Sunday Nov 18

EXCERPT FROM Poverty Propaganda: Exploring the Myths: Poverty Propaganda? The Eternal Fake News!

Poverty propaganda comprises a series of messages that work to stigmatise and negatively label people experiencing poverty or other forms of disadvantage as undeserving, and culpable for their own predicament. It takes a variety of forms and operates in different and sometimes complex and conflicting ways, but it always works to reinforce the notion that there are segments of the population who are lazy, work-shy or deviant in some other way and hence underserving of support, particularly in the form of out-ofwork benefits. Poverty propaganda rests on an individualistic explanation of life chances and life experiences, and thus the structural explanations and drivers of poverty are clouded out. The current context is one where poverty propaganda thrives and becomes ever more powerful as neo-liberal capitalist regimes, such as that which has been operating in Britain over the last forty years, orchestrate a view of life and life chances that prioritises individual responsibility over structural conditions and drivers that cause poverty. Rising general standards of living and overt discourses that have openly denied the existence of poverty have all worked to foster fertile ground for the proliferation of poverty propaganda.

Language lies at the heart of poverty propaganda; but, as we will see through the pages of this book, poverty propaganda has real effects on both the existence of poverty and the ways in which people experiencing poverty are treated and feel about their own lives. Poverty propaganda presents a picture of both the causes and consequences of poverty that stands in opposition to the realities of poverty, but its messages are so simple that they appear to makes sense to many people, and thus have in many respects become common sense. Part of the appeal of poverty propaganda and the reason why it is frequently accepted as truth is that it makes effective use of ready and easily digested caricatures. Easily understood sound bites work to create a very distinct perception of ‘us’ and ‘them’, with those experiencing poverty or related disadvantages being relegated to a very distinctive ‘other’ (Lister, 2004). Ready sound bites such as the ‘shirkers’ and the ‘strivers’ or ‘hardworking families’ are used to evoke feelings of unfairness in the system (particularly the ‘welfare’ system). The language shifts over time; so, in more recent times, we have heard a lot about ‘families who have never worked’ and the idea of ‘intergenerational cultures of worklessness’, along with ‘troubled families’, but essentially all of these ideas portray poverty as the preserve of the undeserving who are culpable for their own fate.

The messages of poverty propaganda are diffuse and are threaded through policy and political and popular discourse in a way that ensures that they have clarity and consistency. As we will see in below and in Chapter Seven, the focus and language of policy documents has shifted in recent years, particularly since 2010, towards a ‘social problem’ focus. The welfare state has been increasingly depicted as problematic, leading to supposed ‘welfare dependency’. Structural drivers of poverty, such as unemployment and inadequate out-of-work benefits, are rarely cited as contemporary causes of poverty, with more emphasis being given to ‘welfare dependency’ (DWP, 2010; 2015; 2016), whereby those in receipt of out-of-work benefits are depicted as losing a willingness to work because of the security of those benefits. ‘Troubled families’ have also received significant amounts of attention, becoming, as we will see below, the sole focus of work around ‘social justice’ under the Coalition government elected in 2010. What all of these discourses produce is a problem-focused analysis, whereby social problems such as unemployment become problems that can be explained by the behaviour of those experiencing the problem and the structural causes of poverty can be conveniently removed from view.

These issues are then reworked in popular and political discourses, perpetuating the view that those experiencing poverty are undeserving of support and culpable for their own situations. Periodic announcements from powerful senior political figures frequently refer to the welfare
state as purely meaning out-of-work benefits and depict the system as variously ‘broken’ or ‘failing’ and as being responsible for producing generations of work-shy families (see Shildrick et al, 2012b). At other times generic depictions are drawn on (as happened after the riots in 2011) to decry sections of society that are deemed to be deviant and problematic and to extend and deepen generic narratives of the work-shy and underserving that were already well embedded in popular and political discourses. It is the malleability of poverty propaganda that makes it particularly powerful and effective. Generic populations are implicated in its stigmatising narratives, from those living in social housing to people with life-limiting illnesses who are forced to rely on out-of-work benefits. It is this diffuse and indiscriminate nature of poverty propaganda that makes it so effective and powerful.

Newspapers, in particular the tabloid press, play a crucial role in propagating poverty propaganda and adding to its weight by producing sometimes outrageous headlines that reinforce the notion that some people are work-shy, lazy and ‘getting something for nothing’. These depictions of people experiencing poverty and related disadvantages have become particularly prominent through television programmes of the genre referred to as ‘poverty porn’. These programmes, perhaps best exemplified by Benefits Street (made by Love Productions and first aired in 2014), present people experiencing poverty in ways that reinforce individualised understandings of poverty and the idea that people are somehow culpable for their own predicament. As such, the programmes are very good examples of how poverty propaganda works.

Poverty propaganda successfully constructs generic but very powerful narratives around poverty and related disadvantage and the people who experience it. Its rhetoric successfully obscures the real causes of poverty that are structural and related to the lack of opportunities.

Tracy Shildrick is Professor of Sociology at Newcastle University, UK. She has researched extensively in deprived neighbourhoods over the last eighteen years with a particular focus on poverty, worklessness and young people’s transitions to adulthood. Poverty Propaganda: Exploring the Myths is available from Bristol University Press (

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