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The Myth of the Undeserving Poor

I recently finished reading The Myth of the Undeserving Poor: a Christian response to poverty in Britain today by Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams. Charlesworth has a theology degree, is one of the leaders at Barnabas Community Church in Shrewsbury, and heads up the staff team at Jubilee+. Natalie Williams is a former journalist, from a working-class background, and is now communications coordinator at Jubilee+.

This is only a short book, which is a shame, because as I hope to show in this blog post there is plenty of material that could have been included to disprove the myth of the undeserving poor, and plenty of space for the authors to have done so. The book does not go into depth on any particular issue and instead presents more of a summary view, which those of similar theological and political viewpoints may agree with but those of divergent views may find to be lacking in proof. I found this particularly disappointing because the title of the book implies that its aim to is to debunk the myth of the undeserving poor, yet I did not feel that the book does this. If a different title had been used, such as 'Grace to the undeserving poor', there might have been a better fit with the content.

On page 17 the authors write that strategies for national education and full employment “ran alongside the welfare state”. In fact, these are a vital part of the welfare state; they are the foundation that, along with national healthcare and full employment, ensure that everyone has the opportunity to make a good life for themselves and their family. It is only in recent times that the term ‘welfare’ has been used to refer only to social security, when in reality social security is just one part and is the safety net for when the foundation formed by the rest of the welfare state fails. Social security spending acts as an indicator of the success of the rest of the welfare state: when social security is high, the government is failing in one or more of the other areas, and so failing to give all its citizens the opportunity to thrive. The welfare state serves all of us in one way or another, and a major part of dismantling the myth of the undeserving poor is recognising that everyone in the UK benefits from the welfare state, not just those in receipt of means-tested benefits.

The authors note that in the 1980s, “there was a growing claim from some quarters that State intervention was eroding a sense of personal responsibility”, but they do not challenge the claim. This risks leaving the reader with the impression that the claim was true. Yet challenging such claims should surely have been a major part of the book, if the intent was to disprove the idea that there is an 'undeserving poor' in the UK. This would have been easy to do, as there is multitudes of evidence that far from choosing benefits over work, people in receipt of unemployment and sickness benefits have very strong work ethics and commitment to work. People do not want to be stuck on benefits; they want work. Evidence includes:

• Social Exclusion Unit (2004) Jobs and Enterprise in Deprived Areas. Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

• MacDonald and Marsh (2005) Disconnected Youth? Growing up in Britain’s Poor Neighbourhood. Palgrave

• Fletcher et al (2008) Social Housing and Worklessness: Qualitative research findings. DWP Research Report No 521

• Prince’s Trust (2010) Destined for the dole? Breaking the cycle of worklessness in the UK. Prince’s Trust and Qa Research

• Shildrick et al (2012) Are ‘Cultures of Worklessness’ Passed Down the Generations? Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Charlesworth and Williams note that the welfare state was perceived to be failing to act as a support into decent work and living standards, but also that it was perceived as overgenerous – two statements that are in direct conflict, as either the welfare state was adequate to prevent and relieve poverty or it wasn’t. Again, there is plenty of evidence from diverse societies and cultures that something as simple as having enough money to get by and invest in one’s future makes a dramatic difference, and far from creating dependence it is the means to independence and a future:

• O’Brien and Olson (1990) The Alaska Permanent Fund and Dividend Distribution Program. Public Finance Review

• Yablonski and O’Donell (2009) Lasting Benefits: The Role of Cash Transfers in Tackling Child Mortality. Save the Children

• Hough and Rice (2010) Providing Personalised Support: An Evaluation of the City of London Pilot. JRF

• Haushofer and Shapiro (2011) The Impact of Unconditional Cash Transfers in Kenya. Innovations for Poverty Action

• Forget (2011) The Town With No Poverty: The Health Effects of a Canadian Guaranteed Annual Income Field Experiment. Canadian Public Policy Vol.38 Iss.3

Charlesworth and Williams write that “public perceptions of welfare are increasingly distant from the reality”, but they don’t follow this up with considerations of the depth of poverty experienced by people in receipt of unemployment benefits; or data on where the bulk of social security is spent (pensioners); or the fact that the welfare state covers far more than just social security and is not just beneficial but necessary for everyone. These facts would all have contributed to dispelling the myth of the undeserving poor, and restoring support for the welfare state. Instead, they comment that “for example, under Margaret Thatcher’s Government the proportion of Gross Domestic Product spent on welfare actually increased” (pg 20). This major claim needed explaining, as on its own it implies that public perceptions of the welfare state underestimate its generosity, rather than overestimate it.

They don’t report that unemployment shot up from 1mn to 3mn under Thatcher; or that Thatcher sold off council housing, causing a rise in the cost of housing benefit as more people entered the more expensive private rental sector; or that housing benefit for social rent also went up sharply; and that increasing numbers of elderly and disabled people means that even static spending is a cut per person. The increase in unemployment, housing costs, and the elderly meant that per person cuts to social security and social care did not result in an overall reduction in spending on the welfare state; however, the experience for people in poverty was of dramatic cuts. Increases in poverty leads to increases in family breakdown, and an increase in lone parenting causes an increase in the number of people in need of social security and welfare. So whilst Thatcher did not achieve an overall reduction in welfare spending, this not because she did not make cuts – and in many cases, such as selling off council housing, failing to guarantee full employment, and driving people into poverty, her cuts caused the increase in welfare spending. So there was an increase in welfare spending at the same time as poverty and inequality increased - key issues that should be discussed properly, and not left to imply that Thatcher's Government was generous to the poor when in fact it was deeply harmful.

Citing evidence that the majority of poor families are in work does nothing to dispel the notion that those poor families who aren’t in work are ‘undeserving’. What that requires is the evidence I cited above – and I carefully excluded evidence since 2014, when the book was published – that people out of work for whatever reason have a tenacious commitment to work which endures despite a person only ever having ‘toxic jobs’ – those low pay, high pressure, insecure jobs at the bottom of the labour market, which contrary to popular belief are not mere stepping stones to better jobs, but are the long-term, impoverishing, precarious and illness-inducing experience of millions.

The seven pages dedicated in this book to ‘The Welfare State’ conclude that “the competence and scale of the State’s role in welfare is in serious doubt” and “the State now needs the Church once again to share the burden of welfare provision and care for the poor”. I would challenge both statements. The former is a very right-wing view of welfare, but then the right has never really liked the welfare state. They tolerated it after WW2 because of the weight of public opinion and the fear of communism, but support was only for political purposes and not a matter of true belief. Thatcher’s approach of cutting back the welfare state so that it appeared irrelevant to the middle classes (though in fact it is of high relevance and importance to everyone) has had a high degree of success, enticing even the Labour Party into its embrace, but it is not a political inevitability. There continues to be high levels of support for the NHS, and revolutionary ideas such as a Universal Basic Income or a Job Guarantee could yet revamp social security, whilst the financial crisis has gradually allowed more accurate understandings of money and the economy to gain ground against neoliberalism. To claim that the State’s role in welfare is in doubt is the kind of prophecy that is so easily self-fulfilling, but it is based on a right-wing understanding of politics and economics which fails to consider the growing groundswell of support for a State that truly provides opportunity for all of its citizens, and it isn't based on evidence of what the welfare state is, does and achieves.

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