Who can we trust to separate benefits myths from the truth?

As of yesterday we will begin to discover whether Iain Duncan Smith’s personal mission to overhaul the benefits system through the Universal Credit will be a success or failure as the first pilot is rolled out in parts of Manchester.  Week on week it’s impossible to get away from benefits-related news, but it’s still an ongoing struggle to keep up with the myriad of changes to the benefits system and make sense of them.  It’s particularly challenging to separate fact from fiction.  With politicians spinning their take on benefits to fit their own agendas and the media continually giving us a biased perspective through the use of extreme cases, we seem no closer to being able to grasp a true picture of the way benefits are shaping lives in this country.

Politicians love a good narrative to hang their policies off.  We’ve heard George Osborne talking repeatedly about the lazy unemployed who cannot be bothered to work.  Earlier this month in reference to the horrendous arson case involving Mick Philpott who was living entirely off benefits and receiving £8,000 per year in child benefits alone for his 11 children Osborne said, “I think there is a question for government and for society about the welfare state and the taxpayers who pay for the welfare state, subsidising lifestyles like that [Philpott’s].”  The problem is that the Philpott case is well known to be an extreme one and very few do live his ‘lifestyle’ .  According to a Department of Work and Pensions Freedom of Information Request in 2012, only around 130 families with 10 or more children were on the main out-of-work benefits in the whole country.

Labour too has bought into this feckless benefits recipients narrative.  Liam Byrne the shadow Work and Pensions minister said this in December 2012: “Let’s face the tough truth – that many people on the doorstep at the last election, felt that too often we were for shirkers not workers.”  Do we believe that this narrative is correct and is based on reliable evidence?

The only serious recent attempt I have read recently that actually aims to get beneath the headlines and try to separate the myths from the realities regarding those out of work or receiving benefit income in any meaningful way is the report published by in February jointly by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church.  Entitled ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’, it seeks to dispel six common assumptions such as ‘the poor are lazy and don’t want to work’ or ‘The poor have an easy life’.  The reason for producing the report is explained in this manner:

‘Today many churchgoers and members of the general public alike have come to believe that the key factors driving poverty in the UK are the personal failings of the poor – especially ‘idleness’. How did this come about?

‘The myths.. reinforced by politicians and the media, are convenient because they allow the poor to be blamed for their poverty, and the rest of society to avoid taking any of the responsibility. Myths hide the complexity of the true nature of poverty in the UK. They enable dangerous policies to be imposed on whole sections of society without their full consequences being properly examined.  Churches have a special interest in speaking truthfully about poverty.  The systematic misrepresentation of the poorest in society is a matter of injustice which all Christians have a responsibility to challenge.’

The report makes a coherent attempt to use facts and statistics to give an accurate impression of what life is like for the poor in Britain and deliberately aims to debunk some of the headlines and political scaremongering.  Unsurprisingly it finds that the government and sections of the tabloid media are deliberately misusing evidence to misrepresent the plight of the poor and that the public is buying into these convenient myths.  Yet despite what would appear at face value to be an accurate piece of work, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) think tank released a response on Friday challenging some of the claims made in The lies we tell ourselves.

The CSJ was founded by Iain Duncan-Smith in 2004, but is a fully independent organisation, It has spent much of the last few years researching the lives of those in poverty and providing a large body of evidence and analysis, some of which has been used in the creation of the Universal Credit. They know their stuff and their arguments deserve to be listened to.

The CSJ’s response at 8 pages is far shorter than The lies we tell ourselves’ 32 pages and only a handful of points are raised which implies that the CSJ are not disputing much of the report.  The main point of contention is its nature and focus.  The lies we tell ourselves does not offer answers and solutions to the problems the poor face.  It clear that this was never its objective, but at one level its defence of the poor can be read as little more than an attack on the Government’s welfare policy and an endorsement of much of the current benefits system.

As Mark Twain said, ‘There are lies, damned lies and statistics‘ and there are some instances where the use of them in The lies we tell ourselves do not tell the whole story.  As the CSJ response picks at some of these and opens them up, it is a reminder that in trying to present evidence in a simple way, you can be accused of not presenting the whole truth.  The report attacks the use by government of referring to case studies to back up its policies.  Case studies may help us to understand an individual’s circumstances, but they do not necessarily give an accurate overview and can give a misleading view of  the wider context.  Unfortunately The lies we tell ourselves makes the mistake of going on to use case studies to present different narratives which equally may or may not be accurate.

One of the criticisms from some commentators of the new Universal Credit is that the move from weekly to monthly payments to mirror that of most jobs will make it harder for some to manage their money and budget effectively.  The third ‘myth’ that The lies we tell ourselves attacks is that the poor are only poor because they just don’t manage their money properly.  The report finds that the majority of the poor do in fact through necessity manage their money very carefully.  In this case the authors of the report are in agreement with the Government, which might not be the impression gained by reading it.  This is one case where time will tell if they both are correct.

It’s welcome to see the CSJ responding to The lies we tell ourselves because it shows that it has been taken seriously.  The churches have done a vital job in highlighting an important issues and tackling it in an appropriate way.  The CSJ is concerned though, that in attempting to dispel one set of myths the report (whether intentionally or not) has introduced new ones.  When you come across as attempting to take the moral high ground and accusing others of twisting the truth, it is especially important that you don’t fall into the same trap and have those accusations thrown back at you if you want to maintain credibility.  This should especially be the case for those representing the Christian faith which prizes truth so highly.

The lies we tell ourselves is far from being a bad report, but where it is most open to criticism is through its decision not to take the benefits argument forward.  The way the poor are treated is rightly a justice issue and they should not be stigmatised or ignored, but justice is not just about being compassionate to those in need, it is about doing what we can to make sure the vulnerable and less well off are given a fair chance in life.  That means not just tackling misconceptions towards them but working out how they can be best served and much of that in our society comes through the benefits system.  Last week the Archbishop of Canterbury gave a speech where he set out his vision for the future of the banks.  His approach may or may not be the best one, but it demonstrates his desire to see banking become more moral and effective.  The same should go for our benefits system.  Very few would say that it is working well in its current form.  It’s easy to criticise, but much harder to be constructive.

The lies we tell ourselves is an important document that exposes many myths and lies, but it should not be seen as the final word.  Christianity has an approach to life that focuses on change for the better.  The churches have an important role in speaking up for those who have little in the way of a voice and much of that should involve presenting a way forward rooted in love and compassion that offers better solutions and goes beyond just criticising the failures of the present.

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Categories: Benefits & unemployment, Justice, Poverty

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3 replies

  1. This reminds me of the problems with modern science, namely that the fine detail can be so complex as to become effectively incomprehensible to anyone without intimate knowledge of the subject area. The benefits system is similarly monolithic and whilst it may be relatively easy to point out perceived flaws, actually reforming the system requires an understanding that simply isn’t available to anyone without the time to understand it (nearly everyone). However, unlike most complex science, the subject is highly emotive and ripe ground for everyone to have an opinion.

  2. Thanks for posting the ‘lies and myths’ link. I’ll admit to falling into this thinking myself: ‘Is anybody really poor in this country? Surely they’re just misspending their benefits? If we try to be charitable, are we just going to be taken for a ride?’ These doubts can come into your head when you see the newspaper reports.

    Recently some people in Church who work in this area gave me a wake-up call to the real deprivation of some people in our society. From my non-expert observation the really baffling thing is that some people really are on benefits who don’t need to be – they could get a job if they put their mind to it, they have no dependants and they have support from their family anyway. Yet those really in need, like the homeless, just don’t seem to be in the system at all. They’re told ‘go home to your parents’ ‘Erm, my parents are dead/kicked me out. Hence the whole homeless thing.’ Why isn’t the money reaching the people who really need it?

  3. From my perspective as a trained social researcher much of the extensive CSJ research into the causes of poverty in the UK has some very serious methodological flaws and was not designed or carried out by people with recognised research qualifications. The research presented in ‘truth and lies’ was undertaken by qualified social researchers and in my opinion is much more reliable. Case study research is a perfectly valid qualitative method and was used appropriately along with other methods. When evaluating the CSJ response to ‘truth and lies’ we shouldn’t forget the way DWP ministers, including Mr Duncan Smith, have been reprimanded by Andrew Dilnot from the UK Statistics Agency more than once recently for misrepresenting the truth by putting a party political spin on statistics and that Mr Duncan Smith has been called to account for this dishonesty before the Work and Pensions Select Committee later this month.

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