The language of poverty

7 Jan 2014

Some journalists still use shorthand. It’s really handy. Some politicians use shorthand. It’s really dangerous.

Of course, I’m not talking about squiggles on a page but the language used by politicians and journalists to describe people living in poverty. Seventy years on from the Beveridge Report, little appears to have changed in how we describe some of our fellow citizens – a theme developed by my boss, Julia Unwin, in her Toynbee HallLecture. 


You’re familiar with the words; don’t be a shirker, best be a worker. We all love a striver, never be a skiver. Cartoon clichés can reinforce party political loyalties and help meet deadlines more easily than carefully crafted, well researched articles and broadcasts – and to be clear, there are plenty of those around as well. 

In her blog, my colleague Abigail Scott Paul talked about the risk of broadcasters in particular resorting to lazy stereotypes of ‘problem families’ on ‘sink estates’. The inescapable conclusion being that these people are ‘A Problem to Society’. 

Language, as a tool, is never neutral. It’s used and exploited by me, by you, by journalists and by politicians. A tool can easily become a weapon and here lies the greatest danger; not just in the characterisation of people living in poverty, but in their demonization. Intentionally, or not, we are, what Professor Ruth Lister calls 'othering' the poor – creating convenient strangers; subject to ridicule, subject to reform, subject to ignorance. In the context of the current debate on welfare reform, people in poverty are casually labelled as economic burdens or even, bereft of morals. Popular polls, supposedly proving public support for cuts, are often cited by politicians and journalists as justification for reducing the welfare budget during these “tough times” that “we are all living through”.  

Let me be clear, lest readers see this blog as the ramblings of a soft liberal-type; waste and fraud is wrong and those who allow waste and commit crimes should be held to account. I would add though, that we lose around 0.7% of the welfare budget through fraudulent claims – about £1 billion, compared to an estimated £70 billion lost through tax evasion. The entire out-of-work benefits bill is 3% of our gross domestic product.  

So let’s keep calm and provide the evidence and tell the story of those “hard working families” (thought I’d borrow that phrase from the Politicians’ Book of Clichés) struggling with their daily lives. At JRF, we’ve taken a closer look at the people behind the percentages. 

Beware the shorthand, because the facts are often lost in translation and manipulation. As a Mr T. Blair nearly said, I’m not one for sound bites or quote-grabs, but it could appear, through the language we use, that we’re being tough on those in poverty and not looking closely enough at the causes.

By Gary Rae

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