majority saw “cutting child poverty” as “very important”, with three-quarters defining that as a task of government. Yet two-thirds attributed child poverty to the “characteristics and behaviour of parents”, compared with 28 per cent who blamed broader social issues. And 51 per cent expected it to increase over the next decade.

My own interpretation of these figures is that everything points in the direction of investment in breaking the cycle of inter-generational dependency on the benefits system. Childcare, pre-school provision, serious investment in early intervention – these are the ways to make a lasting difference which can at the same time command public support. And if that means savings elsewhere, then so be it.

I suspect that immigration has played its part in changing attitudes to unemployment. The question is asked: how can so many Poles and Bulgarians find work when the guy next door cannot? Rightly or wrongly, the conclusion many reach is that it is a matter of choice, underpinned by benefits, rather than exclusion. The way to address that is not by excluding Poles and Bulgarians but by investing in our own vocational education instead of cutting it.

If attitudes are hardening towards “societal explanations for poverty”, it is principally because the evidence of so many people’s own experience does not convince them. The truth, of course, is that societal and individual explanations are far more closely intertwined than the survey acknowledges by posing them as alternatives. The findings merely suggest that the tolerance level for those who hold society responsible for all individual ills has diminished sharply.

There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that Scotland’s view of these matters is significantly different from the UK’s as a whole. There is overwhelming support for the principle of welfare benefits but also a growing scepticism towards the unintended consequences. An open-ended commitment to the former without any acknowledgement of the latter is not a credible formula.

The precious consensus which sustains the welfare state depends on a general acceptance of “societal” responsibilities. If opinion keeps moving towards the “individual characteristics” school of thought, then the only winners are those who, at heart, detest the whole collective principle. Not for the first time in history, the Rowntree message is sufficiently strong to demand attention.