This week, Katharine Sacks-Jones commented in the Guardian that, ‘Popular misconceptions lead to people who need support being treated with the same suspicion and contempt as those who abuse the system’. Indeed, there is a clear gravitation towards victimisation and scapegoating, both within government and the media, towards those receiving Britain’s essential welfare services.
Last year, the world was horrified to hear of Michael Philpott burning down his house in a twisted revenge plot and killing six of his eleven children. The shock and outrage people felt was exacerbated, when it emerged that Philpott had also previously received tabloid attention for being ‘the biggest scrounger in Britain’, claiming more than £8000 a year in child support, in addition to income support. Nobody is going to defend his actions, and rightly so; yet, to use a tragedy like this, and portray it as an accurate representation of people claiming benefits in the UK is fundamentally wrong. This example was predictably used as a means of presenting budget cuts to welfare support in a more favourable light, with George Osborne commenting that this raises the question of whether the government should be ‘subsidising lifestyles like that.’ Obviously not.
The way in which the question was posed suggested that there were a great number of ‘lifestyles like that’ being subsidised. It presents benefit fraud as an issue of considerable proportions, at least enough to justify welfare cuts and procedures to make it more difficult to claim benefits. Staggeringly, British citizens perceive it to be a crisis of size – the average UK citizen apparently thinks that the proportion of welfare fraud is 34 times more of the benefits total than government estimates show it to be.
This is linked to the way the media presents people who are claiming benefits – negative representations are shown time and time again on shows such as The Jeremy Kyle Show and Benefits Street, which has been labelled as ‘poverty porn,’ aiming simply to create cheap shock people, which results in it being hugely misrepresentative and reinforcing prejudice. Last year, in their usual subtle manner, the Daily Mail ran an article about ‘the most outrageous benefits cheats of 2013.’ Articles like that completely blow the problem out of proportion. Annual government estimates for benefits fraud are dwarfed by estimates for tax fraud, and by a high number of unclaimed benefits and tax credits. Yet the latter goes largely unreported, and is a consequence not only of not of the complications involving claiming benefits, but also because of the notion of pride; an issue made worse by stigmatising those who are entitled to welfare support.
By making the exception look like the rule, people in genuine need – the vast majority of welfare recipients – are victimised. This scapegoating needs to end: it harms not only the people in need of this support, but also the framework of a system that was set up to protect those who need it. This system is designed to support the majority. Most people, at some point in their lives, will receive some sort of welfare support, be it for having a disability or caring for someone with one, being made unemployed, or for support in old age. No system is perfect, and there will always be a small minority that abuses it. However, instead of targeting people on benefits, we need to focus on correcting the skewed representation that exaggerates this abuse, contributes to a misinformed public opinion and justifies the dismantling of a system that benefits us all.