APPG Poverty Fringe Event at Labour Party Conference
APPG Poverty ‘Busting the Myths’ fringe event at the Labour Party conference
How do we bust the myths about benefit claimants and poverty? This was the challenging question at a fringe meeting I attended at the Labour Party Conference organised by the Webb Memorial Foundation and All Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty.
On the panel were Kate Green MP, Chair of the All Party Group; Peter Kellner Chief Executive of YouGov; and Alan Milburn, the former Labour cabinet minister who now heads up the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.
At the start of this year, new polling commissioned by the TUC showed how inaccurate public perceptions are about benefit claimants and social security spending. It showed that the public will typically massively over-estimate how much of the social security budget goes to unemployed people, how much fraud there is, and how much people are actually paid in benefit entitlements. In the months that followed, we’ve seen several myth-busting publications from charities, NGOs, unions and faith groups, such as The lies we tell ourselves by a joint group of Christian denominations
Kate Green started by challenging the myth that ‘real’ poverty does not exist in Britain today. She acknowledged that we are not talking about developing world poverty, but nevertheless many people in UK are suffering from “considerable deprivation and disadvantage” and seeing their real terms incomes and living standards fall.
She also rejected the myth that people are poor as a result of their own poor choices, pointing instead to rising living costs, low pay, job insecurity and a dysfunctional housing market. Her point here picks up on what psychologists call attribution bias, which is the common tendency to overestimate the effect of disposition or personality, and to underestimate the effect of the situation in explaining social behaviours such as living in poverty or claiming benefits.
The final myth she addressed was the idea that poverty is an intractable problem, especially in our current economic circumstances. She accepted that the current fiscal situation does not allow redistribution through tax credits to have the same central role as in the Labour years between 1997 and 2010, but she argued progress could, and should now be made through addressing labour market failures, such as low pay, low working hours and job insecurity,
Peter Kellner highlighted some of the other myths that polling shows the public believe, including ignorance about how much of the welfare budget goes on the elderly, and believing so-called ‘welfare tourism’ to be a major problem when official figures show that it is not. But he warned that politicians cannot simply refute these myths and need to demonstrate that they are on the same side as the public – for example, even though benefit fraud is much lower than the public think politicians should still firmly condemn it.
Alan Milburn set out his view on the four key areas where action is most needed to reduce poverty: closing the education gap in schools, reducing in-work poverty; improving access to further education; and increasing supply of high quality and affordable early childhood education and care.
These are all priority areas that Child Poverty Action Group would agree with; however, we would question Alan Milburn’s tendency to prioritise social mobility as this is chasing the shadow of the real problem: economic inequality. The idea that you can reduce child poverty by increasing social mobility is itself a myth that puts the cart before the horse. The international evidence suggests that it is those countries with the conditions of greater social and economic equality that produce the best social mobility outcomes.
It was an excellent debate, but while at Child Poverty Action Group we believe myth-busting has a role, it must be used cautiously. Interest has grown recently in the idea of framing, and the importance of who gets to frame an issue. The framing determines the questions that are asked, and the issues that are excluded from discussion. When looked at from this perspective, the danger with myth-busting is that the discourse remains focussed on the false framing. In the case of social security and benefit claimants, the notion that social security and the availability of benefits has created an ‘age of entitlement’ and a ‘benefit dependency culture’ is an utterly bogus framing, but one which has sadly come to dominate public perceptions.
We need an approach that doesn’t just discredit the ‘entitlement culture’ framing, but that displaces it. And we need all anti-poverty campaigners to tell that story with the same frequency and consistency as we have seen from those who claim there’s an ‘age of entitlement’ and a ‘benefit dependency culture’. It’s a big job, needing long term commitment, but as the myth-busting shows, we do have the advantage of having the facts on our side. These are facts that people recognise in their own lives, because they know the market is not providing them with the high quality and affordable homes or childcare they need. They know the labour market is paying 5 million of Britain’s workers less than a living wage, and that we have hundreds of thousands of workers being exploited by zero hour contracts.
There’s a theme here: market failure. It is not lifestyle choices, or this phoney claim of a ‘dependency culture’ that is putting pressure on social security expenditure, and keeping the UK’s poverty rates so high, it is market failures. But how often do you hear a market failure framing on social security spending, compared to the ‘entitlement culture’ framing?
Well to be fair, we did hear it at the meeting. We heard Kate Green talking about the failures in the employment market, we heard Alan Milburn talking about the failures in the childcare market, and there was an excellent contribution from the floor about the failures of the housing market. Let’s make sure people keep hearing it!
Tim Nichols, Child Poverty Action Group