Poverty talk: how people experiencing poverty deny their poverty and why they blame ‘the poor’


TracyShildrick, RobertMacDonald


The Sociological Review

Volume 61, Issue 2
May 2013
Pages 285–303
Original article


Drawing on life history interviews with sixty men and women in north-east England who were caught up in ‘the low-pay, no-pay cycle’, this article describes how people living in poverty talk about poverty – in respect of themselves and others. Paradoxically, interviewees subscribed to a powerful set of ideas that denied poverty and morally condemned ‘the poor’. These findings are theorized in four ways: first, informants deployed close points of comparison that diminished a sense of relative poverty and deprivation; second, dissociation from ‘the poor’ reflects long-running stigma and shame but is given extra force by current forms of ‘scroungerphobia’; third, discourses of the ‘undeserving poor’ articulate with a more general contemporary prejudice against the working class, which fuels the impetus to dissociate from ‘the poor’ (and to disidentify with the working class); and fourth, the hegemonic orthodoxy that blames ‘the poor’ for their poverty can more easily dominate in contexts where more solidaristic forms of working-class life are in decline.

A lot of people round here are living in poverty but I think a lot of it’s their own doing. (Laura, 31, unemployed).

Nowadays there really is no primary poverty left in this country … In Western countries we are left with problems that aren’t poverty. All right, there may be poverty because they don’t know how to budget, don’t know how to spend their earnings, but now you are left with the really hard fundamental character-personality defect (Margaret Thatcher, 1978, cited in Jones, 2012: 64).

A homogenising myth of our time is that people fall to the bottom because they are undeserving (Dorling, 2010: 155).

Ruth Lister has highlighted how the voices of those experiencing poverty are rarely heard: ‘the poor’ are ‘frequently talked and theorised about but are rarely themselves in a position to have their thoughts published’ (2004: 2). A first aim of the paper is to give some visibility to the accounts of a particularly overlooked group; those who churn between low-paid, insecure jobs and unemployment but never move far away from poverty. The second and main aim is to seek to understand the paradoxical ways in which these people talked about poverty and ‘the poor’. Despite living in sometimes severe, material hardship our interviewees denied that ‘poverty’ described their conditions of life. Others, however, were said to be ‘poor’ – and were blamed for this because of their irresponsible consumption and the failure to ‘manage’ in everyday hardship.

The paper is presented in two main parts. The first describes the aims, methods and key findings of the research. The second part theorizes why informants used the sort of ‘poverty talk’ they did. It makes four arguments: first, that the close points of social comparison used by informants led to a diminished sense of relative deprivation and relative poverty; secondly, that their narratives reflect the long-run shame and stigma of poverty and unemployment, given extra bite by a contemporary round of popular ‘scroungerphobia’; thirdly, that condemnation of the ‘undeserving poor’ feeds off and feeds into a more general contemporary prejudice against Britain’s white working class; and fourthly, that as working-class institutions have declined and working-class life has become less solidaristic, so more easily do hegemonic, ‘ruling ideas’ – that blame ‘the poor’ for their poverty – come to dominate, even amongst ‘the poor’ themselves.
Researching ‘recurrent poverty’: methods

This study was one of five funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation as part of their Recurrent Poverty programme (see Goulden, 2010). This aimed to investigate the dynamics of poverty over the life-course, rather than static, snap-shot depictions of poverty (Smith and Middleton, 2007). A key focus for our project was on how and why people can become entrapped in long-term churning between insecure, low paid jobs and unemployment: the ‘low-pay, no-pay cycle’.

The research was conducted in Middlesbrough, the main town of Teesside, North East England, between 2008 and 2010. Teesside has undergone rapid deindustrialization since its industrial, post-war hey day and, arguably, ‘the socio-economic consequences … will be familiar to students of the failure of “old industrial regions” and “rust-belt” cities of Britain and elsewhere’ (MacDonald and Marsh, 2005: 39). These include persistently high rates of structural unemployment, diminishing opportunities for better quality employment and the greater likelihood that workers will become engaged in cycling between low quality, insecure jobs and periods of unemployment. Research participants were recruited from two Middlesbrough neighbourhoods that in many respects are typical of UK estates of social housing built in the mid-20th century. Both are predominantly white, working-class areas with high levels of population stability and, now, worklessness and benefit receipt.

The main element of fieldwork was interviews with 60 people (equally divided by gender), aged 30 to 60 years, resident in our research neighbourhoods and who had experience of the low-pay, no-pay cycle. All could be categorized as working class (on the basis of their occupational histories) and all were ethnically white British, reflecting the socio-demographic profile of their neighbourhoods. Techniques for recruitment included leaflets and posters in the neighbourhoods, contacts from previous research studies in the locality (eg Johnston et al., 2000; MacDonald and Marsh, 2005) and ‘snowballing’ from early interviews (see Shildrick et al., 2012 for a fuller discussion).

The research followed the British Sociological Association’s ethical guidelines (eg participants have been given pseudonyms) and was approved by Teesside University’s Research Ethics Committee. Interviews were audio-recorded, lasted one to two hours, were conducted in people’s homes or at the university, and were organized around a set of thematic headings that flexibly guided the interview. Interviewees received a £20 ‘thank you’ to cover expenses and their time; this was one motivation for participation but more generally it became clear that wanting to be able to record their viewpoints (eg about the failings of the benefit system) or simply to be helpful to the researchers were the main ones. The experience of doing the research was one that reminded us that ‘hard to reach’ is a label that is sometimes wrongly applied to marginalized social groups such as this. Very rarely did a potential interviewee decline to participate and, typically, interviewees were candid and extensive in their answers to questions (which included ‘sensitive’ ones, for instance about debt, benefit fraud and illegal earnings), suggesting that a high degree of trust was established between interview participants.

Interviews were transcribed verbatim and fifteen main thematic codes and numerous sub-codes were derived through which to manually ‘cut up’ and sort the entire interview ‘data’. These thematic codes were in part informed by the project’s research questions and in part reflected themes that emerged more spontaneously in interviews. This process enabled us to see, for instance, all examples of how people described ‘living in poverty’ and ‘talked about poverty’ (each were areas of substantive interview questioning and subsequent thematic codes). All interviews included material relevant to the former and approximately three-quarters of them contained examples of the latter. Characteristic examples of each are presented in this paper. Members of the research team1 each undertook all aspects of the analysis and arrived at similar conclusions about necessary codes, the material to be sorted under each and the main themes of analysis and key findings. In addition, some basic quantitative mapping of interview material was undertaken. For example, we mapped individual’s work histories and what we could learn of their individual and household income, over time, against standard poverty measures. This demonstrated that four-fifths of the sample could be described as ‘recurrently’ or ‘persistently poor’ (with the remainder being varied cases including one-off, life-time movements away from or into poverty) (see Shildrick et al., 2012 for fuller discussion).
Key findings
Everyday hardship and disclaiming poverty

Ours was a qualitative study and we were most interested in interviewees’ own accounts and definitions of poverty. These were usually very much at odds with objective measures. Typically, interviewees’ lives were ones of financial hardship. This was most true in periods of unemployment but also could apply when people were in jobs. For instance, Winnie (44) had spent her working life moving between jobs in caring, cleaning and shops, all low paid and part-time. When interviewed, she had two, part-time cleaning jobs that gave her £576 a month. After her outgoings she was ‘left with barely anything’:

I struggle, really struggle because by the time I pay me bills, gas, electric and water rates, TV, all that, I’m left with a couple of pound, that’s it … I wanted to work. If I didn’t work I think I’d go crazy … I mean, to be honest, somebody in my situation, I would probably be better off on benefits.

Some informants appeared to be in deep poverty: they were unable to clothe or feed themselves properly or furnish and heat their homes adequately. Day-to-day life was a juggling act which demanded strict routines (eg catching the daily reductions at the shops, careful purchasing, and long-term planning for special occasions, such as Christmas) and the ‘bonding social capital’ of families and friends was crucial in helping people get by in adverse circumstances (Forrest and Kearns, 2001):

If I want clothes or the kids want anything, it’s always, like, getting the loan book out [from a door-step loans agency], you know? I would, like, have to miss something to get something, if you know what I mean? It’s awful. There’s never anything in my purse (Sophie, 30).

I walk to my eldest daughter’s house and I’ll ask her to give me a meal. I go to Sainsbury’s about nine o’clock and look for all the reduced items. You’ll buy a loaf of bread and it’ll last you for four days. Reduced eggs, they’ll last you a week (Amanda, 48).

Leisure lives were limited and usually focused on home-based activities. Hamilton (2012) describes how low-income mothers in Northern Ireland purchased designer clothing for children so as to avoid the stigma of poverty (and the ensuing double-bind in that the styles purchased, although valued locally, carried wider stigma because of their association with ‘Chavs’). Although our informants mentioned these sorts of pressures, their problems sometimes seemed more basic. Debbie (43) told of how, when her children were younger, they and the neighbour’s children would ‘play dinosaurs’; huddling for hours under duvets in the living room pretending to be dinosaurs simultaneously finding a way to keep warm. Holidays and even days out were rare. The dream of having a family holiday was mentioned often and seemed emblematic of what it meant to live in financial hardship.

Informants were not, however, willing to use the language of poverty to describe these adverse circumstances. Several found it difficult even to agree that poverty existed in Britain. Some associated it only with developing countries: ‘People in poverty? I mean, I’ve seen poverty in the Philippines … it’s terrible in this day and age, it really is … there’s not a great deal of poverty round here but there’s hardship. I think that’s a better word for it’ (Lennie, 57, unemployed). For many, it was TV images of absolute poverty in Asia and Africa which sprang to mind when we initially asked them about their views on poverty. They were quick to reject the term as having relevance to their own lives. Alan (38) currently claiming Job Seeker’s Allowance, emphasized: ‘no, not poor, no’. Linda (33) and her husband Stuart (36) relied on unemployment benefits, each currently being out of work. Linda’s answer was typical: ‘No, not really (poor). No, not really, no’.
‘Not poor’ but ‘managing’: the normalization of everyday hardship

Instead, interviewees’ reached for terms like ‘hard up’ and things ‘being tight’ but simultaneously emphasized their ability to ‘get by’ and ‘cope’ with limited resources. ‘Managing’, in particular, was a term that carried great resonance and was frequently used as a counterpoint to ‘being poor’. Thus, interviews stressed the fortitude, resourcefulness and ability of people to manage. This was particularly prominent in interviews with women who were mothers. Skeggs writes that ‘working-class women are more likely to refuse victim-hood, cover up injury and endure to display that they can cope’ (2005: 971). It was women mostly who had responsibility for running household budgets and for looking after children and, understandably, who talked most explicitly about financial strain. The following extracts are, first, from an interview with Stuart (36) and his wife Linda (33); see above. Compare Stuart’s phlegmatic attitude with Linda’s, which gives a greater feel for the financial pressure that the family is under:

We manage. We’ve got enough. We’re not on the breadline. There’s always food in the cupboards. The kids are always clothed. There’s always heating. All the bills are paid. We might be paying reduced amounts on ‘em but they’re still getting paid (Stuart, 36).

I’d love to go abroad but, the way I look at it, me house and me bills come before and I won’t get in debt to go on a holiday … the kids say they haven’t been abroad but I say go down the town [for a trip out] even if it’s the Pound Shop. If the kids say they wanted to go to Whitby [a nearby seaside town] and it was in the week that I wasn’t paid [benefits], say it was the Thursday, I wouldn’t be able to take ‘em … When I’ve been shopping they’re like vultures! But in the end I manage, you know what I mean? It’s not, like, I don’t manage. I do manage, definitely. (Linda, 33)

At the same time as describing difficult, sometimes traumatic, circumstances interviewees were keen to stress the normality of their lives. Characteristically, informants positioned themselves as being in the same situation as others. Comparisons were made locally: ‘nobody’s rich round here. They are all just struggling to get by’ (Micky, 30). The following is from an interview with Janice (56) and her husband Lennie (57). The first extract shows a particular aspect of ‘everyday hardship’. The second demonstrates how this hardship was normalized by Janice. The couple both suffered from respiratory illnesses but had been living with no central heating or hot water for several weeks. They had purchased their council house during better times and now could not afford to repair the heating boiler:


I mean, we can’t afford to get the heating done and that’s not ideal, especially with me getting chest infections – but we can’t do anything about it. You just have to get on with it, keep going sort of thing.

We’ve been sleeping down here [in the living room, in front of a gas fire] … we listen to the weather forecast and because the past couple of nights it [the temperature] was due to plummet we stayed down here …

It’s bitter cold … you can’t even go in the bath to get warmed up because there’s no hot water … my bones ache, don’t they? Really ache. I just cannot get warm.

Janice went on to stress:

We don’t have a lot – but we manage. I think that’s how it is for a lot of people round here … there are loads of people in the same situation as us, some worse … I think at the minute everyone is struggling, aren’t they?

The media prominence given to the national economic recession at the time of fieldwork – and how there might be ‘loads of people in the same situation’ – partly explains Janice’s emphasis upon the normality of her experiences in objectively unusual circumstances, as does the sense of pride she and others could take in presenting themselves as normal and managing in difficult situations. We return to each of these points later in the article.
‘Just buying fish cakes, fifty for £1’: the ‘undeserving poor’

In presenting themselves as largely unremarkable, in rejecting the label of poverty, in stressing pride in coping with hardship, research participants constructed a self-identity in contrast to a (usually) nameless mass of ‘Others’ who were believed, variously, to be work-shy, to claim benefits illegitimately and to be unable to ‘manage’ and to engage in blameworthy consumption habits. It was them upon whom the stigma of poverty was cast. Mark (43, unemployed) was typical in this respect:


There’s some people who don’t want work. They just don’t want it. I’ve heard of people going down the Job Centre. They say ‘I don’t work’. So they tell them they’ll stop their benefit and that gives them the push to have to go out and look, but they’re not bothered. If they can live on the dole they’ll do it.

Why do you think you’re different to them?

Because I want to work.

As we describe later, the ‘sick and disabled’ are increasingly included amongst ‘the undeserving poor’. There was no shortage of disparagement of the allegedly undeserving poor in our interviews, including of those claiming sickness and disability benefits. Carol (44) claimed DLA (Disability Living Allowance) and described how she felt about some others who did the same:

Yeah, there’s lots of people round here … I suppose I shouldn’t say this but half of ‘em are on DLA and there’s nowt wrong with ‘em! It’s because it’s not hard for them. Because they’re, like, comfortable on what they’re getting. They know it’s going to be there. People say ‘why should I work if they’re going to pay me?’ … Instead of getting a job they think ‘nah, I’ll go on the Social and get money for being ill’.

MacDonald and Marsh (2005) heard similar distancing narratives in their research with young adults in the same Teesside neighbourhoods. Paradoxically, whilst young adults described graphically their own depressing episodes of worklessness and strong commitment to employment, they were often quick to suppose that others around them were ‘work-shy’ and ‘welfare dependent’. In a concerted test of underclass theory (Murray, 1994), MacDonald and Marsh (2005) actively sought to find these ‘Others’. What they gathered in subsequent interviews was not evidence in support of underclass theory, nor that validated earlier interviewees’ suspicions, but further accounts which talked about ‘us’ and ‘them’; ‘the deserving’ and ‘the undeserving’. The ‘workshy underclass’ was a phantom that could not be pinned down in the practice of fieldwork. Indeed, across our studies in Teesside one of the most consistent findings has been the strength of employment commitment amongst the sorts of people most likely to fit theories of ‘a welfare dependent underclass’ (Johnston et al., 2000; Webster et al., 2004; MacDonald and Marsh, 2005; Shildrick et al., 2012).2

Poverty ‘is a moral concept as well as a descriptive one’ (Spicker, 2007: 93) and interviews were heavily loaded with moral assessment. Poverty in other people’s lives was usually viewed as a consequence of individual ineptitude or moral failure. Others were blamed particularly for their inability – or unwillingness – ‘to manage’. Mary (30) was unemployed and she and her family were experiencing considerable financial difficulties when interviewed:

Over the other side of the estate, yeah. Very poor. Some of the places that are over there are awful. There is crime constantly and they are very poor and the kids haven’t got much, but that’s because the parents are spending it all on drugs or getting drunk every night.

Dawn was also aged 30, unemployed, a mother of two and had been on benefits for lengthy periods. She held similar views to Mary:

Some people struggle because they are too busy drinking. They don’t manage it. They either go out drinking or drinking in the house every day and there’s drugs and stuff. That’s what makes people so poor.

Mothers have long held the main responsibility for maintaining respectability in working-class communities. Adhering to high standards of household cleanliness, and being able ‘to make ends meet’, is a visible marker of being ‘a good mother’ (Skeggs, 1997, 2005). Hamilton (2012), for instance, has shown how the ‘stigma management’ of low-income mothers required coping strategies through which to protect social identity (including personal sacrifices to allow the ‘artificial affluence’ of expensive branded goods for children). In our study, it was the perceived unwillingness of mothers to make sacrifices for the sake of the children and their inability to maintain standards which was the fulcrum upon which castigations of ‘the undeserving poor’ often turned. Criticisms were often of mothers by mothers, reinforcing Skeggs’ point about the pole position of women in attempts to protect and present working-class respectability (1997).

Wills et al. (2011) found that it was middle-class families who were most likely to emphasize the importance of eating healthy foods but, interestingly, diet was often subject to moral assessment in our interviews. Providing sufficient, healthy food for children was a clear marker of ‘managing’ – of respectability – amongst the mothers in our research, just as the inability to provide this was a ‘stigma symbol’ (Goffman, 1963). Skeggs (2005: 967) describes how a new brand of popular television about diet and health (‘fat’ programmes) ‘predominantly expose working-class families, especially mothers, as incapable of knowing how to look after themselves and others, as irresponsible’. Meeting these sorts of moral strictures (promoted in these programmes and held as valid by informants) demanded the daily planning and juggling of resources we described earlier. There was considerable emphasis upon providing what Pamela (54, unemployed and mother of two) called ‘quality food’. If this could not be afforded for parents it should be for the children. This morality of provisioning and consumption was contrasted with the immorality and failings of others:

Well, there is a girl over the road. She’s got three kids and she buys all the stuff, the gear [designer clothes] for them but then they don’t eat properly! They have that white plastic bread in their hand and they don’t eat properly. I’ve seen them in Morrison’s just buying fish cakes, fifty for £1. (Pamela, 54).

I’ve seen children even now in this day and age where it’s jam and bread because mum and dad has gambled it or boozed it or whatever but that’s never been the case for us … the children have always come first … even when we have really struggled. (Diane, 40, mother of one and unemployed).

Discussion: explaining ‘poverty talk’

To summarize: financial hardship and, for some, deep poverty were the conditions of life for interviewees. Sociologically it is not a revelation to report that some people in Britain live in poverty.3 It is more intriguing that this was frequently doubted by the people in this exact situation. The denial of poverty either as a general phenomenon in Britain or as a term that described their own lives meshed with, and was partly explained by, an emphasis upon, and a pride in, managing in difficult circumstances. People had learned to ‘get by’ with never having very much and ‘to identify oneself as poor is to identify oneself as having a problem and being in need of help’ (Alcock, 2006: 200). When ‘the poor’ were identified these were the ‘undeserving poor’, defined by their inability to manage and maintain family respectability, particularly in respect of household consumption (and, even more specifically, providing a proper diet for children). In other words poverty became this perceived lack of respectability and inability to manage, a moral failure worthy of blame. In this sense, informants perceived nothing other than ‘the undeserving poor’. There was no ‘deserving poor’ in their equation because they denied that ‘poverty’ applied to them and it only existed as moral and personal failure.

Although we have given hints of possibilities in the discussion so far, in the remainder of the article we seek to theorize our findings further. Some of this is necessarily speculative but we seek to mesh this discussion with other recent research and thinking. We present four, overlapping lines of explanation.
Close points of comparison

First, we need to consider the points of comparison that were accessible to these interviewees. Talking about poverty is unfashionable in the UK. The apparent success of the welfare state and full employment in eradicating the poverty of the inter-war years led to the political orthodoxy that poverty in the UK had been abolished (Atkinson, 2000). Despite the ‘rediscovery of poverty’ in the 1960s (Coates and Silburn, 1970), the concept has never regained weight with the general public or with politicians and policy-makers. Alcock (2006: 5) explains this with reference to the difference between absolute and relative measures and rising standards of living during the 20th century: ‘all of the population were better off at the end of the last century than they were at the beginning’. Declining rates of absolute poverty gives rise to the perception that ‘few or no people could be counted as poor’ – even if ‘relative measures of poverty … showed a third of the British public were in poverty in the 1980s’ (Alcock, 2006: 5).

It is in this context – of the political invisibility and doubts about the reality of poverty – in which informants made sense of their own lives. If we add into this the fact that people, regardless of where they sit on income scales, tend to underestimate income inequality in the UK (Bamfield and Horton, 2009) – and that ‘because our personal world is filled with people just like us, we tend to think of our social situation as normal and unexceptional’ (Bottero, 2004: 998) – then we come closer to understanding why our informants might not regard themselves as poor.

Although clearly not restricted to this place, there may well be a compounding ‘Middlesbrough effect’ here too. The town is unusual in the extent of its poverty. In 2004 it was ranked 11th out of 354 local authorities for the proportion of its population living in the most deprived 10 per cent of wards in the country (IMD, 2004). It has ‘pockets of affluence’ not ‘pockets of poverty’. Our informants were born and bred in Middlesbrough and this, largely, was where they had stayed. The locales we researched are mono-cultural places – very predominantly, white, working-class neighbourhoods. Points of comparison with other places or other ‘sorts of people’, from direct experience, were few. In earlier research (MacDonald and Marsh, 2005) sometimes young adults would ask the researchers why the study was set in their neighbourhood. Others in the town were ‘far worse’, they said (even though at the time theirs was ranked as third most deprived from over 8,000 wards in the country). In other words, informants sought comparisons horizontally, sociologically, and close by, geographically. Doubting the persistence in Britain of absolute poverty and assessing relative poverty over short social horizons led them to regard themselves as not ‘poor’ but ‘just like everyone else’. This weak sense of relative deprivation might also help us understand the more general lack of indignation, anger and resistance found in this and earlier Teesside studies.
The shame of poverty and welfare: attacking ‘the poor’

This in itself does not sufficiently explain our findings. Kelvin and Jarrett (1985: 123 and 125) make a further point about comparisons. Summarizing research on the social psychology of unemployment, they say of the ‘unemployed man’ that:

he feels tainted by association … [and needs] to feel that he is better than others who are in the same position … the unemployed thus constitute a virtually unique reference group. Its members, almost to a man and woman, do not want to belong to it.

The research literature that Kelvin and Jarrett used dates from the 1930s and, then, the 1970s to early 1980s (the two 20th-century periods of prolonged high unemployment in the UK, at that point). As we will describe, the pressures to disassociate from ‘the unemployed’ are even stronger now. Kelvin and Jarrett insert the caveat ‘virtually unique’ in noting ‘the poor’ as a repellent ‘reference group’. Although not permanently out of work or in receipt of benefits, our participants regularly faced the ‘triple whammy’ of belonging to three of these: ‘the unemployed’, ‘the poor’ and ‘the welfare dependent’.

Understanding the shame of poverty and welfare requires some historical backdrop, followed by contemporary update. The social and political propensity to mark out some people as unworthy of support or culpable for their own hardship obviously has a long history. Morris (1994) traced the rise and fall of sociological concern with differently labelled versions of the ‘undeserving poor’ over the past century and before. In the Victorian era there was an obsession with labelling slum dwellers as ‘the ‘residuum’, the ‘dangerous classes’, the ‘improvident classes’ or the ‘disreputable poor’ (Damer, 1989: 17). Importantly for our understanding of ‘poverty talk’, as we will elaborate shortly, the ‘undeserving poor’ have a certain class character, positioned at the bottom of the social strata (Marx and Engels, 1977).

Golding and Middleton’s classic 1980s work showed how diatribes against ‘the undeserving poor’ are perpetuated by media and political commentators as ‘scroungerphobia’: that is, the ‘shrill and mounting antagonism to the welfare system and its clients’ (1982: 59). Attacks on welfare recipients ebb and flow historically and powerful ideas about the ‘undeserving poor’ can ‘be tapped at a moment of economic crisis or political uncertainty’ (1982: 109). This analysis seems timely. Since the election of the UK’s Conservative-led Coalition government in 2010, political justification for austerity-driven cuts to welfare spending has been facilitated by painting those on welfare as pursuing ‘a lifestyle choice’ (Osborne, 2010) and as being ‘just not entitled to it’ (Cameron, 2010).

The tabloid press have been willing cheer leaders, running regular features on ‘dole scroungers’ and ‘benefit cheats’ timed neatly with the government’s programme of welfare cuts. For instance, in August 2010 The Sun, Britain biggest selling daily newspaper, led with the following:

TODAY the Sun is declaring war on feckless benefits claimants to slash the £5 BILLION wasted in Britain’s shambolic handouts culture. Hundreds of thousands of scroungers in the UK are robbing hard-working Sun readers of their cash. They cannot be bothered to find a job or they claim to be sick when they are perfectly capable of work because they prefer to sit at home watching widescreen TVs – paid for by YOU (Sloan, 2010).

With this sort of stuff we may be seeing nothing more than modern echoes of age-old enmity towards ‘the undeserving poor’. Yet the volume now seems to be turned up unusually high and, intriguingly, groups of ‘the poor’ previously regarded as ‘deserving’ (Alcock, 2006) and ‘off-limits’ (Garthwaite, 2011: 370) – because ill-health or disability has precluded the possibility of work – are now prime suspects in this tabloid hysteria. Discourses are not without consequences. Leading charities have warned that the government’s focus on alleged fraud and over-claiming, to justify cuts in disability benefits, has caused an increase in resentment, abuse and record levels of ‘hate crime’ against people with disabilities (Riley-Smith, 2012).

Regardless of its unusual inclusion of the sick and disabled, it is difficult not to see this current ‘scroungerphobia’ as chiming with a more general public intolerance towards those ‘at the bottom’. Poverty features far down the public’s list of priorities for government action (NatCen, 2012). This is partly because, as Polly Toynbee (2003: 12) describes, ‘the poor’ are largely invisible with popular representations in TV documentaries and dramas dwelling on the ‘titillating sins of the underclass’ not honest accounts of people living in poverty. More recently, Toynbee commented that ‘working class people have completely ceased to exist as far as the media, popular culture and politicians are concerned’ (quoted in Jones, 2012: 28). This is not exactly true. Take, for example, Coronation Street, one of the UK’s most popular TV soap operas. It does present a version of working-class life and its characters are, occasionally, temporarily unemployed. Yet the relentless poverty – in and out of work – that was typical of our working-class research participants is missing. Coronation Street houses have TVs (that are not coin-slot operated), wallpaper, carpets, sofas, food on the table and heating that works. The children do not huddle under duvets ‘playing dinosaurs’ and the elderly residents do not sleep in the living room in front of the fire to keep warm.

In the tabloid press, scandals of welfare cheats and of the luxurious lives of families on benefits incite outrage against people in poverty and complacency about their prospects: ‘there is no real poverty, welfare cuts are justified’. Such stories sell better than would the mundane reality: the ‘past sell-by date’ food, the drudgery of minimum wage jobs, scrimping and saving for essentials, the going without family holidays. This is a dull and depressing litany, discomforting to readers. This popular media invisibility and/or distortion of the realities of poverty feeds the widespread belief that, where poverty does exist, it must be self-imposed.

As Castell and Thompson (2007: 7) note, there is ‘still a mountain to climb even just to get people to “base camp” in terms of the causes and consequences of poverty in the UK’. This is confirmed by recent British Social Attitudes Survey findings. The majority of the British public see the gap between high and low incomes as too large but few actively support wealth redistribution (NatCen, 2010). This is explained by how people theorize poverty and inequality: ‘less than one in ten of the population give structural explanations for inequality’ (2010: 15). The majority believe that inequality is either an ‘inevitable part of modern life’ or that ‘people in need are lazy’ (2010: 14). The most recent survey (NatCen, 2012) shows public opinion hardening further. Despite unemployment being at a 15-year high, support for extra spending on welfare benefits is at ‘an historically low ebb’. Now almost two-thirds of the British public think that benefits for unemployed people are too high and discourage them from finding jobs (compared to less than a quarter in 1993). Clearly there seems to be a close fit between the government’s efforts to reduce welfare spending and public views on this matter.

Thus, our informants’ denial of their own poverty and their joining in with the condemnation of ‘the undeserving poor’ reflects, in part, the long-run shame and stigma of poverty and unemployment. Historically, both conditions have always been close at hand for Middlesbrough’s working class (Bell, 1985). Pressure to dissociate from these reference groups becomes stronger in periods, as now, when ‘scroungerphobia’ is rife and in which honest portrayals of people in poverty are rarely seen.
The demonization of (and disidentification with) the working class

We suggest that attacks on ‘the poor’ and those in receipt of welfare feed off – and feed into – a more general prejudice against Britain’s white working class.

In recent decades leading politicians have proclaimed Britain to be either classless or that we are all somehow ‘middle class now’ – or aspire to be. Explicit reference to ‘the working class’ has been replaced with ‘hard-working families’; politically, the language of class is regarded as dated and unappealing to the electorate. Certainly class identities have blurred (Roberts, 2001; Savage et al., 2010) and, as we will see, fewer people happily identify themselves as working class.

Those ‘left behind’ in this vision of a classless or aspiring middle-class society, ‘the poor’ and ‘welfare dependent’, are deemed to possess ‘negative’, ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘backward’ attitudes’ (Mooney, 2009). Haylett (2001: 352) argues that this process gained pace under Britain’s New Labour administration which set in place ‘an extensively and powerfully orchestrated culture of ideas about welfare and welfare populations’. It was a discourse that portrayed ‘a mass of people, in mass housing, people and places somehow falling out of the nation, losing the material wherewithal and symbolic dignity traditionally associated with their colour and their class’ (2001: 352). The white working class were not just impoverished by their economic situations; New Labour positioned this as ‘also a cultural impoverishment, a poverty of identity based on outdated ways of thinking and being’ (2001: 352). Indeed, ‘the working class’ has now become ‘the Other’, ‘an unsightly sore on the anatomy of society’ (Kirk, 2007: 99) because the working-class condition has become so closely associated with ‘social exclusion’, ‘welfare dependence’, ‘failing’ social housing estates, family breakdown, violence, alcoholism, debt and dependent drug use. Although Byrne was talking of academic sociology when he said that ‘working class’ is ‘a term increasingly reserved for the dispossessed’ we think this is true more widely (2005: 809).

Owen Jones (2012) has documented this demonization of the working class via the vilification of ‘Chavs’. The explosion in the use of ‘Chav’ in Britain during the 2000s (Hayward and Yar, 2006) is indicative of a sentiment that sees (elements of) working-class culture in terms of ‘disgust and contempt’ (Lawler, 2005: 802). ‘Chavs’ are ‘commonly identified as lazy, lacking ambition, and having poor parenting and social skills; further, they are tasteless and ostentatious in their consumption practices and appearance’ (Adams and Raisborough, 2011: 83). Hayward and Yar (2006) suggest that the class ire drawn down on ‘Chavs’ results from exactly this supposed excessive participation in aesthetically impoverished consumption. Particular styles of dress, jewellery, hairstyle and body adornment seem ever-present in mocking depictions of ‘Chavs’ but critical as well is the way that ‘Chavs’ are presented as poor, welfare-dependent and reliant on council-housing. This is more than mockery of stylistic image – it is about social and economic position.

Arguably, the rise of popular enmity against ‘Chavs’ and declining identification as working class are related. In 2011 one think tank recorded an unprecedented low with only 24 per cent of participants saying they were working class and 71 per cent middle class (Britain Thinks, 2011; see Savage et al., 2010, for other recent findings). A key reason for this was because ‘working class’ had come to mean ‘Chav’ and ‘being poor’ in the minds of focus group members (Mattinson, cited in Jones, 2012: ix). Even those who did identify as working class were keen to dissociate from those who ‘don’t work and, more importantly, don’t want to work’ and benefit claimants were often the most passionate in distancing themselves from ‘welfare dependent’, ‘work-shy’ ‘Chavs’ (Britain Thinks, 2011).

Even if class hatred of ‘Chavs’ seems unusually vicious and widespread we know that vilifying those ‘at the bottom’ is nothing new (see the earlier discussion of ‘the undeserving poor’). Importantly for our argument, nor – as Britain Thinks found – is this something that is only done by them ‘up there’ to them ‘down there’. Class distinctions are most keenly felt, and sought, when they are close by. Writing of working-class Salford in the early 20th century, Roberts’ The Classic Slum (1971) shows that the propensity to divide and judge elements of the working class was not only the preserve of distant social commentators but a feature of working-class life itself. Residents would describe others as ‘dead common’, the ‘lowest of the low’ or as being of ‘no class’ (1971: 17); that is, they made the working-class ‘distinction between the respectable and the rough’ (Roberts, 2001: 83; Coates and Silburn, 1970).

It seems feasible that this demonization of the working class adds fuel to more general processes of ‘class disidentification’ (eg Skeggs, 1997; Savage, 2000; Bottero, 2004; Payne and Grew, 2005; Savage et al., 2010); processes which bear clear parallels with the denial of poverty described here. The central conundrum is that although class remains important in structuring people’s lives this is rarely recognized and nor is class an explicit aspect of people’s self-identity (Savage, 2000). Rather than an explicit, collective ‘class consciousness’, individuals are said to possess a more individualized, ‘classed consciousness’, which seeks social distinction and distance from others. The pivotal work here is by Skeggs (1997: 94). Class was central to understanding the lives of the working-class young women in her study yet they struggled to articulate their stories in class terms and ‘made strenuous efforts to deny, disidentify and dissimulate’ finding nothing ‘positive associated with their working-class positioning’. Subsequent research finds that middle-class respondents can also feel ambivalent about their class identities, preferring to stress their ‘ordinariness’ (Savage, 2000), and Bottero (2004) sees this as a general tendency of social status hierarchies.

What do our findings about how ‘poor people’ talk about poverty and ‘the poor’ tell us about the class disidentification thesis – and how can the latter help us explain them? In opposition to Savage (2000: 116) rarely did our interviewees differentiate themselves ‘from a group above them’ but they did, nonetheless, feel that they wanted to ‘belong to a group of ordinary, average types’ (ie the perceived local norm of people who struggled to get by) and to differentiate from ‘the workshy at the bottom’. Echoing Bottero (2004: 993), this fraction of the working class engaged emphatically in ‘social distancing with subordinates’ and they did so in ways that were remarkably similar to those adopted by Skeggs’ informants in distancing themselves from ‘the working class’: for example, ‘to me if you are working class it basically means that you are poor’, ‘the real working class are the ones you see hanging round the dole’, ‘just poor, trying to get by on very little’ (Skeggs, 1997: 75). What our findings suggest is that when one of the most economically marginalized and impoverished fractions of the working class engage in identification (with ‘the ordinary’) and disidentification (from ‘the undeserving’) they necessarily are drawn into conjuring up phantom Others; an ‘underclass’ situated financially, culturally, socially and morally below them. This is perhaps what gives these forms of disidentification (from ‘the poor’) their intensity and their classed flavour. Those at the bottom had to imagine there were others below them.
Class decomposition, ‘ruling ideas’ and family respectability

‘Othering can be understood as a discursive practice which shapes how the “non-poor” think and talk about and act towards “the poor” ’ (Lister, 2004: 103). An important contribution of this research, however, is to show how ideological discourses about the ‘undeserving poor’ are not simply ‘top-down’ rhetoric of the powerful (or the ‘non-poor’) but are shared and enacted by those at the bottom, skewed downwards towards others, objectively, like them. Some of the most vociferous critics of ‘dole wallahs’, to use the Teesside parlance, are themselves unemployed (MacDonald and Marsh, 2005). Owen Jones (2012: xi), in replying to criticisms of the first edition of his book Chavs, acknowledged that ‘hostility to supposed “benefit cheats” is [not] the sole preserve of middle-class Daily Mail readers’. Indeed, those, like our informants, churning between low-paid jobs and unemployment may well be the most infuriated by those they perceive to be ‘living it up at their expense’ on benefits. This working-class antipathy towards ‘undeserving’ welfare claimants existed prior to any talk of ‘Chavs’, any Sun ‘dole cheats’ campaign and any new round of government welfare cuts (even if ‘right wing politicians and journalists exploit such sentiments ruthlessly’; Jones, 2012: xi). What these all give fresh fuel to, though, is the old intra-class distinction between ‘roughs’ and ‘respectables’ and the desperate search by those at the bottom to be, and to present themselves as being, the latter not the former.

Another study which reports something similar to ours is by Seccombe and colleagues (1998: 862). They draw on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to explain how US mothers who claim welfare adopted the ‘perspectives of the elite’, internalizing ‘the commonsense ideology that a need for welfare represents a personal inadequacy’. Gramsci is useful here because it is not hard to read hegemonic domination in the accounts we gathered. Alternative, oppositional viewpoints on poverty and its causes were all but absent. ‘Ruling ideas’ dominated. Similarly, Gough et al. (2006) describe how ‘the poor’, in the absence of class solidarity, sink into self-blaming explanations of poverty. For our informants, individualized heavily ideological accounts of poverty were certainly to the fore, as we have shown, and class solidarity and social structural explanation very rare (see Savage et al., 2010, for similar findings).

One way of explaining our findings is that, coterminous with the deindustrialization of old industrial regions like Teesside, we have seen the withering away of the working-class institutions and practices that fostered at least the possibility of a more politicized class consciousness (which could foster structural understandings of poverty). In a context where alternative rhetorics or discourses about poverty and its causes are not readily to hand, ‘ruling ideas’ take hold more easily. Few in our study, for instance, had undertaken skilled trade apprenticeships that also once provided a cultural apprenticeship into trade union and working-class, labourist politics (Hollands, 1990). Even fewer belonged to trade unions. The sort of work they did – short-term, insecure, sometimes via employment agencies – militated against unionization and the development of collective understandings of, and responses to, ‘poor work’ and its constant threat of unemployment. Despite their regular mistreatment in casualized jobs, the language of exploitation was missing from interviews. What we can see in our interviews is how a sense of working-class community and solidarity, characteristic of Middlesbrough’s industrial past (Beynon et al., 1994), is depleted and drawn in, now only extending to the immediate social network of family, friends and (some) neighbours but little further. Wide-flung class solidarity was in short supply; a sense of insecurity, mistrust and hostility was more pervasive.

We have used the accounts we have gathered – from people in Teesside who experienced poverty recurrently – as a platform for thinking about the ways in which poverty is portrayed and understood more widely in contemporary Britain. Four overlapping explanations have been offered for why people living in poverty deny their poverty and blame ‘the poor’: first, that socially and geographically close points of comparison diminish a sense of relative poverty and deprivation; secondly, that this is an outcome of the long-standing stigma and shame of poverty but in a time of heightened ‘scroungerphobia’; thirdly, that the pressure to dissociate from ‘the poor’ and the ‘welfare dependent’ articulates with wider processes of class disidentification and the more general demonization of the working class; fourthly, that ‘ruling ideas’ and political orthodoxies about ‘the undeserving poor’ more easily take hold, even amongst ‘the poor’, in contexts of a diminishing politicized, working-class consciousness. Through these processes ‘the poor’ deny their poverty and castigate ‘the poor’.

Let us finish by noting an important difference in our findings (compared at least with Gough and colleagues, above), that also returns us the more grounded territory of what our informants said. Surprisingly, given the power of neo-liberalism to project on to individuals a sense of responsibility for their own fate (Whitehead and Crawshaw, 2012), self-blame was not a feature of our interviews – in any explicit sense. Blame was projected on to others. What we see, then, in these interviews are deeply felt and strongly held but discursive devices deployed to protect the self from social and psychic blame, by deflecting it on to others (Skeggs, 1997). ‘They’ are like that, ‘we’ are not. ‘We’ manage in difficult circumstances, ‘they’ do not. ‘They’ are poor, ‘we’ are not. In doing so, our informants sought to distance themselves from the stigma of poverty and the shame of ‘welfare dependence’ and, in doing so, to bolster a sense of family respectability and personal pride in managing to get by in hard conditions.



In addition to the authors this comprised Kayleigh Garthwaite and Colin Webster; we are indebted to them for their work on the project.

Evidence of people ‘preferring unemployment’ is thin on the ground, eg Dunn (2010: 468) located a subsample of ‘alternative unemployed’ interviewees (mainly university graduates) who chose to be employed ‘either when they needed money or when they found work they considered interesting’. The less educated, working-class respondents were desperate for jobs of any sort.

It is more noteworthy that poverty was such an enduring facet of the lives of people who were recurrently in jobs. For them, the mantra that ‘employment provides the best route of poverty’ rang hollow (see Shildrick et al., 2012).



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