Truth and Lies About Poverty

by richardhutton

Iain Duncan Smith’s personal think-tank, the Centre For Social Justice, has released a response to the report ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’, published by several churches to coincide with the onset of welfare reforms, at the beginning of April 2013[1]. This report had set out to refute six ‘convenient myths about poverty’:

  • Myth 1: ‘They’ are lazy and just don’t want to work
  • Myth 2: ‘They’ are addicted to drink and drugs
  • Myth 3: ‘They’ are not really poor – they just don’t manage their money properly
  • Myth 4: ‘They’ are on the fiddle
  • Myth 5: ‘They’ have an easy life on benefits
  • Myth 6: ‘They’ caused the deficit

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Underlying the evaluation of these myths was an enquiry into the reasons why they had become commonplace:

“today many churchgoers and members of the general public alike have come to believe that the key factors driving poverty in the UK are the personal failings of the poor – especially ‘idleness’. How did this come about?” (p.4)[2].

The report presented an unequivocal schema:

“The myths exposed in this report, reinforced by politicians and the media, are convenient because they allow the poor to be blamed for their poverty, and the rest of society to avoid taking any of the responsibility. Myths hide the complexity of the true nature of poverty in the UK. They enable dangerous policies to be imposed on whole sections of society without their full consequences being properly examined” (p. 4)[3].

It is therefore clear that the churches were criticising the welfare policies of the government, along with the case made in support of them.

The Centre for Social Justice’s response ‘Setting The Record Straight: A CSJ Response To The Truth And Lies About Poverty Report’, attempts to counter the view that these six talking points about poverty are in fact myths; and outlined its own agenda – namely supporting the welfare policies of the government, while reiterating the belief that:

“any serious measure of poverty must recognise its root causes: family breakdown, economic dependency and worklessness, educational failure, addiction to drugs and alcohol and serious personal debt” (p. 1)[4].

So, evidently, the CSJ re-stated its standpoint that poverty exists because of personal failings among those who are poor; it also contends that the churches’ report was severely flawed because “much of it is based on serious misinformation and fails to give an accurate representation of life ‘on the breadline’ today” (p. 1)[5].

I’m old fashioned, and prefer facts and evidence to opinions. Does the CSJ substantiate its claims? Or does it attempt to reinforce the very myths about poverty which the churches had criticised in the first place?

Unsurprisingly, it does the latter. As will become perfectly clear, the CSJ’s response comprises a patchwork of misleading assertions, borne of exaggerations, sleights of hand, carefully cherry-picked statistics withdrawn from context and isolated from contradiction; and it sedulously ignores the actual claims about poverty, and the myths surrounding it, made by the churches.

Firstly, the CSJ object to the notion of ‘poverty borne by idleness’ being a myth:

“It is important to underline the scale of worklessness today. Nobody works in almost one in five (17.9 per cent) UK households and nearly 4.7 million people in Great Britain claim one or more out-of-work benefits” (p. 2)[6].

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The source provided for this is an Office for National Statistics statistical bulletin ‘Working and Workless Households, 2012’[7]. The CSJ presents this as evidence that many people in poverty are in fact lazy, and do not want to work. In reality, the percentage of workless households has increased because of the recession: it was at its lowest rate in 2006; and is at its worst in areas with high rates of employment shortages. The Office for National Statistics put the percentage of workless households in Britain at 17.9% as of 2012:

“In April to June 2012 there were 3.7 million UK households with at least one member aged 16 to 64 where no-one was currently working. This represented 17.9 per cent of households and was a fall of 0.8 percentage points, or 153,000 households, on a year earlier, the second consecutive fall. In all, 1.8 million children lived in these households” (p. 2)[8].

Of these only 2.7% were households where all adults were unemployed. The largest group within this were aged 50 to 64. This is a group affected particularly adversely by the economic downturn[9] – and middle-aged women have been hit especially hard by job losses, with a 31% increase in unemployment since the coalition government came to power[10].  So, this spate of households of adults who are unemployed can not reasonably be attributed to idleness – it is borne of socio-economic factors beyond peoples’ own control. However, the CSJ add that:

“This is not just a recession-driven problem. Even when the economy was booming in the previous decade, the number of households where nobody worked actually doubled” (p. 2)[11].

The source given for the first part of this claim is the ONS[12]. The CSJ’s line of argument here amounts to a clever manipulation of the difference between fractions and percentages: it is true that the number of these households doubled: but from a mere 0.9%, to an equally meagre 1.8%[13]. This requires no further comment, frankly, other than to note that the CSJ omitted to mention the actual figures herein. It is also important to bear in mind that the churches at this point were writing about poverty – not unemployment. As they noted:

“The majority of families that live in poverty do so despite being in employment. Excluding pensioners, there are 6.1 million people in families in work living in poverty compared with 5.1 million people in poverty from workless households” (p. 13)[14].

The CSJ do not address the fact of in-work poverty at any point; less still acknowledge that it has a higher rate than out of work poverty: it flatly discredits the myth that poverty can be attributed to people being lazy or work-shy, when the largest group of people living in poverty are also employed. Moreover, over half of adults in households where no one has ever worked are under 25. So the increase of workless-households is almost certainly a manifestation of high and rising unemployment among young adults, which has reached record levels since the onset of recession[15].

By contrast, the CSJ lurch onto the subject of incapacity and disability:

“In relation to incapacity benefits, the report says (with no source for its claim) that ‘the number of people claiming out-of-work benefits because of sickness or disability has steadily decreased since the mid-1990s’. However, as Figure one shows below, the disability and sickness caseload actually remained relatively constant over this period and even rose slightly during the economic boom.” (p. 2)[16].

Again, the CSJ are putting this forward as evidence that many impoverished people are poor because they are idle, and choose not to work. What the CSJ choose not to mention is that ESA/Incapacity Benefits are not limited to people of working-age – and are ultimately irrelevant to the point the Truth and Lies report actually made:

“The number of people claiming out-of-work benefits because of sickness or disability has steadily decreased since the mid-1990s, whilst the severity of the claimants’ conditions have in turn increased. The accusation that incapacity benefits were used to hide people more properly described as unemployed may have had some validity in the aftermath of the deindustrialisation of the 1980s. However, today’s claimants are not the hidden unemployed” (p. 14)[17].

It is this second aspect which was clearly the myth which the churches were objecting to; and which the CSJ chose to avoid addressing. The overall context of this section was an evaluation of the rhetoric surrounding disabled people and supposed fitness to work – the churches’ report provides examples of media commentaries on the subject:

“There really are far, far too many people sponging off the taxpayer right now with their fake or exaggerated disabilities” – James Delingpole, Daily Telegraph, 26 January 2012.

And:

“Eight out of ten claiming [incapacity] benefits are fit to work” – Daily Mail, 24 January 2012.

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As noted, at no point do the CSJ address this point. In fact, the context of this myth is the putative existence of ‘a culture of worklessness’. As the churches wrote:

“Despite evidence to the contrary, the majority of the British public believes that the welfare system has created a culture of worklessness and dependency which often runs through entire families” (p. 17)[18].

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The CSJ actually reaffirms their view that this popular belief is not a myth, but a reflection of reality:

“It is often a logical decision not to work or increase your hours because you can be better off financially on benefits. It is unsurprising therefore that a CSJ/YouGov poll found that only a quarter of benefit claimants thought they would be better off by working” (p. 3)[19].

I’ve highlighted the operative word here: this is a case of the CSJ using opinion polls to bypass evidence-based analysis. It may well be true that most people think this  – but this does not reflect reality[20]. There is no evidence presented by the CSJ that people are financially wealthier when unemployed than working, and the point can be left there, because nobody has ever substantiated claims to the contrary[21].

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The churches had also criticised the myth that people in poverty are predominantly addicted to alcohol and drugs. Again, the CSJ reiterates its stance that this is not a myth – and does this via carefully selected statistics and opinion polls. It claims that:

“Some 705,000 children currently grow up with a dependent drinker and 350,000 children grow up with a problem drug user. Just 13 per cent of clients presenting to treatment in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland during 2009/10 were employed and in Scotland, 72 per cent reported funding drug use from welfare benefits. These are alarmingly high figures and the CSJ rejects any attempt to downplay their significance” (p. 4)[22].

The source provided for this data is a web-page by the Children’s Society, advertising its ‘Cash For Kids’ appeal, to “to raise awareness around parental drug and alcohol misuse”[23]. What it actually says is the following:

“Parental drug and alcohol misuse is alarmingly high in the UK and affects up to 3 million children, 2.6 million of whom live with parents who drink hazardously; 705,000 of these are living with a dependant drinker and 350,000 children live with a problematic drug user.”

There is no evidence outlined that this relates to poverty. The Children’s Society were merely attempting to raise awareness about the behaviour of addicts, and the impact of this upon children – not on economic circumstances.

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However, it is the CSJ’s claim that :

“Just 13 per cent of clients presenting to treatment in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland during 2009/10 were employed and in Scotland, 72 per cent reported funding drug use from welfare benefits” (p. 4)[24].

Which clearly evinces their viewpoint that addiction is a major cause of poverty. The source for this data – which, significantly, is not linked to properly by the CSJ  – was a Department of Health report entitled ‘United Kingdom Drug Situation’, published in 2011[25].

What it says does appear to support the CSJ’s claim at first reading:

“Data show that 13% of clients presenting to treatment in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland during 2009/10 were employed (a decrease from 15% in the previous year) and two-thirds were unemployed. Males were more likely to be in employment than females (14% compared to 9%). In Scotland, 72% reported funding drug use from welfare benefits” (p. 16).

So how has this been taken out of context? By pretending that this is a major, if not the primary cause of child poverty. The CSJ and Iain Duncan Smith have persistently attempted to link child poverty to parental drug/alcohol addiction. For example, Duncan Smith’s speech during January 2013, in which he claimed that:

“The Government is currently consulting on a new multidimensional measure of child poverty…A recent poll conducted as part of the consultation process shows that whilst not having enough income is thought to be one important factor other criteria are considered equally or even more crucial. Interestingly, having a parent addicted to drugs or alcohol was thought to be the most important factor of all”[26].

This same viewpoint is reiterated by the CSJ themselves:

“But the myths report incorrectly infers from this that respondents believe addiction to be the biggest cause of child poverty. This is not what the DWP poll asked. It asked which factor was most important in deciding whether a child was living in poverty. In other words, it shows that the public think a child is most likely to have their life chances blighted if they grow up with an addicted parent. This is not the same as saying that addiction is the most common factor of all children in income poverty” (p. 4)[27].

Again, however, this is an attempt to use opinion polls to evade an analysis based on actual evidence. As the Children’s Society themselves state explicitly elsewhere: “around 3.8 million children live in poverty in the UK”. 61% of these children have at least one parent in work[28]. Child poverty persists because these parents have insufficient incomes to provide for basic necessities. Money is the critical factor, as should hardly need stating. Parental drug/alcohol abuse may well be a cause of poverty for some children; but it evidently is not the major cause of poverty. That the public believe otherwise merely demonstrates how pervasive this myth is.

The DWP poll in question was undertaken in December 2012. It was designed to serve a political purpose – namely:

” that new measures of child poverty should be developed which would provide a better understanding of the real experience of child poverty in the United Kingdom”[29].

The CSJ chose their words very carefully when they claimed that “this is not the same as saying that addiction is the most common factor of all children in income poverty”. This is not the question the DWP poll asked people. In reality, it what it did ask people to consider was what they believed to be the main reason for poverty:

“This initial survey asked a single question where the respondents were asked what they thought was important in deciding whether someone was growing up in child poverty”[30].

The question being: “Could you please tell me how important you think each of the following are when deciding whether someone is growing up in poverty”. “A child having parents who are addicted to drugs or alcohol” was top of the list of factors respondents were asked to evaluate in terms of their importance – and the opinion of most people was that this was the primary reason for determining that somebody is impoverished. As outlined previously, this does not have a basis in reality. The DWP poll demonstrates just how widespread this misconception is.

It is also a total nonsense for the CSJ to imply that the Churches’ report tried to downplay the significance of alcohol/drug addiction – they simply put them in their proper context, noting that:

“In England 6.4% of adults demonstrated some form of alcohol dependence with 0.5% showing moderate or severe levels of dependence. National scale research has failed to demonstrate a correlation between alcohol dependence of any degree and income levels. Despite this the government is proposing to use the alcohol dependency of a parent as an indicator of child poverty. Parental alcohol abuse is certainly a very serious cause of childhood neglect, and should be tackled for this reason. But it is not a measure of poverty and should not be used as such” (p. 18)[31].

Moreover, as the churches had themselves added at this point:

“fewer than 4% of benefit claimants report any form of addiction. How did we come to believe this is such a big factor in the lives of the 13 million people who live in poverty in the UK today?” (p. 4)[32].

The source for this statistic in the churches’ report was a DWP analysis of Incapacity Benefits and Disability Living Allowance claimants whose main condition was alcohol addiction or drug abuse, from July 2012, which states that:

“At November 2011, a total of 1.8 million people were claiming IB or SDA, of whom 34,410 (2.0%) had a main medical condition of alcoholism and a further 30,030 (1.7%) a main condition of drug abuse. Of the 857,890 ESA claimants, 21,890 (2.6% – a larger percentage than for IB/SDA) had a main medical condition of alcoholism and a further 12,670 (1.5% – closer to the percentage for IB/SDA) a main condition of drug abuse. Of the 3.2 million people receiving DLA at November 2011, 21,350 (0.7%) had a main disabling condition of either drug or alcohol abuse”[33].

So, it is perfectly clear that there is a massive disparity between 13 million people living in poverty, as opposed to 120,350 people who are disabled/incapacitated by substance addiction. Even if alcohol/drug dependency does cause these people to live in poverty, they amount to 0.9% of all people who are poor. This is quite aside from the issue of people being left poorly by their addictions, and needing support: the fact that this aspect was not even considered by the CSJ makes clear that attributing blame to people for their own deprivation is part and parcel of this myth that alcohol/drugs play a major role in poverty.

Furthermore, the overall rates of substance dependency have decreased:

“Between November 2010 and November 2011, the numbers claiming IB, SDA and ESA combined with a main medical condition of alcoholism decreased by 320 – a decrease of 0.6% – and the number with a main medical condition of drug abuse decreased by 3,480 – a decrease of 7.5%. The number of DLA claimants with a main disabling condition of drug or alcohol abuse increased by 60 – an increase of 0.3%”[34].

These proportions are replicated almost identically year after year[35]. All told, despite the CSJ’s statistical manipulations, it is patent that alcoholism/drug addiction is not the main driver of poverty[36]. Suggestions to the contrary are perpetuations of myth.

The churches had also denounced the highly politicised falsehood that benefit claimants are “are on the fiddle”. As it outlined:

“One of the biggest poverty myths is that benefit claimants are fraudulent and fiddling large sums of money. Over the last 15 years, between 80% and 90% consistently agree with the statement that “Large numbers falsely claim benefits”. The truth is that benefit fraud, whilst unacceptable, accounts for a relatively small part – 0.9% – of the welfare budget, whereas the government estimates tax fraud to be between 4% and 6% of tax income”(p. 21)[37].

As evidence of this myth-making, the churches quote the following:

“The fake disabled are crippling our economy” – James Delingpole, Daily Telegraph, 26 January 2012.

And:

“We estimate that £5 billion is being lost this way [through benefit fraud] each year.” – Chancellor of the Exchequer, House of Commons 20 October 2010.

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The CSJ attempt to rebut that this is mythical, contending that:

“The report argues that the level of benefit fraud is low. Yet it fails to mention that the level of error is very high. Together, fraud and error cost the taxpayer £3.4 billion in 2011/12” (p. 5)[38].

This is a false claim to begin with – the Churches’ report states plainly:

“The cost of errors in the benefit system that lead to people getting underpaid are larger than the bill for fraud” (p. 22)[39].

However, the source for the CSJ’s data is the DWP’s own series of reports on fraud/error in the benefit system[40]. The latest version makes plain that in reality, the error level is not “very high” either[41]. As the DWP note:

“The estimate of total overpayments due to fraud and error across all benefits is £3.4bn; this is 2.1% of the total benefit expenditure”

More specifically: 0.7% of total benefit expenditure is overpaid due to fraud; 0.9% of total benefit expenditure is overpaid due to claimant error; 0.5% of total benefit expenditure is overpaid due to official error.

Not only have the CSJ exaggerated the scale of error, but there are other noteworthy omissions herein: the CSJ choose to make no mention of the DWP reclaiming overpayments; nor do they mention underpayments, and the cost of error to claimants:

“The estimate of total underpayments due to fraud and error across all benefits is £1.3bn; this is 0.8%”[42].

And this is aside from the total amount of money which remains unclaimed each year, which at its most recent estimate (2009-10) was between £8.2 billion – £12.31 billion[43].

But this is all irrelevant to the myth of fraud being at high rates among benefit claimants, when it evidently is not. It is crystal clear that deception by benefit claimants is minimal; and when put in proper context, it simply pales by comparison to levels of fraud in tax – which are estimated to cost the UK as much as £25 billion per year[44].

This pattern of studiously neglecting to mention facts which undermine myths surrounding benefits and poverty is evinced throughout the CSJ’s response.  For instance, in regard to Myth 3: ‘They’ are not really poor – they just don’t manage their money properly’ – the CSJ write three paragraphs, all expressing the supposed value of government welfare reforms: specifically, the changes to housing benefit payments, and the introduction of Universal Credit. This simply does not address what the Churches’ report outlines. The myth in question is that families live in poverty because they are wasteful with money. The churches’ report cites the following:

“In a survey 59% of people thought “‘the poor’ could manage if they budgeted sensibly” (p. 19).

However, as it adds in refutation:

“Save the Children, in its recent report It shouldn’t happen here, expresses admiration that parents on a low income are often adept, out of necessity, at managing on tight budgets and protecting their children from the worst effects of poverty. Even with good budgeting they have recently found in one community that well over half (61%) of parents in poverty say they have cut back on food, and over a quarter (26%) say they have skipped meals in the past year. It is telling that this is occurring as welfare payments are decreasing and the price of essentials such as food and energy are rising considerably faster than inflation” (p. 19)[45].

It is both noteworthy and telling that the only reference to this by the CSJ is dismissive:

“Treating ‘the poor’ as one homogenous group is naïve. There are individuals across the whole income scale who struggle to manage their money properly; some of them are poor and some of them are not. Others manage their finances extremely well” (p. 4)[46].

This has no bearing on the fact that income will continue to be insufficient for many families – and that this situation will worsen, irrespective of how carefully they may budget.

Another more blatant sleight of hand occurs when the CSJ cite an article in the Guardian:

“The report disputes the idea of ‘dependency’ as a serious issue. This is despite the latest available data showing that more than 20 million families are now dependent on some kind of benefit (64 per cent of all families), about 8.7 million of whom are pensioners. For 9.6 million families, benefits make up more than half of their entire income. This equates to 30 per cent of all families. To argue that dependency is not alive and well in the UK today is therefore totally at odds with the facts” (p. 1)[47].

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Let’s look at what the article actually says, because it adds something after the reference to the “9.6 million families, benefits make up more than half of their entire income” which the CSJ chose to omit:

“For 9.6 million families, benefits make up more than half of their income (30% of all families), around 5.3 million of them pensioners.[48]

It is also clear therefore that this statistic does not support claims of benefit-dependency leading to poverty: if nearly 50% of a family’s income is independent of the benefit system, then they are evidently not wholly dependent on welfare. It is also important to do what the CSJ opted not to: consider what these benefits might be – not least of all carer’s allowance, income support, child benefit, working tax credits, Disability Living Allowance, or Incapacity benefit, for instance.

The final myth the Churches’ report looked at was the claim repeatedly made by politicians that “life on benefits is a good one”. It provides the following examples:

“Let’s face the tough truth – that many people on the doorstep at the last election, felt that too often we were for shirkers not workers.” – Liam Byrne MP, Labour Party spokesman for Work and Pensions, 26 September 2011.

“But fairness is also about being fair to the person who leaves home every morning to go out to work and sees their neighbour still asleep, living a life on benefits” – Chancellor George Osborne, Autumn Statement 2012

As the Churches’ note:

“This is the mythical life of someone on benefits; one where you can enjoy lying in bed all day, get paid to do whatever you want and have as many children as you want without worrying about the cost. The debate about ’bringing fairness‘ has fed this myth of the privilege of welfare. However, it lacks a firm grounding in the reality of the lives of the families supported by the welfare system” (p. 23)[49].

The CSJ do not actually address this. What they do instead is try to shift the point onto unrelated ground:

“the current level of support provided by out-of-work benefits like Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) is not excessively generous, at around £71.70 a week for a single person over 25. However, this only accounts for a fraction of the overall population claiming benefits. Life on benefits can be easy for some, because they do not actually need them in the first place. The expansion in the number of people eligible for Tax Credits is an alarming trend which illustrates this well. By 2009, an astonishing nine out of ten families with children were eligible for Tax Credits” (p. 6)[50].

Needless to say, this bears no relevance to what the Churches’ report said; nor to the poverty-myth in question. Those in receipt of Tax Credits – and again, it is telling that the CSJ surreptitiously refer to eligibility, not the number of recipients – clearly do not have a “life on benefits”: it supplements their earnings; it is not the main source of their income. It is also patently disingenuous for the CSJ to pretend that myths surrounding ‘living a life on benefits’ have ever centred on people receiving tax credits. In fact, the CSJ have themselves promoted the myth that workless people choose “a life on benefits”. For example, in one of their own reports they state that[51]:

“we must also be clear that a life on benefits, no matter what their level, is not an option for those able to work. For some, this will require a change of attitude” (p. 309).

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In fact, within this report from 2009, the CSJ had contended that:

“We identified worklessness and dependency, along with family breakdown, educational failure, serious personal debt, and drug and alcohol addiction, as key predictors, or Pathways to Poverty. Benefit dependency is enormously destructive to the fabric of society. It can endure from generation to generation, depriving each new generation of its potential. It deprives many of the belief and hope that they can actually work. It can become its own culture, where the habit of dependency becomes a way of life” (p. 33)[52].

Not only does this encapsulate a number of the myths the churches’ report had criticised, it lays bare how hypocritical it is for the CSJ to pretend that myths surrounding benefit dependency focus on tax credits. The churches had made the focus of their concern clear:

“The majority of those on out-of-work benefits are sick or disabled. The second largest group is the unemployed. The government’s new Wellbeing Index showed that, with the exception of those in bad health, the unemployed were the least happy and least satisfied with life. In general these families give little outward sign of having an easy life” (p. 23)[53].

The churches also referred to the complexities of accessing benefits, the punitive sanctions, high level of mental health problems, poverty, and debt experienced by these people; concluding that far from benefits being generous “only pensioners receive the minimum income standard when solely relying on benefits”(p. 24)[54]. The CSJ studiously ignored these points. What they did do instead was claim that:

“The excessive generosity of the Housing Benefit system (fuelled in large part by a shortage of affordable housing and rising rental costs) has enabled people to claim vast sums. In extreme examples, this has been up to £100,000 in rent per year” (p. 7)[55].

Is this a fair reflection of reality? No. The CSJ cite a Freedom of Information Response in support of this, which states that:

“At December 2010, there were around 10 Housing Benefit claimants eligible for £1,917 or more per week, which would equate to more than £100,000 per annum”[56].

So, there are ‘around 10’ people herein, on this rate, not in receipt of this actual sum of money. However, the Freedom of Information response also notes that “Figures are rounded to the nearest 10” which means the number may be five families, if not less depending on how they have calculated this figure. What is far more representative is the fact that four out of every five Housing Benefit claims are below £100 per week  – the equivalent of £5,200 per year; while only 70 out of c. 4.5 million recipients claimed £1000+ per week, amounting to approximately 0.001% of the total[57]. Again, this benefit is not paid solely to people who are unemployed: nearly 1 million working people would lose their homes without housing benefit; the number of people who work but require housing benefit has increased by 86% since 2010. [58]

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Arguably the most cynical of all is the CSJ’s response to the Churches’ Myth 6: ‘‘They’ caused the deficit’. Why? Because the fiction that welfare expenditure created a deficit in state finances is a case of blaming the poor for their own predicament, in order to justify withdrawing social security from them. The churches’ contested the myth of benefits being out of control:

“Contrary to the common myth, the overall cost of welfare has not been spiralling out of control for years. The proportion of national income spent on welfare has remained surprisingly constant over the past two decades” (p. 27)[59].

Again, the CSJ ignore the claim actually made by the Churches; and instead contend that:

“The poor are not responsible for causing the deficit. However the decision by the previous government to increase welfare spending by around 60 per cent in real terms (and 40 percent in real terms for people of working age) was an extremely expensive one. The report notes that ‘the proportion of national income spent on welfare has remained surprisingly constant over the past two decades’. The truth is that, with a booming economy, it should have fallen substantially as a proportion of GDP” (p. 8)[60].

In reality, these points are deceptive, and fail to acknowledge the substance of the churches’ claim. Government expenditure on welfare did not cause the recession, or the subsequent increase in national debt. More relevant here, expenditure on social security increases by approximately 40% every decade; and prior to the onset of recession in 2008 it was significantly below average, at an increase of c. 32% during the ten year period of the Labour government[61]. This matter has also been taken out of context by the CSJ. As the churches noted:

“Welfare spending is cyclical, rising and falling in response to boom and bust, and the proportion of taxes spent on welfare (averaged out over the economic cycles since the 1980s) has actually stayed fairly flat. Some politicians and newspapers have given the impression that Welfare spending has increased massively by comparing spending figures from the high point of the economic cycle with figures from the lowest point. It is also common to express welfare spending rises as many billions of pounds without giving any context as to how this rise compares to previous spending or to other government spending. In this way we are encouraged to believe that caring for the most vulnerable has caused our nation’s financial problems” (p. 28)[62].

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This final point is evident in the CSJ’s own response, when it tries to apportion the nation’s financial difficulties to the “extremely expensive” decision “by the previous government to increase welfare spending”, which it did not actually do in any meaningful sense.

All told, throughout their response to the churches’ report on myths about poverty, the CSJ misuse data for political purposes. Instead of acknowledging that the notion of personal failings being the cause of poverty is a myth, the CSJ offer highly simplistic and misleading explanations of poverty and its causes throughout their response. At every point they rehearse socially divisive views about those who are poor, and reiterate popular myths surrounding poverty: that benefits are too generous; there is a culture of worklessness; alcohol/drug addiction is optimal; people have an easy life on benefits; the deficit was caused by over-expenditure on welfare. More egregious still is the manner in which they present their case: it is built on a foundation of facts taken out of context, and misapplied to serve highly politicised goals – namely generating support for policies which will make more people poor, and lead those already in poverty to become more impoverished still. There is little wonder it took the CSJ approximately one month to respond to the churches’ report: crafting such an elaborate vein of misleading claims, half-truths, and skilled evasions must have proven incredibly time-consuming.

Update: the Public Issues Team have now published their own response to the CSJ – ‘Response to Centre for Social Justice’.


[1] ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’ by Joint Public Issues (i.e. the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church); 1st March 2013: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Truth-And-Lies-Report-smaller.pdf

[2] ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’ by Joint Public Issues (i.e. the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church); 1st March 2013: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Truth-And-Lies-Report-smaller.pdf

[3] ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’ by Joint Public Issues (i.e. the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church); 1st March 2013: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Truth-And-Lies-Report-smaller.pdf

[4] ‘Setting The Record Straight: A CSJ Response To The Truth And Lies About Poverty Report’ by Tom Wardle and Ben Walker/Centre for Social Justice; April 2013: http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/Truth-and-lies-about-poverty—CSJ-response-(3).pdf

[5] ‘Setting The Record Straight: A CSJ Response To The Truth And Lies About Poverty Report’ by Tom Wardle and Ben Walker/Centre for Social Justice; April 2013: http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/Truth-and-lies-about-poverty—CSJ-response-(3).pdf

[6] ‘Setting The Record Straight: A CSJ Response To The Truth And Lies About Poverty Report’ by Tom Wardle and Ben Walker/Centre for Social Justice; April 2013: http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/Truth-and-lies-about-poverty—CSJ-response-(3).pdf

Of course, out-of-work benefits are not limited to unemployment support: they can also include incapacity benefit, for example.

[7] ‘Working and Workless Households, 2012 – Statistical Bulletin’ by the Office For National Statistics; 29th August 2012: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/lmac/working-and-workless-households/2012/stb-working-and-workless-households-2012.html

[8] ‘Working and Workless Households, 2012 – Statistical Bulletin’ by the Office For National Statistics; 29th August 2012: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_277448.pdf

[9] ‘Labour Market Statistics, September 2012’ by the Office For National Statistics; 12th September 2012: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_276985.pdf

[10] ‘Coalition cuts hit older women hardest’ by Jane Martinson/The Guardian; 28th September 2012:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/sep/28/older-women-hardest-hit-coalition-cuts

[11] ‘Setting The Record Straight: A CSJ Response To The Truth And Lies About Poverty Report’ by Tom Wardle and Ben Walker/Centre for Social Justice; April 2013: http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/Truth-and-lies-about-poverty—CSJ-response-(3).pdf

[12] ‘Working and Workless Households, 2011 – Summary of Households Never Worked’, by the Office for National Statistics; 1st September 2011: http://ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_230838.pdf

[13] ‘Working and Workless Households, 2011 – Summary of Households Never Worked’, by the Office for National Statistics; 1st September 2011: http://ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_230838.pdf

see also: ‘Have 1 in 5 households really never worked?’ by Tom Webb/Full Fact; 22nd May 2012:  http://fullfact.org/factchecks/workless_households_unemployment_Frank_Field-27265

And ‘Measuring the intergenerational correlation of worklessness’ by Lindsey Macmillan/Centre for Market and Public Organisation, Bristol Institute of Public Affairs; December 2011: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/cmpo/publications/papers/2011/wp278.pdf

[14] ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’ by Joint Public Issues (i.e. the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church); 1st March 2013: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Truth-And-Lies-Report-smaller.pdf

[15]  ‘Benefits in Britain: separating the facts from the fiction’ by The Observer; 6th April 2013: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/apr/06/welfare-britain-facts-myths

[16] ‘Setting The Record Straight: A CSJ Response To The Truth And Lies About Poverty Report’ by Tom Wardle and Ben Walker/Centre for Social Justice; April 2013: http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/Truth-and-lies-about-poverty—CSJ-response-(3).pdf

[17] ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’ by Joint Public Issues (i.e. the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church); 1st March 2013: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Truth-And-Lies-Report-smaller.pdf

[18] ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’ by Joint Public Issues (i.e. the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church); 1st March 2013: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Truth-And-Lies-Report-smaller.pdf

[19] ‘Setting The Record Straight: A CSJ Response To The Truth And Lies About Poverty Report’ by Tom Wardle and Ben Walker/Centre for Social Justice; April 2013: http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/Truth-and-lies-about-poverty—CSJ-response-(3).pdf

[20] The poll in question is not cited accurately by the CSJ – instead, the reference they provide is to one of their own reports, which doesn’t provide an accurate citation either. Footnote 31 on page 19 of the report ‘Dynamic Benefits’ merely says “YouGov poll, commissioned by the Centre for Social Justice, May 2008” in ‘Dynamic Benefits: Towards welfare that works’ by the Centre for Social Justice; September 2009:  http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/CSJ%20dynamic%20benefits.pdf

[21] There is no clear evidence available at all, in fact, primarily because there is no real distinction between people who receive benefits, and those who are in employment. For a discussion of the complexities therein, see ‘Better off on benefits than earning £15,000 a year?’ by Channel4/FactCheck; 27th May 2010:  http://blogs.channel4.com/factcheck/better-off-on-benefits-than-earning-15000-a-year/2841

[22] ‘Setting The Record Straight: A CSJ Response To The Truth And Lies About Poverty Report’ by Tom Wardle and Ben Walker/Centre for Social Justice; April 2013: http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/Truth-and-lies-about-poverty—CSJ-response-(3).pdf

[23]  ‘Cash For Kids Appeal: Kerrang!’ by the Children’s Society; 2013:  http://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/cashforkidsappeal

[24] ‘Setting The Record Straight: A CSJ Response To The Truth And Lies About Poverty Report’ by Tom Wardle and Ben Walker/Centre for Social Justice; April 2013: http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/Truth-and-lies-about-poverty—CSJ-response-(3).pdf

[25]

‘United Kingdom Drug Situation: 2011 Edition’ by the Department of Health; 27th October 2011: http://www.nwph.net/ukfocalpoint/writedir/a5e8focual%20Final%20report%202011.pdf

[26] ‘Speech: Kids Company’ by Iain Duncan Smith; 31st January 2013: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/kids-company

[27] ‘Setting The Record Straight: A CSJ Response To The Truth And Lies About Poverty Report’ by Tom Wardle and Ben Walker/Centre for Social Justice; April 2013: http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/Truth-and-lies-about-poverty—CSJ-response-(3).pdf

[28] ‘The relentless rise of in-work poverty’ by Chris Goulden/Joseph Rowntree Foundation; 14th June 2012: http://www.jrf.org.uk/blog/2012/06/relentless-rise-work-poverty

[29] ‘Public Views on Child Poverty: Results from the first polling undertaken as part of the Measuring Child Poverty consultation’ by the Department for Work and Pensions; January 2013: http://statistics.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd1/adhoc_analysis/2013/public%20_views_on_child_poverty.pdf

[30] ‘Public Views on Child Poverty: Results from the first polling undertaken as part of the Measuring Child Poverty consultation’ by the Department for Work and Pensions; January 2013: http://statistics.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd1/adhoc_analysis/2013/public%20_views_on_child_poverty.pdf

[31] ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’ by Joint Public Issues (i.e. the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church); 1st March 2013: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Truth-And-Lies-Report-smaller.pdf

[32] ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’ by Joint Public Issues (i.e. the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church); 1st March 2013: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Truth-And-Lies-Report-smaller.pdf

[33] ‘Local Authority Breakdown: Incapacity Benefits and Disability Living Allowance claimants with main condition of alcohol or drug abuse’ by the Department for Work and Pensions; July 2012: http://statistics.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd1/adhoc_analysis/2012/ib_sda_esa_dla_drug_alcohol_by_la_july2012.pdf

[34] ‘Local Authority Breakdown: Incapacity Benefits and Disability Living Allowance claimants with main condition of alcohol or drug abuse’ by the Department for Work and Pensions; July 2012: http://statistics.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd1/adhoc_analysis/2012/ib_sda_esa_dla_drug_alcohol_by_la_july2012.pdf

[35] For instance:

“At November 2010, a total of 2.0 million people were claiming IB or SDA, of whom 40,990 (2.0%) had a main medical condition of alcoholism and a further 36,110 (1.8%) a main condition of drug abuse.” (2010)

Of the 600,000 ESA claimants, 15,640 (2.6% – a larger percentage than for IB/SDA) had a main medical condition of alcoholism and a further 10.070 (1.7% – closer to the percentage for IB/SDA) a main condition of drug abuse. Of the 3.2 million people receiving DLA at November 2010, 21,290 (0.7%) had a main disabling condition of either drug or alcohol abuse”

In ‘Local Authority Breakdown: Incapacity Benefits and Disability Living Allowance claimants with main condition of alcohol or drug abuse’ by the Department for Work and Pensions; July 2011: http://statistics.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd1/adhoc_analysis/2011/ib_sda_esa_dla_drug_alcohol_by_la_nov2010.pdf

Also:

“At May 2011, a total of 1.9 million people were claiming IB or SDA, of whom 38,910 (2.0%) had a main medical condition of alcoholism and a further 34,080 (1.8%) a main condition of drug abuse. Of the 662,230 ESA claimants, 16,990 (2.6% – a larger percentage than for IB/SDA) had a main medical condition of alcoholism and a further 10,140 (1.5%- closer to the percentage for IB/SDA) a main condition of drug abuse. Of the 3.2 million people receiving DLA at May 2011, 21,340 (0.7%) had a main disabling condition of either drug or alcohol abuse”

In ‘Local Authority Breakdown: Incapacity Benefits and Disability Living Allowance claimants with main condition of alcohol or drug abuse’ by the Department for Work and Pensions; January 2012: http://statistics.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd1/adhoc_analysis/2012/ib_sda_esa_dla_drug_alcohol_by_la.pdf

[36] For examples of how this myth has gained ground, see ‘How many have claimed benefits for acne for more than a decade?’ by Hannah Shrimpton /Full Fact; 30th July 2012: http://fullfact.org/factchecks/disability_incapacity_benefits_acne_decade_Mail-27687

[37] ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’ by Joint Public Issues (i.e. the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church); 1st March 2013: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Truth-And-Lies-Report-smaller.pdf

[38] ‘Setting The Record Straight: A CSJ Response To The Truth And Lies About Poverty Report’ by Tom Wardle and Ben Walker/Centre for Social Justice; April 2013: http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/Truth-and-lies-about-poverty—CSJ-response-(3).pdf

[39] ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’ by Joint Public Issues (i.e. the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church); 1st March 2013: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Truth-And-Lies-Report-smaller.pdf

[40] The overall DWP web-page is ‘Statistics: Fraud and Error in the Benefit System’ http://statistics.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd2/index.php?page=fraud_error

[41] ‘Fraud and Error in the Benefit System: 2011/12 Estimates’ by the Department for Work and Pensions; December 2012: http://statistics.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd2/fem/fem_1112.pdf

[42] ‘Fraud and Error in the Benefit System: 2011/12 Estimates’ by the Department for Work and Pensions; December 2012: http://statistics.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd2/fem/fem_1112.pdf

[43] See ‘Income Related Benefits: Estimates of Take-Up’ on the DWP’s website: http://research.dwp.gov.uk/asd/index.php?page=irb

[44] See ‘Is tax evasion and avoidance costing the taxpayer £25bn per year?’ by Owen Spottiswoode/Full Fact; 22nd February 2013: http://fullfact.org/factchecks/tax_evasion_avoidance_cost_taxpayer_25bn-28789

[45] ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’ by Joint Public Issues (i.e. the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church); 1st March 2013: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Truth-And-Lies-Report-smaller.pdf

[46] ‘Setting The Record Straight: A CSJ Response To The Truth And Lies About Poverty Report’ by Tom Wardle and Ben Walker/Centre for Social Justice; April 2013: http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/Truth-and-lies-about-poverty—CSJ-response-(3).pdf

[47] ‘Setting The Record Straight: A CSJ Response To The Truth And Lies About Poverty Report’ by Tom Wardle and Ben Walker/Centre for Social Justice; April 2013: http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/Truth-and-lies-about-poverty—CSJ-response-(3).pdf

[48] ‘Benefits in Britain: separating the facts from the fiction’ by The Observer; 6th April 2013: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/apr/06/welfare-britain-facts-myths

[49] ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’ by Joint Public Issues (i.e. the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church); 1st March 2013: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Truth-And-Lies-Report-smaller.pdf

[50] ‘Setting The Record Straight: A CSJ Response To The Truth And Lies About Poverty Report’ by Tom Wardle and Ben Walker/Centre for Social Justice; April 2013: http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/Truth-and-lies-about-poverty—CSJ-response-(3).pdf

[51] ‘Dynamic Benefits: Towards welfare that works’ by the Centre for Social Justice; September 2009:  http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/CSJ%20dynamic%20benefits.pdf

[52] ‘Dynamic Benefits: Towards welfare that works’ by the Centre for Social Justice; September 2009:  http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/CSJ%20dynamic%20benefits.pdf

Compare the sentences “We identified worklessness and dependency, along with family breakdown, educational failure, serious personal debt, and drug and alcohol addiction, as key predictors, or Pathways to Poverty. Benefit dependency is enormously destructive to the fabric of society” to the following excerpt from the CSJ’s response: “any serious measure of poverty must recognise its root causes: family breakdown, economic dependency and worklessness, educational failure, addiction to drugs and alcohol and serious personal debt” (p. 1).

[53] ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’ by Joint Public Issues (i.e. the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church); 1st March 2013: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Truth-And-Lies-Report-smaller.pdf

[54] ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’ by Joint Public Issues (i.e. the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church); 1st March 2013: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Truth-And-Lies-Report-smaller.pdf

[55] ‘Setting The Record Straight: A CSJ Response To The Truth And Lies About Poverty Report’ by Tom Wardle and Ben Walker/Centre for Social Justice; April 2013: http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/Truth-and-lies-about-poverty—CSJ-response-(3).pdf

[57] ‘How many families are claiming £100,000 per year in housing benefit?’ by Owen Spottiswoode/Full Fact; 5th November 2012:  http://fullfact.org/factchecks/how_many_families_claiming_100000_year_housing_benefit-28589

[58] ‘Home Truths 2012’ by the National Housing Federation; 2012:  http://www.housing.org.uk/PDF/HomeTruths2012_England.pdf

[59] ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’ by Joint Public Issues (i.e. the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church); 1st March 2013: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Truth-And-Lies-Report-smaller.pdf

[60] ‘Setting The Record Straight: A CSJ Response To The Truth And Lies About Poverty Report’ by Tom Wardle and Ben Walker/Centre for Social Justice; April 2013: http://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/UserStorage/pdf/Pdf%20reports/Truth-and-lies-about-poverty—CSJ-response-(3).pdf

[61] ‘Is welfare spending ever under control?’ by the BBC; 1st October 2010: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-11443372

[62] ‘The lies we tell ourselves: ending comfortable myths about poverty’ by Joint Public Issues (i.e. the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church); 1st March 2013: http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Truth-And-Lies-Report-smaller.pdf

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