A guest blog post by Kate Anderson.
Getting to grips with the current state of welfare does not sound a particularly cheerful prospect, especially given the depth of the problems and the numerous ways people are struggling with today’s benefits system. But, I came away from a seminar on this topic feeling hopeful and armed with practical suggestions for how we might work together to challenge welfare myths and raise awareness of the current problems with the system.
A key theme to come out of this seminar was the vicious and relentless attack on benefit claimants by both the media and current austere welfare policies. Journalist and PhD student Rachel Broady spoke of the persistently negative portrayal of benefit claimants in mainstream journalism. Motivated to address this in part due to her own experiences of poverty, Rachel explained that there is a frustrating lack of understanding of poverty on the part of many journalists who perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
In contrast with such portrayals, numerous research studies have shown that the majority of people do want to undertake paid employment, or are making significant unpaid societal contributions such as care of children or elderly relatives. They do not want to claim welfare benefits. The inaccuracy of media depictions of benefit claimants shown in the above image was highlighted later in the seminar when Mo Stewart, disability studies researcher and author of Cash Not Care, pointed out that only 0.7 percent of benefit claims are false.
As Broady explained, a chief negative consequence of this portrayal of benefit claimants in the media is that it is used by politicians to justify austere and punitive welfare policies. This is evident in the Universal Credit literature which uses terminology such as “welfare dependency” and “culture of worklessness” to justify its expanded and intensified sanctions regime. Contrary to the assumptions behind these terms, my research to date on Universal Credit has found that mothers receiving this new benefit are working incredibly hard under dual expectations of mandatory job-search and unpaid child care and want to get off Universal Credit as soon as possible.
The implementation of Universal Credit, along with other recent welfare reforms, constitutes what academics Vickie Cooper and David Whyte referred to as the ‘violence of austerity’. They stated the terribly harmful effects of this which include benefit-related suicide, an increase in elderly mortality, highly problematic medical assessments and an increase in evictions, and explained that this violence of austerity is organised and therefore institutionalised. Large amounts of government money are spent on restructuring in order to enforce austerity.
The relentlessness of the attack on benefit claimants by both the media and austere welfare reforms contributes to difficulties in resisting austerity, outlined by Tracey Herrington, manager of Thrive. Tracey explained that people with lived experiences of poverty need to be at the forefront of challenging poverty, but that it can get very disheartening when change is so slow to occur. She also explained the difficulties of accessing the people that need to be convinced of the detrimental impacts of austerity. Tracey pointed out another negative consequence of the portrayal of benefit claimants in the media: it divides people and as a result they are not coming together to resist austerity, which needs to happen if change is to occur.
Challenging austerity and the status quo is incredibly difficult, but Thrive is determined to continue by persisting in trying to bring about change, and through unifying with others. Similarly, Broady is determined to keep challenging the media portrayal of benefit claimants. At the seminar she gave us one simple way in which we can all do this: calling out negative reporting of benefit claimants when we come across it, for example through using Twitter. She is also promoting awareness of, and adherence to, the National Union of Journalists’ guidelines on reporting poverty which she was involved in creating:
This seminar underlined a sense that something is fundamentally awry with the current welfare system, yet also left me with hope as there are individuals and organisations determined to persist in resisting austerity, and gave practical suggestions for this. It also left me with a greater determination to confront welfare myths and a desire to develop and engage with creative ideas for reforming the welfare system
About Kate: I am currently doing a PhD at the University of York funded by the ESRC on Universal Credit, gender and conditionality. I am conducting a longitudinal study investigating the views and experiences of mothers who are subject to the new conditionality regime introduced by Universal Credit for the main carers of children. My aims are to explore the impacts of conditionality on the valuing of unpaid childcare, mothers’ employment prospects and their agency.