Eliminating poverty is an ambition we all share. Yet there is much debate over exactly what we mean by poverty, who it affects, and what can be done about it. In order to answer these questions properly we need a better understanding of the lives of those in our most deprived communities. This means separating fact from fiction.
Earlier this year a prominent group of Churches published a joint report called The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty. The authors seek to expose a number of ‘myths’ which, in their words, ‘allow the poor to be blamed for their poverty’. The irony of the publication is that it seeks to dispel these myths by creating a number of its own myths. So today we set out our response.
For a start, the report claims that the concept of welfare dependency is a ‘new affliction’. Yet the reality is that nearly ten million families receive more than half their income from benefits, nobody works in almost one in five households in the UK, and even when the economy was booming there were five million people on out-of-work benefits. Such dependency strips communities of their independence and attempting to downplay its significance does a disservice to those people who the Church groups are there to help.
The report barely mentions the fact that many people don’t work because the current benefits system does not reward work. Moving off welfare and into a job can often make you no better off financially, and so the logical decision is not to take work. Blaming claimants for this is wrong. Instead, we should criticise a system which has fundamentally failed the poor over the years by trapping them on benefits with little or no hope of moving into employment.
The report also argues there is only an ‘element of truth’ in the idea of poverty being caused by addiction. This is despite the fact that 705,000 children currently grow up with a dependent drinker and 350,000 children grow up with a problem drug user. The report (rightly) points out that the majority of these families live above the poverty line. Yet whether these children fall above or below this arbitrarily defined and misguided measure (defined as less than 60 per cent of median income) is totally beside the point. Living with an addicted parent can blight a child’s life chances far more than living in a low income bracket.
The report reaches the conclusion that such ‘myths’ have allowed ‘dangerous policies to be imposed on whole sections of society’. Yet there is nothing more dangerous than a welfare system which has allowed millions to be written off over the years. The Government is right to break with the misguided mantra of the past which saw spending more and more as the best response to every public policy problem. Achieving real and long-standing reform is more complex.
Difficult challenges undoubtedly lie ahead, but the Government’s welfare reforms should be understood as a broad package which will ensure that those on welfare face the same choices as those in work and, ultimately, help those who want to work realise that ambition. This is an ambition for the poor that all of us should share.