I have alot of time for the Joint Public Issues Team and the information they publish is generally very good. This group which is comprised of representatives from the Baptist Union of Great Britain, Methodist Church, URC and in this case the Church of Scotland have produced an excellent report looking at the truth and lies about poverty in Britain.
The full title of the report is “The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty”. It begins with a quote from John Wesley given in 1753 but incredibly relevant for today, “So wickedly devilishly false is that common objection, ‘They are poor only because they are idle’. The authors of the report make the point that the myth that poverty is caused primarily by idleness is something many inside and outside of our churches still believe.
Now before I go any further I know that there are some people who do fit the myths and stereotypes but these are a very small minority of all cases. Most of us would accept that the person who said during a call in on the Jeremy Vine show on Radio Two yesterday that he hated gay people and was a Christian – seemingly linking the two was not representative of most Christians. So the tiny number of those who fit the stereotype are no more representative of the poor.
A danger of believing the myths which the report highlights is the way in which they are used to form and push forward dangerous social policy without all the consequences of such policies being fully examined.
The report does not and cannot go through every argument but chooses some main ones to focus upon.
In regards to the myth that ‘They’ are lazy and don’t want to work it makes the point that there is no evidence for there being families where three generations have never worked. Reading this I was reminded of a passage in Mike and Trevor Phillips book Windrush about how the myths around black people were spread by the Enoch Powell and others in Wolverhampton and elsewhere. One was based on a letter which Powell eventually admited to a friend, who was black, there was no evidence to support.
The second myth they look at refers to the idea that many benefit claimants are addicts of one kind of another. Looking at the figures, without getting into the deeper debate around this, it makes the point that fewer than 4% of all claimants have reported an addiction of any kind.
With regards to the comments about it being poor money management the report shows that statistics show “the poorest spend their money carefully limiting their spending to essentials”.
In terms of the myths relating to benefit fraud the report states that “less than 0.9% of the welfare budget is lost through fraud. It goes on “if everybody claimed, and was paid correctly, the welfare system would cost around £18 billion more.”
The next myth which they deal with is the one which claims those on welfare have an easy life and it is a lifestyle choice. The evidence shows that in relation to average incomes benefits have halved over the last 30 years and that this is not a lifestyle choice for most.
In regards to it being the poor and the welfare bill which caused the deficit “the proportion of our tax bill spent on welfare has remained stable for the last 20 years.”
The report seeks to challenge these myths through case studies and analysis of data and statistics.