Poverty is big TV these days. Benefits by the Sea, On Benefits & Proud, for example. And it’s not just these so-called ‘poverty porn’ documentaries. It’s also the constant stream of news and other media debating the exponential rise of food banks and the effects of Government policy, driving too many people to the breadline and beyond.
Co-written by Martin Charlesworth and our very own Hastings local Natalie Williams (both working for an organisation called Jubilee+), The Myth of the Undeserving Poor is a short, insightful book that highlights the media’s pervasive use of lazy, toxic stereotyping of poverty and its influence on the British public’s attitudes to poverty.
The Myth of the Undeserving Poor, in my view, deserves to become a modern classic.
Despite having worked with homeless people for the last 11 years and thinking I’m pretty understanding and empathic when it comes to poverty, there were some real lightbulb moments as I read this book.
So, I decided to write this little blog piece as a book review and recommendation, for all my friends, colleagues, and anyone else willing to receive a wise education – with no guilt trips attached – in attitudes towards British (or even western) poverty.
In The Myth of the Undeserving Poor, Natalie Williams reports on a survey she conducted in 2014, in which she analysed nearly 400 media items (including reports, features, comment pieces, letters and cartoons) related to poverty in Britain, appearing in 10 major (and varied) news sources over a 4-week period.
Her analysis of the findings revealed two particular concerns: a generally negative media bias against those in poverty – unsurprisingly more extreme in certain news sources (such as the Daily Mail and The Sun) than others; and a widespread lack of views and comments directly from those in poverty themselves; both concerns creating an ‘us and them’ mentality amongst the public, or as one journalist described it, a “gradual erosion of empathy” where poor people are regarded as “an entirely different species” and “instead of being disgusted by poverty , we are disgusted by poor people themselves”.*
The authors also report on another survey they undertook in 2014 involving 419 people, comparing attitudes of Christians with those of the general public towards poverty. Although there was evidence of greater sympathy and awareness amongst Christians surveyed, the authors were more interested to discover the principal influences on Christians’ attitudes towards poverty.
Political preferences were, perhaps unsurprisingly, found to be intrinsically linked to attitudes. Broadly speaking, those who identify with the Conservatives were found to demonstrate less sympathy than those with other or no political affiliation.
Also not too surprisingly – but pertinently – was the correlation found between attitudes and proximity to poverty. In other words, those who worked with or lived amongst people in poverty demonstrated greater empathy, while those who were physically detached showed less understanding.
Of greater concern, perhaps, was the link found between attitudes towards poverty and choice of newspaper read by Christian respondents.
For example, fewer regular readers of the Daily Mail (36%) and The Telegraph (39%) agreed that large income gaps between the rich and poor are ‘morally wrong’, than those who regularly read the Daily Mirror (73%) or The Guardian (65%).
Similarly, 36% of Daily Mail readers believe the level of help available from the State is not enough, causing hardship, compared with 80% of Daily Mirror readers.
Charlesworth and Williams point out that, for Christians, there are (inevitably) factors other than our faith that will influence our attitudes and beliefs about poverty, and effectively apply some guiding principles from the teachings and examples of Jesus and other Biblical sources to current media coverage of British poverty.
Very helpfully, the authors describe and define 4 distinct elements to poverty:
An example from one of the TV programmes (Breadline Kids, 2014) which would instinctively elicit empathy and compassion from most viewers is juxtaposed with the example of someone who says they’d rather live on benefits because they’re better off that way and that they can get a bigger house by having more kids.
The authors make the case that our lack of compassion for the latter example misses the point that this person is also in a type of poverty – aspirational and spiritual – and that generally adults in this kind of poverty have been raised in poverty and may be unable to see any other way. Not that this means that handouts are necessarily the answer, but it does mean that as a society we need to recognise and understand patterns of poverty and be willing to extend the appropriate kind of help, rather than label some as ‘deserving’ and others as ‘undeserving’ of help.
On the subject of aspirational and spiritual poverty, let me illustrate this with a snapshot from my own life…
In my forthcoming book (I say forthcoming – I mean in about 20 years, when I have time to write it), I’ll be describing spiritual and relational homelessness. I didn’t grow up in any kind of material poverty – far from it – but I did grow up in a very unhappy house that never felt like home and so for this and other reasons I chose homelessness as a way of life.
Although I wasn’t forced on to the streets as many of my homeless clients have been, my physical homelessness was a direct consequence of a relational poverty (dysfunctional family) and spiritual homelessness (my total insecurity and atheism).
I experienced aspirational poverty, in that the ‘rat race’ or pursuing a career was, to me, completely futile, so I flunked exams. My only aim was to live as an itinerant, pursuing self-seeking experiences.
When I found a spiritual home (through coming to faith in Jesus), all of that was changed in an instant. My hedonistic pursuit of sex, drugs and travel, and the sense of futility I felt in ‘normal’ life, was replaced by an inner drive to use what I had usefully to help others in some way, which led me into a career in nursing and eventually to working as a nurse with homeless people, as I do now.
Once my spiritual poverty was resolved, my aspirational poverty was also overturned. This in turn brought an end to my (previously chosen) economic poverty. So, in my case at least, spiritual and relational poverty was the root of other kinds of poverty.
More on that in my ‘imminent’ book….! But back to a book that has been written…
One final comment, and this is an observation, not a criticism. The Myth of the Undeserving Poor is written by Christians, from a Biblical viewpoint, to challenge and inform the attitudes of other Christians.
I’ve already recommended this book to colleagues who have a different worldview, yet I don’t know how accessible The Myth of the Undeserving Poor with its distinctly ‘religious’ angle, laced with Bible references, would be for them.
I would love to see a later edition of the book aimed at a wider readership, more designed to challenge prejudices and myths in the wider British public rather than specifically UK Christians, while still maintaining its Christian basis.
That said, there would still be much for people without a Christian persuasion to relate to in this first edition, and I hope they’ll give this a shot. Furthermore, this informative book could serve to break down some prejudices and misunderstandings about Christianity as well as poverty.
The research findings and myth-busting covered by The Myth of the Undeserving Poor are relevant and important reading for people of any or no faith living in 21st Century Britain.
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