Forget what you think you know about poverty
by Jo Salter
The image of the ‘troubled family’ – characterised by benefits dependency, crime, violence and dysfunction – has become the poster-child for modern poverty. It is one of the Government’s stock images of disadvantage, alongside the neglectful, drug-addicted parents, and rioters living on inner city estates.
What these images lack is any substantive evidence to support their use as a generalisation for the 9.8 million people who were classed as living in income-poor households in 2010/11. Research published this week by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that more people in poverty are in work than out of work – and two thirds of children in poverty are living in a household where somebody is working.
The Department for Work and Pensions’ own figures from 2008 for problematic drug use – often cited as a key contributing factor behind family poverty – show that only 6.6 per cent of benefit claimants in England were drug users. Contrary to the ‘scroungers’ myth, take-up of key income-related benefits ranges from 89 per cent to just 61 per cent - with the lowest take-up being for income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance and Council Tax Benefit. These facts just do not scan with the popular portrayal of poor families.
This misrepresentation is worrying on a number of levels. Being able to communicate to the public a recognisable image of modern poverty is essential for building public support for investment in poverty reduction strategies. Recently, the British Social Attitudes survey revealed an increasingly hostile streak in public attitudes towards those on a low income – only 28 per cent of people think the government should spend more on welfare benefits for the poor, compared to 43 per cent 10 years ago, with more than a third of people believing that many of those claiming benefits do not deserve help.
Perhaps more seriously, the persistent narrative of social dysfunction – and an ‘us versus them’ mentality – risks driving a wedge between families in poverty and the systems of state support that exist to help them. Those families who do fit the ‘troubled’ description are likely to resent being depicted as ‘public enemy number one’, and families who are struggling on a low income but are not ‘troubled’ (the vast majority) may be less likely to access essential services and benefits because of the associated stigma. All this makes it more likely that efforts to reach the most disadvantaged families will fail.
Demos research published today aims to overturn some of the negative preconceptions that surround people in poverty by taking a far wider view of what the reality of living on a low income is really like at an individual household level. Our research examines a diverse list of poverty indicators, ranging from skills and employment to health and housing to financial resilience and social networks. When these dimensions of poverty are mapped onto the low-income population, the types of experience that emerge are very different from the image that dominates the popular imagination.
For example, the biggest group of low-income families with children that we identified – called the ‘grafters’ – are almost the exact opposite of the ‘troubled families’ stereotype. Around 90 per cent of them are in work, with professional occupations well represented among the group; the vast majority are homeowners; half are educated to degree level; they are in good physical health; they live in good neighbourhoods.
The reason why this group is not characterised by a catalogue of problems is because real life is not like that. Our analysis did not just look at the negative factors in people’s lives (lack of work, poor health, poor neighbourhoods), but also looked at the positives. Including these positive factors reveals, for example, that many of the poverty types we identified are notable for their higher than average levels of neighbourhood support and support from family members living nearby: even those who are generally living in some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country have strong, supportive relationships.
Of course, we must not downplay the sense of exclusion and disempowerment that families in poverty experience, and which we also regularly encountered among those who we spoke to. But equally, we must guard against a one-sided view of poverty. The central message from our research is that all poverty is different, and we cannot make generalisations about poverty from any one person or group’s experiences. This is why an approach that is sensitive to the complexity and diversity of life below the poverty line is vital if we are to truly understand the problems facing these families.
The Government has recently announced a consultation on expanding the measure of child poverty to include other factors, such as education and health, alongside low income. By extending the scope of the official measure of poverty, the Government has a chance to see the whole picture of what it means to be in poverty – and design poverty interventions that fit the facts and not the fiction.