‘That’s what happens when they don’t pay their rent,’ says one of the people caught on video at a Bonfire Night party joking as they burn an effigy of London’s Grenfell tower. The video is shocking and has sparked outrage on social media, but are the attitudes behind it so surprising? Is that ‘joke’ so different from ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne stirring anger at those “sleeping off a life on benefits?” “People say things like that all the time,” says Hazel, a member of the women’s cooperative skills network we work with in south London who lives at the sharp end of this rhetoric, “it’s in the air.”
The Bonfire Night video has been linked to immigrant bashing, but more widely it reveals a disregard for the lives of social housing tenants in general. The journalist Owen Jones argues that this is the product of the systematic dehumanisation of poor people in this country. It’s good that people are feeling outrage about such disregard and the cruelty of UK welfare policies, recently condemned as ‘punitive’ and ‘callous’ by UN Envoy Philip Alston.
But is outrage at a few ‘hateful’ video-makers and politicians enough? In rightly condemning the callousness of the Bonfire video we take comfort in the idea that we’d never do anything like that ourselves, or that we’d never introduce something as cruel as Universal Credit. We’re not so sure. Should we let ourselves off the hook so easily?
After all, callous narratives have become routine in debates about UK welfare policy. Remember ‘strivers versus scroungers,’ or those who ‘do the right thing’ versus those who ‘cheat the system’? Such language hasn’t just been used by conservatives. In the run-up to the 2015 general election Liam Byrne, the-then Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, argued that Labour had lost the previous election because it was seen as the party for ‘shirkers’ not workers. Only since Jeremy Corbyn became leader has Labour refused to shore up this narrative.
Such language has devastating effects on people. “When they talk about scroungers” says Sonia, one of the members of the network, “they mean me. They assume because I need financial support I’m lazy. They don’t know me or my situation.” Hazel told us how her autistic son has picked up on such derogatory language: “He feels stressed, anxious, inadequate. Like a failure because he has to do things slowly and says ‘mum, will people think I’m lazy?’” “I get it,” says Sonia, “I’m nobody.” “You feel worthless, pointless” adds Jo, another member.
Binaries like ‘shirker and worker’ would be unacceptable if they were used in terms of race, gender or sexuality, but in the context of poverty they are rarely challenged. How many of us speak out against the skiver/striver language to show politicians we won’t stand for it, or the policies it justifies?
‘Hardworking families’ is another favourite phrase that’s been used repeatedly by ex-Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, for example, and by Ian Duncan Smith, the former Work and Pensions Secretary. In October 2018 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, announced a budget that delivered for ‘hardworking families - the ‘grafters’ and ‘strivers.’
“What’s a ‘hardworking’ family?” asks Sonia, “even when I didn’t work for a salary I was hard at work at home, raising three children.” “They mean people that aren’t on benefits,” Jo responded, “(if) you’re not rich, independent, you can’t possibly be hardworking.”
As with many seemingly innocuous phrases which are loaded with prejudice, ‘hardworking families’ passes easily unnoticed. But sociologist Stephen Crossley argues that this term sets up an insidious binary against so-called ‘problem’ or ‘troubled’ families that are repeatedly presented as a burden on taxpayers. This framing has allowed the government more room to push through a punitive ‘culture change’ in the UK welfare system.
The ‘hardworking families’ rhetoric is linked to other narratives that have served to justify the callous welfare reforms that have been implemented in the UK over the past ten years. Sanctions (stopping benefits payments as a punishment) and closely monitoring the behaviour of benefit recipients have been portrayed as necessary in order to help people become ‘responsible citizens’ who make ‘good choices’ and are not ‘dependent on the state.’ If people are not wholly independent, so the logic goes, it’s because they’ve made the ‘wrong’ choices and must therefore be forced into ‘taking responsibility.’
But many women in our network question the idea that their circumstances are the result of choice. “Bad choices?” says Jo, “Maybe. I mean I made a choice. Whether it was bad or not I don’t know. It was hard for me to work when my eldest was younger and ill, I wouldn’t have been able to when I was attending [hospital] every 2 weeks….But I was responsible for him. I suppose I made that choice not to work, but what were my options?”
That question - ‘what were my options?’ comes up repeatedly in our discussions. Members of the network feel that they have few meaningful choices in terms of balancing care responsibilities with paid work, and to survive, they’ve often had to make choices which were less than ideal. “You have to look at the circumstances people are in,” says Hazel, “people make the best choices they can...(but) this talk makes us a scapegoat. It’s a way of blaming the poor and having reasons for their policies.”
Different standards are applied to people who are financially comfortable (like the two of us) and those who aren’t. We’ve both made plenty of choices that didn’t work out, but we had a safety net and influential friends which protected us from any terrible impacts. Our ‘bad choices’ are seen as positive learning experiences, not things that should be criticised because they show that we’re dependent on other people.
In reality we are all interdependent, but a person’s economic situation determines whether dependency is seen as acceptable or not. Our jobs pay enough to choose childminders we’re happy with, but lots of people’s don’t. They can’t pick a place where their kids will be as well cared for as with them, so they take on less paid work. Does that make them less responsible? According to current welfare policy it does.
People who weren’t born into financial stability may need state support more than people whose parents gave them a deposit for a flat, or who have the advantage of well-placed social networks. Does that make them irresponsible? According to current welfare policy it does.
A woman with young kids who is financially independent, or who has a high-earning partner, can choose to be a stay-at-home mother or devote some of her time to creative pursuits that don’t earn much money - without any rebuke or criticism. But a woman who wants to do this with support from the state is deemed ‘irresponsible.’
Why don’t we question this language? It’s difficult to say. The campaigner Simon Duffy suggests that the hardworking families rhetoric appeals to the “fears and anxieties of the middle-classes by identifying weak groups who can be easily blamed for society’s problems.” But perhaps it’s simpler than that. Perhaps we all tend to buy into what makes us feel okay about ourselves and justifies our privilege.
We may care about social justice and consider ourselves as activists, but sometimes life is stressful - finding childcare, paying the mortgage and so forth - and it’s easy to ‘play the martyr,’ to believe that we’ve actually earned the advantages we have because we’ve worked hard, made good choices and been responsible - and others haven’t. At some level we know this isn’t true, but it's easy to slip into these ways of thinking,
Is the widespread outrage provoked by the bonfire video a sign that people are waking up to the devastating undercurrent of prejudice that exists against people on benefits and low incomes? Maybe, but many in our group remain wary: “People say they care” says Sonia, “but (it’s) what’s hot at the moment. When something else comes that grabs your emotion, it’s forgotten. Caring is fickle, it’s fleeting.”
The anger and compassion unleashed by Grenfell and by Philip Alston's report on UK poverty will only be transformative if people use it to examine themselves and their decisions: why have we failed to challenge the language and policies that drive the UK welfare system? Why has it taken such extreme events to wake us up? Why have these dehumanising narratives been allowed to persist for so many years? And what are the blindspots that lead people who care about social justice to unwittingly collude with oppression?
“Unless you feel connected to it,” Sonia warns, “you stop caring, you don’t have that drive.” Only by challenging ourselves in this way can we reach a deeper sense of connection and shared humanity, the things that are needed to build lasting solidarity and change.
“These awful things will keep happening,” says Hazel, “unless people with more power, more weight, more money, more education, more anything come together with us who have been made to feel we’re at the bottom of the pile, and support us.” Jo’s plea is more urgent: “What are you going to do about it? Are you really on our side?”