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Myths about poverty must be refuted so that parents are trusted with £20 and not half a pepper

5 min read

Why is government faffing around with miserable food boxes when the problem could be easily solved by giving families additional money via universal credit?

Widely circulated images of miserable food packages containing vegetable fragments and sad little bags of pasta have led to yet another set of dismal child hunger headlines for the government and required yet another intervention from Marcus Rashford, who must feel football is now his part-time hobby.

While the government have firmly passed on the blame to the companies responsible, at least some of the pictures passed round social media came close to meeting the DfE’s own guidance on what constitutes an adequate set of weekly lunches.

The question is not so much what should be in the boxes as to why they were faffing around with them in the first place. They will now be replaced in most schools from next week by the reintroduction of a national voucher scheme but, while preferable to boxes, even this is a wholly unnecessary piece of bureaucracy (loathed by schools) when the problem could so easily be solved by giving families additional money via universal credit.

The reason the Department hasn’t done the simplest, cheapest thing and just give parents a bit of extra cash is because they don’t trust them to spend it properly. Or rather they are scared of the public perception that, as Tory MP Ben Bradley luridly put it last year, the money would be spent in crack dens and brothels.

An Ipsos-MORI study in 2013 found people thought, on average, that benefit fraud was 34 times more common than is actually the case

We know this isn’t true. Cash transfer schemes have been rigorously evaluated all over the world and show that people in poverty use money provided for food to buy food. They are significantly cheaper than programmes providing food directly and come without the stigma of receiving parcels or stamps.

And yet distrust of those on benefits remains strong; the belief that poverty indicates moral failing runs deep. An Ipsos-MORI study in 2013 found people thought, on average, that benefit fraud was 34 times more common than is actually the case. The 2017 British Social Attitudes survey found that, on average, people think 34% of all claimants are providing false information and a fifth of respondents said *most* welfare recipients don’t deserve help. Staggeringly 61% of people think it is wrong for benefit claimants to use legal loopholes to increase their payments, compared with only 48% who think it is wrong to use legal loopholes to pay less tax.

These attitudes are, in part, due to the way poverty is portrayed in newspapers and on television. Right-wing tabloids have spent years presenting rare cases of extreme or unusual fraud as commonplace and “poverty porn” TV series have wrung entertainment out of distorted portrayals. Successive Conservative governments have happily participated in this myth building – no scapegoat for societies perceived failures goes unsacrificed. Benefits freezes; the bedroom tax and the abhorrent two child benefits limit have all been popular with the public but are disastrous from a public policy perspective, as the cost of shattered lives ends up with the state one way or another. 

Meanwhile a large part of the benefits system has been turned into an extension of the criminal justice system, without the oversight. While most people would acknowledge the need for some conditionality in benefits the expansion of the sanctions system has been shocking, utterly dehumanising, and mostly hidden from the wider public. For instance, over a million disabled claimants were sanctioned between 2010 and 2017. Even for those who’ve avoided sanction the brutal administrative complexity of the system would cause a revolution if the middle classes had to endure it.

But while blame is easy to apportion to government and media, the general perception that allows this social misery to remain not just present but widely supported is not new nor is unique to this country. Fairness is the foundation of our morality and the concept of “just desserts” is deeply baked into our psyches. We are incredibly sensitive to violations of fairness and because our brains tend to anchor our thinking around memorable things, we’re almost designed to overestimate others’ propensity to cheating. This may be helpful from an evolutionary point of view but isn’t much good for a modern society.

Remedying this requires not just that politicians and the media don’t actively play up to myths and stereotypes but that the reality of poverty is repeatedly reinforced. And this can’t be through dry fact checks. The success of the Rashford campaign is driven not just by his winning persona but his own personal experience. Only by having more public role models who clearly refute the idea that poverty is a function of moral weakness, not just in football but in politics and wider public life, will we get to a place where parents on benefits will be trusted with £20 and not half a pepper.


Sam Freedman is the CEO of Education Partnerships Group and former senior policy adviser at the Department for Education.

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