Suppose a Scotsman did you a bad turn. Would you then decide that the entire Scottish nation was not to be trusted? Presumably not, unless you were seriously prone to xenophobia! Generalising from the particular – or drawing wide-ranging conclusions from limited evidence – is a known flaw in logical thinking. Yet we can all fall into the trap on issues of national and international importance. Poverty is one of them.
The popular press loves to highlight instances of abuse. It sells newspapers. And we may be encouraged to imagine that abuse is so widespread that it has become the norm. Hence a beguiling theory. If we can be led to believe that people in poverty are essentially the authors of their own misfortune and that the solution rests in their own hands, then we can cheerfully leave them to it and not worry unduly about their plight.
Politicians like churchgoers are not always averse to the theory, but does it represent the truth? Not long ago the British Methodist Church, Baptist Union, United Reformed Church and Church of Scotland joined forces to find out. A working party report was published in March 2013. Its title is self explanatory. ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’.
The report included a study of the following six widely held assumptions, all of which turn out to be popular fallacies in terms of prevailing reality:
‘They’ are lazy and don’t want to work
‘They’ are addicted to drink and drugs
‘They’ are not really poor – they just don’t manage their money properly
‘They’ are on the fiddle
‘They’ have an easy life
‘They’ caused the deficit
By startling contrast the report discovered that in-work poverty is now more common than out-of-work poverty. Fewer than 4% of benefit claimants are known to have any form of addiction. Taken at face value statistical evidence indicates that the poorest generally spend their money carefully on basic necessities. Less than 0.9% of the welfare budget is lost to fraud. Benefits do not meet minimum income standards and have halved in value relative to average incomes over the last 30 years. The proportion of tax revenue spent on welfare has remained stable for the past 20 years. And the benefits bill would soar if all entitlements were claimed. Information has been manipulated to stigmatise the most vulnerable, including those with mental health problems. How have we come to believe these myths?
John Wesley observed that ‘so wickedly, devilishly false is that common objection ‘they are poor only because they are idle.’’ The first stage of justice has to be an understanding of the truth, declares the report. It is always possible to find examples of individual good or bad behaviour, including by people living in poverty. But tackling fraud, addiction and a culture of entitlement will not of itself eliminate poverty. That will demand a greater cost. 13 million people in the UK are known to be living in poverty, including 3.6 million children.
Reinhold Niebuhr famously wrote of the need to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. Do we concentrate on the former at the expense of the latter? Implicit in Niebuhr’s words is the conviction that poverty unchecked will ultimately impact on all sections of society. The prophet Micah thought so too. It’s not only a question of an injustice crying out for correction but of stability for all. And it will come at a price.
The compilers hope that the report will empower people to perceive their own misconceptions, and expect better from politicians and the media – even that they will articulate a truth we may find unpalatable. Authentic leadership will dare to tell it as it is rather than pander to prejudice. The report with its sources of information can be downloaded from www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/truthandliesaboutpoverty.