Over the past twenty years, welfare has become a dirty word. As in the US, welfare is today narrowly equated with the provision of benefits to those not currently in work. Both the provision (and its supposed generosity) and the lives of those who receive it have been rendered inherently and inevitably negative and problematic.
This narrative – that influences political soundbites and media coverage – has been mobilised to defend an ongoing programme of welfare reform designed to stop people from choosing benefits as a “lifestyle choice”. The endless and exponential growth in poverty porn has recreated poverty as light entertainment and invited viewers into the homes of some of Britain’s poorest to observe – and most often to judge – their receipt of state support.
There is a feedback loop between the dominant portrayal of welfare and public attitudes, and it is common (if slightly simplistic) to report a hardening of attitudes to welfare. While we might expect members of the “hard-working majority” to share in the critiquing of the “other” (those on benefits), it is perhaps more surprising that claimants themselves often express similar views. In research following a small group of benefit claimants over time, it was common to hear individuals echoing political pronouncements on welfare.
Despite being adversely affected by welfare reform – and knowing exactly how difficult life on benefits can be – the people I spoke to often saw a rationale for the benefit changes. Reflecting on the welfare reforms of David Cameron’s Tory-led Coalition government, Kane* observed: “I think they had to do summat ‘cause it were getting out of hand weren’t it.”
Individuals such as Kane described a need to get tough on welfare, to ensure that benefits only went to those who need (and just as importantly deserve) them. Amy – who lost her eligibility for disability benefits as a result of the reforms – still felt change was needed:
“In some ways [welfare reform] is a good idea because maybe there is people who don’t need to be on certain benefits that could go out to work. Not like me but people that are just playing on it or something to get money out of the social.”
In this way, Amy appeared persuaded by anti-welfare rhetoric, even as she was adversely affected by the consequences of it.
Amy – and many of the others I spoke to – were often quick to defend their own benefit entitlement even as they pointed to some “other” less deserving. As James put it: “Some people choose it [benefits], some people think ‘I’ll have a kid and go on benefits and that’ll be me’. Some people are used to it, but I’m not. Well, I never have been.”
As the “othered” themselves “other”, they attempt to distance themselves from society’s condemnatory and punitive gaze. Against the constant bombardment of derisory and demeaning depictions of welfare, out-of-work benefit claimants want to separate “them” from “us” and to lay claim to being within the ranks of the “deserving”. This is part of (most often unsuccessful) efforts to manage and deflect the pervasive stigma of benefits receipt.
The spread and reach of the negative rhetoric on welfare perhaps crowds out and limits the scope for individuals such as Kane, Amy and James to offer a more solidaristic defence of social security. Ironically, their replication of the dominant narrative only serves to further embed it. Sadly, of course, this make more benefit changes only more likely and easier for politicians to push through.
*all names changed to protect anonymity
Dr Ruth Patrick is a postdoctoral researcher in law and social justice at the University of Liverpool. Her book about welfare reform, For whose benefit? is available from Policy Press. It is available at a 40 per cent discount to readers of the New Statesman until 31 May – enter the code POFWBNEWS at the checkout.