A blog post by the series organisers: Kim Allen, Sara De Benedictis, Kayleigh Garthwaite, Tracey Jensen, and Ruth Patrick
Our second seminar in the Welfare Imaginaries series took place in Liverpool on the 25th September. We met at the same time and in the same city as the Labour Party Conference, at which Margaret Greenwood MP (Shadow Department for Work and Pensions Secretary) committed Labour to a major rethink on social security. In a context where Brexit too often crowds out the space to debate significant domestic policy areas, Labour’s pledge – to rethink the approach to benefits sanctions and to re-centre compassion in the delivery of social security – is a welcome one. Indeed, a concern with how we might reimagine welfare is at the heart of this seminar series, and one that united those gathered in Liverpool’s Blackburne House, a historic venue which was originally the first all-girls school in the country, and is now a social enterprise that is one of the country’s leading education centres for women.
At our first seminar back in June we looked to past welfare imaginaries – to the real and imagined pasts, to public and personal histories of welfare. In our second seminar, we considered the current ‘state of play’, asking: What are the agendas, challenges, discourses, and images characterising welfare today? Where are the battles for 21st century welfare taking place? What shape do these take? And how can, and do, we respond and resist the dominant characterisations of welfare?
As with the first seminar, the day included opportunities for delegates to participate in a welfare walk (this time Tracey passed the baton over to Paul Jones, University of Liverpool) and zine-making sessions with Jean McEwan (from collective arts project Wur Bradford). These interspersed three lively panels, with presentations from speakers from academia, the media, arts and activism. These included Rachel Broady (National Union of Journalists); Tracey Herrington (grassroots anti-poverty organisation Thrive); Heather Mew (Newcastle University); Vickie Cooper (Open University) and David Whyte (University of Liverpool); Sara De Benedictis (Brunel University London); Mo Stewart (independent researcher); Kerry Hudson (author and journalist); and Mark McGowan (online activist, Chunky Mark a.k.a. the Artist Taxi Driver).
You can listen back to our speakers’ presentations here. However, in this blog post, we reflect on some of the key themes that emerged from the day.
Historicising the present
The first theme that arose was the importance of a historical attentiveness in how we understand present welfare imaginaries. This is unsurprising – indeed, our own historical attentiveness led us to structure the series around three interconnecting themes or temporal frames – past, present and future (and we have already noted the key themes that emerged from this attentiveness to the past). Several contributors to the day reminded us of the value of historicising contemporary debates, images and narratives of welfare.
In her talk, Rachel Broady, for example, called attention to the long history of stigmatising media representations of the poor. Whilst Rachel’s campaigning work has been oriented to challenging the dominant media coverage of those experiencing poverty or living in social housing (the ever familiar headlines decrying ‘benefit broods’, ‘scroungers’, or council estates ‘plagued’ by anti-social behaviour), Rachel’s doctoral research dissects newspaper coverage of poverty in the 19th century, finding similar discourses of the moral underclass in coverage of the cotton workers crisis of the 1860s.
Elsewhere, Mo Stewart’s devastating account of the deaths of thousands of sick and disabled people under the Conservative government’s welfare reform, squarely locates these within a longer history of political decisions tracing back to Thatcher’s relationship with corporate welfare advisors in the United States. Mo’s forensic account of the government’s decisive move towards a US-style welfare system, highlights how present-day welfare regimes are not fundamentally ‘new’, appearing as new government’s come to power, but rather are made possible by the actions of previous political actors. Here, we are reminded of other research that locates austerity as an extension and intensification of neoliberal reforms and a rolling back of the state that has been visible through various governments since the 1980s.
In her talk, co-organiser Sara De Benedictis also alerted us to the importance of locating particular welfare imaginaries within their political and historical context, and of examining how welfare imaginaries change over time as new ‘welfare subjects’ come into view. Her analysis of the media coverage of ‘period poverty’ as experienced by UK women and girls, revealed how the term only appeared in the national UK press for the first time in September 2016. Sara traced the changing frames deployed by the media in their coverage of the ‘problem’ of period poverty since this time. Her analysis revealed how the structural causes of period poverty that initially framed media coverage of the issue (such as welfare cuts, sexism, classism, or Theresa May’s ideological attack on women through austerity) increasingly fell out of view, replaced by more individualised framings (for example, through ‘parent blaming’, or a focus on consuming sanitary products to solve ‘period poverty’ rather than address the structural inequalities that cause it).
We also heard about the importance of personal histories of welfare – as a powerful resource and testimony to think through, and alongside, wider public/social histories of welfare reform. This was most beautifully and powerfully rendered in author Kerry Hudson’s presentation and reading from her autobiography ‘Lowborn’. Kerry shared her personal story of growing up (and growing out of) poverty, and finding the voice (and courage) to share her experiences and reflections on poverty, class and her own life. She was critical of the irony that – as a young person in poverty – she was made to feel that her own voice was worthless, and that then when, as she grew up and became ready and able to share her experiences, she could be critiqued on the basis that this is the ‘wrong’ thing to do (for fear of creating and encouraging a voyeuristic engagement with poverty). In this sense, Kerry’s reading verbalised the complexities of ‘getting out and getting away’ (Lawler, 1999).
The power of personal histories also arose in Rachel Broady’s talk. Rachel began her presentation stating that her personal biography as someone who grew up on a council estate, and who is now a proud social housing tenant informs her professional work as a journalist and campaigner. These questions about the interconnections between our personal histories of welfare and wider social imaginaries bubbled up in conversations between delegates as they sat together making zines, and arguably, became imprinted on the pages they produced.
“Nothing about us, without us, is for us” (Thrive)
A second theme of the day is the need to keep to the forefront of our discussions the lived experiences of welfare, especially the experiences of those whose lives are most harshly affected by the government’s programme of reform. As much research now demonstrates, the effects of austerity are not equally felt and this government’s cuts to welfare have most affected those already living with significant hardship, with the unemployed, single parents, the disabled, women, the young and certain ethnic groups disproportionately affected.
Heather Mew and Tracey Herrington’s presentation provided rich and valuable insight into these unequal effects at a local level. In Stockton-on-Tees where Thrive is located, life expectancy gaps between the most and least affluent are the largest in any single local authority in England. A man living in one of the most affluent parts of town will live on average 17.3 years less than a man living just two miles away in the most deprived area. For women, the life expectancy gap is 12 years. Mo Stewart reflected on the devastating effects of welfare reform for claimants with disabilities and chronic health conditions. The expansion of Work Capability Assessments (an invention of the health insurance industry in the United States) and the cycle of multiple reassessment and creeping surveillance have normalised what Mo named as a “terrorising” of disabled claimants. These presentations powerfully rendered the human costs of austerity and its violence – what Vicki Cooper and David Whyte call the ‘violence of austerity’; the everyday, routinised and grotesque forms of institutional violence towards already-vulnerable groups being enacted through the austerity project and its decimation of forms of social provision.
The day also highlighted that it is those with direct experience of poverty and most affected by welfare reform – and subjected to virulent forms of welfare stigma – who must be at the front and centre of efforts to counter these and produce ‘better’ welfare imaginaries. At the same time, all of the burden of challenging punitive policies should not fall on them, and an explicit challenge was made by Tracey Herrington and Heather Mew to academics, calling on them to think carefully about whether more research is always what is needed, or whether instead more can (and should) be done to support local forms of resistance. Both the work of Thrive and Rachel Broady’s campaigning activities rightly locate those with direct experiences of poverty and the benefits system, as experts who have a valuable and important contribution to make (not just in critiquing existing policies), but in starting to develop and formulate new ones. Only then will the policies be fit for purpose. As the Poverty Truth Commission movement (of which Thrive is part) put it: ”nothing about us, without us, is for us”.
But as well as foregrounding the lived experiences of those most affected by welfare reform, the day also powerfully reminded us that we must also continue – in Vicky Cooper’s words – to ‘shine a light up’. This brings us to our third theme.
The Welfare Machine: Scrutinising elites and ‘studying up’
A key argument that ran through the day was the importance of returning our focus to the structures of capital and power through which the government’s devastating machinery welfare reform – and the imaginaries it produces – are strategically crafted and produced by various elites in order to serve their interests. We heard about and reflected upon various elites who benefit (financially, ideologically) from welfare reform. We also heard about the need for a more expansive (and inclusive) language for welfare; one that recognises that in its truest sense some of the largest beneficiaries of welfare are not individuals living in poverty but large corporations. If we are to reimagine welfare for the twenty first century, we need to start with a better – and broader – understanding of what ‘welfare’ is, and who benefits from it.
In shining a light up, we need to document and interrogate who benefits from austerity and welfare reform and how. We need to focus a critical lens on the media elites whose reporting of welfare recipients via a constant diet of shows such as Benefits Street creates a partial, heavily stigmatising account of ‘welfare’ that bolsters and supports the status quo. We also need to look at the role of private corporations, not only as beneficiaries of corporate welfare, but also as firms that often directly profit from and administer welfare reform; for example, via private firms carrying out medical assessments, and as highlighted by Mo Stewart, firms such as Union Provident who make millions from the privatisation of welfare services.
Here, we are reminded of warnings made by others – including Danny Dorling and Stephen Crossley – that whilst social researchers have been very good at attending to the life worlds of the most disadvantaged in society, we have in the process taken our eye off what is happening among those at the top. This call for ‘studying up’ is thus pertinent here when thinking through the production of welfare imaginaries, where and how they are produced, what work they do, and who gains from their production and circulation?
Beyond the echo chamber: affecting change?
The final theme emerging from the day is that of the challenges to talking beyond our silos and engaging others, including the potential role that media (including digital media) can play in contesting welfare imaginaries. Several speakers called attention to the challenges of affecting real change and to making conversation meaningful to those who are not already listening. In particular, presenters discussed the difficulties of engaging individuals and groups who do not see a problem with welfare reform, or recognise its devastating effects. Or those who do not feel the media misrepresent those in poverty. These are big questions which cannot be easily answered. But the presenters did provide suggestions of tangible actions that can be taken up to facilitate this exchange. For example, Rachel suggested that if we see journalists reporting badly on poverty, we could signpost them to the NUJ’s guidelines on fair reporting. Heather suggested teaching participatory methods to undergraduate students would be a good starting place to encourage a relationship between academia and activism.
Whilst the day revealed how mainstream media is a central mechanism in legitimising welfare reform, we also saw the potential of art, literature and media (including social media) for contesting these and for creating alternatives. From the Artist Taxi Driver’s alternative newspaper briefings which pull apart the myths of austerity, to the online activism around period poverty, to Kerry’s online journalism and books in which hidden and personal histories of welfare are told. But also, in Rachel’s campaigns and guidelines for journalists, we are reminded that there is still the potential within mainstream journalism for fairer reporting.
Many of the suggestions from the presentations urged us to think about what the future of ‘welfare’ can look like – how we can shape it, what needs to change, and how we can get there. Our final seminar in the series will take place on 4th December at the Birmingham and Midland Institute where we will discuss all of this and more. Do join us, and look out for news of registration opening on our website.