Negative portrayals of benefits recipients can be widely seen in the media, yet new research carried out at Teesside University and funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation calls these into question. Kayleigh Garthwaite argues that the ‘scrounger’ myth is leading to great suffering for increasing numbers of people.
Every single day in the media we are fed crude headlines that lament the lazy, workshy and scrounging benefits recipients who do not work because they prefer to live a life courtesy of all of the hard working taxpayers. Apparently, they make a decision to avoid employment, instead choosing to watch The Jeremy Kyle Show on their vast plasma screen televisions, accompanied by plenty of cigarettes and alcohol, of course. This narrative of ‘undeserving’ benefit scroungers has been firmly cemented in the public mind, with opinion polls such as the British Social Attitudes survey revealing that a considerable section of the public clearly does view welfare recipients, and people receiving unemployment benefits in particular, as undeserving. More than a third (35 per cent) currently think that many getting social security “don’t really deserve any help” – while the proportion has fluctuated between just above 20 per cent and 40 per cent over time. A perception that most people on the dole are “fiddling” is also quite widespread and has more or less tracked the proportion who believe that many people receiving social security “don’t really deserve any help”; in 2011, 37 per cent of the public believes that most people on the dole are “fiddling”.
Yet such mythology does not tally with the findings of research carried out at Teesside University funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Refuting these widely held beliefs, our research, published yesterday by Policy Press, clearly highlights that unemployment was not ‘a lifestyle choice’. Based upon the detailed life stories of men and women aged 30-65 who live and work in Middlesbrough, the main town of Teesside in North East England, the research reveals stories of repeated labour with little progress, of recurrent engagement with hard work but constant returns to unemployment. The people in the study were all living in recurrent poverty but often were unable to assign this label to their own situation, given that being poor is now so tainted with stigma that they refused it for themselves.
Drawing on their experiences of juggling precarious work and meagre benefits, the book shows that cycling between poor work and welfare kept them in, or near, poverty. Our overall findings show that while participants moved in and out of unemployment and low-paid jobs stretching over years, most expressed an enduring commitment to work. However, this repeated engagement in jobs failed to provide routes away from poverty, largely because of there being insufficient decent job opportunities available in the local job market. A strong motivation to work coupled with the insecurity of the low-paid and low-quality jobs on offer was the main reason why shuttling between benefits and jobs had been the interviewees’ predominant experience of working life. Dependency culture myths are also challenged in a recent blog from some of the research team.
Such a narrative is having a direct impact upon the lives of people on benefits. Recent evidence shows how hundreds of thousands of poor people are missing out on vital benefits they’re entitled to as a result of the perceived stigma generated by these false media depictions of “scroungers” – leading many to forgo essentials such as food and fuel. Indeed, such stigma along with hassles and failures of the benefit system meant that some people even avoided claiming benefits during periods of unemployment, a group we term ‘the missing workless’: they are not counted in figures of the unemployed and do not claim welfare benefits while unemployed. What’s more, the stigma and fear caused by such negative representations alongside ongoing welfare reform is represented in research which looks into the lived experience of receiving long-term sickness benefits. These examples show the reach and power that these myths hold. Such myths distract attention, cover up realities and justify actions. Frankly, such myths are unsubstantiated and only serve to punish the poor and do nothing to tackle the low-pay, no-pay cycle.
All of the stories of the people who took part in the research act as a cautionary tale about the meaning and implication of poor, insecure and low-waged work for an increasing number of people caught up in this low-pay, no-pay cycle in Britain. Living on benefits meant poverty and insecurity. It was to be avoided if possible, not embraced in a culture of dependency. Ongoing welfare reform will bring with it further discussions surrounding the myth of the workless. Therefore, exposing these myths and challenging such representations is an integral first step towards better-informed debate and policy.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: Eric Pouhier (CC BY-SA 2.5).
Kayleigh Garthwaite is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Geography, Durham University. She is currently working on various projects related to health inequalities, health and wellbeing and employment for County Durham and Darlington Primary Care Trust. Her research interests focus on the relationship between health and disability, welfare-to-work policies, and self-identity, with a particular interest in spatial disadvantage in terms of worklessness. Kayleigh recently submitted her PhD in Human Geography (2012) from Durham University entitled ‘Incapacitated? Exploring the health and illness narratives of Incapacity Benefit recipients’. Kayleigh previously worked at Teesside University as a Research Assistant on a project for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which sought to understand the dynamics of poverty and marginal work across the life-course.
Who are the real scroungers?
Definition: a person who borrows from or lives off others
Interesting to go back 3 years to same debate https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/29/socialism-for-the-rich.and probably back to Victorian workhouses where if you don’t have the resources you’re fucked;
But I suppose the problem is how ‘scroungers’ are perceived in the the time we live in. Why are we so judicious about people who have nothing ( when we have a governing class who encourage the perception that people don’t want towork when we all know that the situation is precarious with zero hour contracts, high rents etc) despite their scrounging of having the right family contacts, money etc to achieve a responsible or governing role but do nothing to make things better for the people they represent? And us? Why arenìt we more sympathetic to people around us who are struggling? Have we really come to this??
The stress that is referred to in this article; or psychosocial stress to give its proper name is never really addressed. It is a type of violence, known as structural violence, that again never really gets discussed but is every bit as destructive as any other form of violence.
We constantly hear from the government etc. about unemployment. What is not considered is that unemployment is unavoidable. It is largely technical unemployment caused by technology taking over tasks that previously had been carried out by humans.
The problem is the socio-economic system itself.
We are deliberately causing the problems through the market paradigm. The sooner we realise that by utilising the technology and the sciences available to us we can eliminate the need for scarcity. Once we create abundance which is becoming evermore pressing ecological necessity, the need for a monetary system ceases. Poverty at any level, anywhere in the world is structural violence perpetrated by the system. This should not be written-off as utopian. It is possible NOW… we just need to shift our processes to support a resource based economy.
Politics is the desire by some (politicians 🙂 ) to maintain a system of governance or organised control, over the the people or ‘subjects’, in a given geographical area. Much of this purpose is to enable taxation; allegedly to support the system, but actually to subjugate us in the perpetual cycle of debt and to enable those at the financial pinnacle to maintain their very exalted positions.
We need to rise up against this…. https://waveofaction.org/
Don’t stop ranting! We need to make ourselves heard! My husband has only been unemployed 3 months and despite his high level educational and professional qualifications plus loads of experience and excellent references he cannot get a job.He has tried anything from his chosen area of work [which he is very good at] to working in a supermarket or warehouse. He is getting very depressed and feels there is something wrong with recruitment in HR companies now. We were once in a comfortable position financially though never owned a house or car but did like our food and occasional holidays. Now after my retirement [I am considerably older] we wonder how long we can survive. WE don’t read right wing newspapers but imagine they fuel the image of the ‘scrounger’. Maybe they [and the Goverment] should do some real research?
I can vouch for these findings. On long term sick leave from work myself, I find myself embarrassed to repeat that my health hasn’t improved. I am always convinced the person I tell doesn’t believe me. As well as this, when my son was made redundant he refused to sign on because he refused to be classed as lazy. He regularly worked 70 to 80 hours a week and yet knew he would be seen as work shy if he claimed. And then, the curate at our church wrote an article about what Jesus might say about the welfare state. The tone of the article can be garnered by the fact that the title was written over a picture of one of the main characters from the TV series, “Shameless”. Immediately created an impression in the mind of a reader, before a single word was read.
its lovely to see someone who writes the truth,instead of spinning a web of deception and yarns to make the lining of their own pockets justified as so called hard working business men who because of their inherited wealth have been able to sneak into office and gain the privilege of running our once great nation into the ground,the so called scroungers given the chance would work their butts off for the chance of a decent job and a fair pay-packet at the end of the week instead of being forced into servitude and something little better than slavery for workfare and do not even think to get me started on the way this ConDem Gov have bismirched the disabled considering cameron himself was claiming disability payments for his now deceased son
the real parasites are low life mp,s who use there job for the sole perpose of making money at the expense of the poor and vulnerable even try to make war for gain these kind of people should be prosecuted and made to pay for there crimes
I am applying for at times in excess of 30 jobs a week and it does hurt to be referred to as a scrounger if I am honest.
As for the benefit system itself and bedroom taxes I will be forced out of my home in the end despite being categorised under old rules as ok!
Have I lost hope …possibly yes.
As a human do I feel undervalued….yes!
I never cease to be amazed that the academic debate over welfare “reform” and the demonisation of those in receipt of benefits so rarely mentions the history of governments deliberately using unemployment to force down real wages.
In addition to the unemployment caused by cuts, we have 35 years of unemployment caused by central banks pursuing a policy of controlling inflation through unemployment, based on the doctrine of the “Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment” or NAIRU for short. The Bank of England`s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) publishes the minutes of its monthly meetings which are often very candid on unemployment and should be required reading for academics studying the effect of unemployment, underemployment and intermittent employment.
The economists on the MPC not only want “enough” unemployment, they also want the “right type” of unemployment. Six months after Chancellor Gordon Brown created the MPC, in its December 1997 meeting the Committee asked itself “did short-term unemployment exert more downward pressure on earnings than long-term unemployment?”. They concluded that “short-term unemployment was more important”, on the grounds that “when the proportion of long-term jobless was high…..workers would probably realise that they could not be replaced so easily, and hence that their bargaining strength was higher”.
In the 1990s “Full Employability” replaced “Full Employment” in the rhetoric of politicians and much misery ensued:
But what has really has given this obvious myth which began in the ‘80s such cogency? It has to be considered alongside its complementary lie which separates economics from politics and pretends vacuous political debate has real agency.
It goes a long way further back than the 1980’s.
Robert Tressell’s classic novel, the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, is full of the same rhetoric.