Images of welfare: Press and public attitudes to poverty

Tags: public attitudes, social security policy, Sue Middleton, organised labour movement, Susanne MacGregor, working class, Tory Party, labour movement, common interests, POVERTY, pbk, welfare, Peter Golding, David Martin Robertson, press, Labour Party, Heinemann, benefit, supplementary benefit, poverty line, Benefits Commission, perspectives, social security legislation, Action Group, class interests, Child Poverty Action Group, child benefits, causes of poverty
Content: Marxism Today January 1983 43
Golding and Middleton place their origi-
But perhaps this attempt to conceal the nal findings on public and press attitudes
effects of present policies on the poor was (which include the results of interviews with
unnecessarily cautious. For as Peter Gold- leading social service correspondents) in a
ing and Sue Middleton document in their historical and theoretical context. They
persuasive and readable book on press and document the move of the Labour Party
public attitudes to poverty, the British elec- away from traditional concerns with poverty
torate are unusually cynical (by inter- and welfare, seduced by the prospect of con-
national standards) about the nature and tinued affluence until the mid 1960s and by
causes of poverty, tending always to 'blame the fear of continued economic decline
the victim', not only for his or her own thereafter. Meanwhile the Tory Party, who
plight but for the nation's general economic had flirted with notions of equity and social
malaise as well. Images of Welfare reports the justice in the 1950s, fearing that electoral
findings of survey research into popular atti- unpopularity might accompany outright
tudes to poverty and welfare and documents rejection of the wartime enthusiasm for the
the way they are shaped (though not perhaps 'Beveridge Revolution', now turned increas-
created) by the media.
ingly towards the Hayekian approach in
The early postwar years brought with which the Welfare State was seen as 'a treacle
them a belief not only that poverty had been well and not a life-belt' and in which ine-
successfully eradicated in all but a few cases quality was to become a central objective of
but also a tolerance of those who appeared to policy. The populist, anti-welfare rhetoric
have been left behind in the general move of the late 70s was sufficient to dislodge the
toward affluence. Such tolerance perhaps welfare-consensus which had in any case
IMAGES OF WELFARE: PRESS AND was based on a belief that economic growth never taken deep root.
PUBLIC ATTITUDES TO POVERTY would allow some addition to the incomes of This shift in the attitudes of the political
Peter Golding and Sue Middleton
the poor without threatening the aspirations parties towards poverty, reflecting and rein-
Basil Blackwell/Martin Robertson 1982 pbk of the rest of the population. But the deep- forcing popular perceptions, has created a
ening economic crisis which developed after new environment in which the poverty
ISBN 085520 447 8
the mid-1960s was accompanied by a re- lobby must work, but perhaps also increased
emergence of hostility towards the poor, and the latter's importance. This is a theme
towards the very principle of the welfare developed in three other recent volumes on
David Donnison
state. The author's own survey of attitudes the politics of poverty. Two of these (David
Martin Robertson, 1982 pbk Ј3.50
in two cities found that this hostility was Donnison's The Politics of Poverty and
ISBN 085520 4818
most virulent amongst the poor themselves Frank Field's Politics and Poverty) are essen-
-- claimants and the low paid -- a phenome- tially autobiographical accounts of events
non explained by a divisive resentment surrounding social security policy during
Susanne MacGregor Longman, 1981 pbk Ј2.95
channelled towards others alongside them at the past decade, seen from rather different
the bottom of the ladder.
perspectives. As Chairman of the Supple-
ISBN 0582 29524 6
mentary Benefits Commission between
1975 and 1980, Donnison used his position
and authority to campaign for improve-
Frank Field
ments in the supplementary benefit scheme
Heinemann, 1982 pbk Ј4.50
in a way which must sometimes have chilled
ISBN 0435 82306 X
his establishment colleagues and political
masters. Field, as Director of the Child Pov-
erty Action Group between 1969 and 1979
The past twenty years have seen the num-
saw the same events from a different angle,
bers in poverty almost double, so that by
but both shared essentially the same objec-
1979 more than two million people were
tives and approach.
living on an income below the offical (sup-
Susanne MacGregor's The Politics of Pov-
plementary benefit) poverty line. No fewer
erty covers much the same ground but places
than 9.5 million -- one sixth of the popu-
the events, seen from 'the outside', in the
lation -- had an income less than 40% above
context of social security policy since the
the poverty line. These figures give no indi-
war. It should perhaps be said that the
cation of the effects of Thatcher's policies on
voguish title is somewhat misleading for all
the poor -- the rise in unemployment and
three books are generally concerned more
the cuts in benefits, the cuts in real wages
with social security policy and the role of
and the increased tax burden on working
individual actors than with developments in
people -- because one of the Government's
poverty and inequality in its broader con-
first actions was to cancel the annual calcu-
text. They may therefore appeal most to
lation of the numbers in poverty. The next
those with a somewhat specialist appetite for
set of figures will not be available until after
details of social security legislation during
the election.
this period, or to those with a taste for inside
44 January 1983 Marxism Today
knowledge about the personalities involved rather than to the more general reader. Inevitably, Donnison is most concerned with the administration of supplementary benefits policy; Field with the campaigns for child benefits. 'Whatever question you ask the Child Poverty Action Group', Donnison quips in a friendly jibe, 'bigger child benefits will be part of the answer'. Field explains why. In his view 'The campaign for child benefits has major implications for the structure of British Politics, cutting across class interests and mounting an attack on the class mould of twentieth century British politics'. Both Donnison and Field believe that the poverty lobby must respond to the evident shift in public attitudes towards the poor. Indignant revelation of 'the facts' is no longer sufficient. The labour movement has proved an uncertain ally of the poor, and the poverty lobby must seek new allegiances. While both authors stress the importance of building better links with the trade unions, Donnison argues that the pressure groups must seek to win the support of 'Middle England'; Field that they must employ 'the sharp elbows of the middle classes' to gain more resources for all families, rich and poor alike. 'Poverty' and 'inequality' no longer represent themes around which to build support. The emphasis must be on concepts such as 'the family' and 'children' with
which a broad spectrum of the population can identify and around which they can mobilise. The strategy must be to build a 'family lobby' on what might be the ruins of the 'poverty lobby'. Underlying this strategy is a belief that the poor are a class apart, having interests which only partially coin-
cide with those of the working class as a whole. Susanne MacGregor too believes it to be 'naively optimistic' to expect the patronage of the labour movement for the poor. The poor are 'fragmented, weak, powerless and vulnerable', having little to offer the organised working class in return for their support. Who, though, are 'the poor'? At least a quarter of them are in families dependent on a full-time wage; others are poor because the resources accumulated while at work are insufficient to tide them over periods of unemployment, sickness and old age. Their interests and experiences are shared with other working people. The dilemma is that these common interests are not always perceived, certainly by the organised labour movement but also -- according to Golding and Middleton's research -- by the poor themselves. And this, perhaps, is the real failure of the poverty lobby -- that poverty is still not a central issue for the radical Left; that the alternative economic strategy (in its many manifestations) has little specifically to say about inequality. If the traditional pressure group tactics of persuasion and discourse with the establishment have failed to achieve their objective of winning real gains for the poor, it is perhaps the tactics that should change, and not the objective. Chris Pond

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