It is a question for our time and yet it’s one for which answers are depressingly elusive: how do we shift the national dialogue away from the deeply divisive and counterproductive "skivers versus strivers" debate and towards more constructive ground?
At an event hosted recently by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) attended by pollsters, PRs, journalists and anti-poverty experts where this question was posed many of those present – on the left, right and inbetween –mooted that conventional approaches to framing the poverty debate are simply not going to cut it in the current, austerity-fuelled hostile climate. People argued that challenging negative attitudes around poverty is not going to come about by laying out basic facts (no matter how strong these might be) such as how small a proportion of the total welfare budget is attributable to fraud (less than 1 per cent). Doing so is not going to change the minds of people convinced the system is being fleeced by hordes of claimants. And, some argued, don’t expect misery-laden stories in the press or on television of people’s struggles in the face of policies such as the Bedroom Tax to generate much sympathy either – no one is coming to the pity party.
Since October 2012 I’ve been travelling all over the UK interviewing people at the sharp end of austerity policies in all kinds of communities spanning suburbia, urban centres and villages. Commissioned by JRF, it’s been a kind of "social history as it unfolds" project tracking how people are coping with the implementation of austerity – though many of the people interviewed have been living in poverty or on or close to the breadline for much longer than this government has been around. One thing that is abundantly clear from the interviews (in excess of 100 were conducted in 18 locations across Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England) is that people do not want sympathy or pity any more than they want ridicule.
The people I spoke to, whether they had just lost their job, were long term unemployed, disabled or at risk of becoming homeless, simply wanted to be treated with a semblance of dignity. Those interviewed were generally insulted and angered by the demonisation of poorer people in the press and by the pervasive and cruel rhetoric from politicians and pundits alike because it in no way reflected their reality – yet not one suggested that pity or sympathy was an acceptable alternative to public scorn.
In interview after interview people talked of their troubles and of how being in poverty or living in its shadow wore them down and of the hardship austerity has wrought – and is expected to continue to inflict as policy after policy comes to fruition. They talked of how benefits sanctions and fitness for work assessments were driving many to the verge of mental breakdown, of the humiliation of having to go to food banks in order to feed their children and of the "zero hour" contracts which mean that even when in work there is no guarantee of earning enough to subsist on.
I sat with a man of 47 in Luton – a single parent – as he cried in desperation at not being able to adequately provide for his daughters. I spoke with a young carer in Rhondda who has a learning disability as she told me of looking after her ill parents and how worried she was about possible cuts to the local transport services that helped them get around. I also sat with homeless teenagers in New Haven, East Sussex, desperate for work that isn’t there, with pensioners in Hull frightened by the prospect of loneliness and isolation if their local council pulls the rug from under them on funding that helps them meet weekly to socialise, and with scores of community workers and volunteers struggling to support individuals and communities in the midst of soaring demand for help and advice.
When I began the project I expected to encounter such stories, especially as people’s fears and anxieties escalated in the face of austerity policies such as the Bedroom Tax being coming into force and as it became clear that the jobs situation and wider economy weren’t going to dramatically improve any time soon. However what I also found – and what is rarely reported alongside the stories of so-called shirkers or indeed the tales of penury and despair – was an extraordinary resilience among individuals who were enduring desperate circumstances. I found remarkable efforts by grassroots organisations (themselves experiencing unprecedented strains on resources), volunteers – and even entire communities – to not completely buckle under the pressure. I found also the kind of constructive anger and frustration that can be seen channelled in the Bedroom Tax demonstrations and in the protests by disabled people challenging cuts that will rob them of essential entitlements – the kind of entitlements that mean fellow citizens can live with dignity.
Most of all though I found people keen not just to air their concerns but to have a say in how their situations might be made better – people indeed with some ideas for what would improve their lives. For a start, they said, jobs that pay a living wage and an end to savage and discredited austerity policies. The people I interviewed wanted recognition that the overwhelming majority of those who live with being (as one community worker in Luton puts it) “consigned to skintness”, are anything but skivers and deserve to have their voices heard. As one woman in Birmingham wondered as an interview was coming to a close: “Who is going to listen to what we have told you? Who will hear what we have been saying?”
You can listen to, watch, and read about the people who contributed to this project on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation website. It might not be much in the face of relentless media portrayals of people who are struggling as little more than leaches on society by many on the Right, or objects of pity by some on the Left – but it’s a start.