The Blog

Cut the Caricature of the Poor, Not Their Welfare

Why do those on benefits have to be caricatured or characterised in one way or another at all? There are thousands of decent, 'normal' people who are, and try to make ends meet as best they can

Today the top rate of tax fell to 45%, which nicely coincides with the culmination of a week's all-out left-right press war on the use and abuse of the benefits system and the Coalition's differing policies for the rich and poor.

In the blue corner, we have the Daily Mail highlighting Mick Philpott, who was sentenced this week for the manslaughter of his six children, as a "vile product" of the benefits system; George Osborne calling for a "debate" on how taxpayers "subsidise" lifestyles such as Philpott's, and Iain Duncan Smith asserting that he too could live off the £53 weekly benefits subsidy.

In the red corner, the Independent and the Guardian are baying for the blood of the Daily Mail, Labour MP Pamela Nash has argued that the Mail's polemic is offensive to those on benefits and Danny Alexander has opposed his Treasury boss Osborne by staking that welfare reform should not be influenced by the Philpott crimes.

Meanwhile, as Stefano Hatfield pointed out in yesterday's i paper, the bedroom tax is now all but forgotten in the benefits-barrage dust cloud.

Why do those on benefits have to be caricatured or characterised in one way or another at all? There are thousands of decent, 'normal' people who are genuinely impoverished, and try to make ends meet as best they can. There are also reaps of incredibly wealthy people, with mansions and several cars and children at the best private schools in the country, who are 'normal', friendly, sane, human beings. In fact, the Big Bad Benefits Scroungers are actually a minority, just like the "dirty rich tax-dodgers" on the other side of the coin.

Surely if being poor was poor people's fault, then there would be more who could just work a bit harder, get off the dole and Bob's your uncle, they're not welfare spongers anymore! (Pardon me while I chortle.)

Tory politicians such as I've-been-unemployed Duncan Smith and ivory tower Osborne really, utterly, do not have a clue. Ian Duncan Smith's sprawling mansion did not simply land in his lap because he has a good 'work ethic', just as the majority of people on benefits did not end up on £53 per week because they are lazy and stupid, or indeed child-homicidal arsonists. Some people are born into disadvantageous circumstances, and some people fall on hard times: almost anyone could become disabled or ill, or suddenly lose their jobs or homes.

Do the politicians and media commentators persecuting those on benefits really know what it's like to be poor?

Do they know what it's like to ration out food, or go without so their children aren't hungry; to forgo Christmas presents for the third year running; to mentally count the pennies' difference between bags of frozen vegetables in the supermarket aisle; to sleep five in a room or on a blow-up mattress on the living room floor; to have not been on holiday in eight years; to have wet feet in winter because there are holes in your soles; to never have the luxury of an impulsive shop-bought coffee; to walk three miles to the cheaper grocery shop and then carry the bags all the way back; to not be able to simply redecorate that peeling wallpaper or shabby carpet; to wear three jumpers and shoes inside because the heating is too expensive?...

Do they really know what being poor, on a day-to-day, year-to-year basis is actually like? It's not fun, and there's no let up, and the last thing people who have a genuinely difficult life need is to be stigmatised and vindicated as if they somehow want, choose or deserve it.