The myth of the undeserving poor

Set against the backdrop of an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, an increase in the stigmatisation of the poor and an over-burdened welfare state, the myth of the undeserving poor has re-emerged in our society.

So say Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams of Jubilee+, who have researched these trends and recently published a book, The Myth of the Undeserving Poor. Lord Alton, who spoke at their book launch, described the title as having 'caught the moment', and that the authors are 'speaking into the crack' that we have in society today. Christian Today caught up with them to find out more.

What are your vision and goals for Jubilee+ and how does the book fit into those?

MC: Our vision is to see churches fully engaged in social action, social justice and social enterprise across this nation – thus seizing the opportunity of the present economic and social climate to make a big impact for the Kingdom of God. The book is intended to identify a key aspect of our public culture concerning poverty – the stigmatisation of the poor. We hope it will stimulate discussion, provoke the media to think more carefully about their key narratives and inform the thinking of politicians.

What lead to the Church's increased participation in social action? 

MC: The financial crisis of 2007-2008 led directly to major political changes which, in turn, had a drastic effect on the poorest in our society. Benefits cuts and local authority service reductions led to real gaps in social care. The Church quickly rose up to take up some of the slack. Looking back, the financial crisis can be seen to be the catalyst of a huge expansion of social action through churches.

NW: One of the things we touch on in the book is that, for some sections of the Church, social action became synonymous with a failure to preach the gospel. We think that those sections of the Church have reawakened and are reawakening to the fact that we need to both serve the poor AND preach the gospel. It's not one or the other. We're called to both. Both are natural, logical and right expressions of following Jesus.

You say that 'Paradoxically, though concern about British poverty is increasing... attitudes towards those in poverty are hardening.' Is this what you think is behind the myth of the undeserving poor?

MC: If we look back in history we will find times that the poor, or some of them at least, have been stigmatised in Britain. For example, it was commonplace in the Victorian age. However, the rise of the ethos of state welfare in the 20th century changed attitudes for the better. Recently, the consensus supporting the welfare state has been crumbling and along with this has come the resurgence of the myth of the undeserving poor as an expression of an unwillingness to devote the necessary resources to tackle poverty and the desire to blame the poor for their condition as a way of distancing ourselves from them in an socially polarised society.

NW: In essence, the myth tells us that some people in need deserve our help, and some don't. It provokes us to resentment and judgment – to see people as 'strivers' who deserve help or 'skivers' who don't. We begin to categorise people according to the causes of their current poverty, and on that basis decide to help them or write them off. It sets up walls between us and our fellow human beings and erodes our compassion, kindness and empathy.

If Christians buy into the myth, then instead of asking, "What is God's heart for this person?" we adopt a kind of "you made your bed..." mentality. The thing is, we never see Jesus doing this. We do, however, read about him healing people who never thanked him, feeding thousands without means testing them, and showing kindness to those on the outskirts of society.

How would you say the media has perpetuated this myth?

NW: Some of the headlines we see – particularly from some of our national newspapers – are like a loud, repetitively beating drum for this narrative. When Mick Philpott set fire to his house, killing six of his children, one of the front page headlines read: VILE PRODUCT OF WELFARE UK – as if his heinous crime was somehow intrinsically linked to the fact that he was on benefits. That's an extreme (though not necessarily uncommon) example, but our analysis of 390 media articles from January 2014 found that there is a fair amount of negativity towards the poor in supposedly neutral news stories, and twice as much negativity as positivity. That leads to what is known as 'othering', which reinforces how the people in the articles are different to the readers, 'not like us', to be feared or resented because they are portrayed as people whose actions have a negative impact on our lives.

You conducted an analysis of the media's approach to the poor – what surprised you the most, and the least?

NW: I was really surprised to find so little space given for the voices of the poor. When I was a journalist, particularly on local newspapers, we always had to include at least one sentence from the person or company being criticised. So when we found that 78% of articles contained not one word from those in poverty themselves, I was genuinely surprised and troubled by that. I was even more surprised by the publications that did give space for the voices of those in need – they really weren't the ones I was expecting!

You also conducted a survey among Christians. What were the significant results of this one?

NW: We genuinely wanted to find out if Christians are really influenced by the media, but we also wanted to explore the various factors that might play a part in shaping our views. I expected to find that our views are shaped a little bit by the media, but wasn't expecting to find such significant variances across the board based on what media we regularly consume. We found that Christian views on poverty are, just like non-Christian views, shaped by the media, political preferences and proximity to poverty. These three factors seem to be the most significant.

What is your definition of poverty?

MC: We see poverty as having four main dimensions. The most obvious is economic. However, this is often associated with relational poverty – family breakdown, lack of community, isolation, loneliness. Then there is what we call aspirational poverty – the lack of ability or vision to seek to change your life. Ultimately, poverty is also spiritual – the lack of ultimate meaning in life. Only the gospel can provide the answer to this type of poverty.

In the book you ask 'do Christians care for the poor with strings attached'? What do you mean by this?

NW: Basically, are there conditions on our care for the poor? Is it based on who Jesus is and His concern for the poor, or is it based on how the person became poor or whether they will be wise with any help we give them? I believe Christians are called to have fixed values rooted in who God is, not values that move according to the person we're talking to.

You say, 'Helping the poor is our responsibility; how they respond is theirs'. What are some of the unhelpful and unbiblical attitudes you think we can have towards the poor?

NW: I think we can sometimes operate in the same way as people in general – we can make snap judgments because we're too busy to take the time to find out why someone is in the situation they are in. I met a guy earlier this year who was begging on the streets, holding up a cardboard sign that read: 'Why lie? I want beer!' Intrigued, I asked him what was his story. Once I heard about his life, I understood him better and compassion quickly came.

As the title of the book suggests, we think it's unbiblical to think of some people as the undeserving poor. We simply think it's a question Christians shouldn't be asking because it's a way we shouldn't be thinking. The biblical question for us is "how can I best demonstrate the mercy and kindness of God that I've received to each person in need I meet?"

You have a chapter focused on 'a call to action', encouraging readers to choose a simple lifestyle tempered with generosity. What does this mean in practice?

MC: There has been a tendency in recent years for large numbers of Christians to engage with poverty in fresh ways and with fresh enthusiasm. This is positive. However, many fewer people stop to consider what implications this may have for their own lifestyle. I think it's time to go back to the Sermon on the Mount and reflect again on the call to simplicity issued to his followers by Jesus as they entered into the life of discipleship. Simplicity often goes hand in hand with generosity. The less we 'need' the more we can share.

You refer to how radical Jesus was in his approach to the poor. What are the main challenges before us today regarding caring for the poor in our society?

NW: One of the huge challenges is that the media narrative we describe seems to have really taken hold in today's British society: it's become normal and relatively uncontested to talk about benefits scroungers who say they can't eat yet own a plasma TV, etc. I think our consumerist culture is a challenge too – every now and then I moan about something my iPhone can't do, completely missing the fact that the piece of technology in my hands is incredible and was unimaginable to me just a decade ago. We are easily dissatisfied because we've come to expect a certain level of comfort and convenience – what we would have called luxury quickly becomes essential to us without us even noticing.

I was challenged on this by a guy I know who decided that for a whole year, he would only buy things for himself if he could buy two and give one away. So, for a year, every time he bought a coffee or a cinema ticket or a pair of trainers, he only did it when he could afford two, and he would always give one away. This not only helped him to be generous and bless others, but it loosened the grip of money on his heart and made him think more seriously about every purchase.

I think a huge challenge for us is to get a godly perspective on what we need and what is excess. God has really been challenging me since we started writing the book about this question: is it really ok for me to have far more than I need when there are people around me who have far less than they need?

Another challenge is busyness. Sometimes we are just to busy to stop and talk to someone. Sometimes we're too busy to think through our attitudes and ask God to search our hearts.

You mention that it must be more than crisis intervention, saying 'there's often a more strategic role for the local church than merely responding to a need' – what do you mean by that?

NW: Churches are increasingly starting to look at how they can tackle the root causes of problems, not just provide crisis support (as important as that is). Many of the community franchises that have seen huge growth in the last few years – eg the Trussell Trust and CAP – are now developing initiatives that equip people to get or stay out of poverty.

MC: It is easy for churches to identify crises and to get involved in emergency interventions such as foodbanks. However, there soon comes a point when you begin to wonder if there is something more strategic that can be done for people in crisis situations. Food parcels are a short term intervention. They do not fundamentally change the underlying situations people find themselves in. This is why churches are getting involved initiatives such as job clubs, life skills groups and social enterprises which create jobs for those in such situations.

NW: One of the things we've done in the church I attend is make a point of meeting with local decision-makers and asking them what they think the biggest problem facing the town is and what they think churches could do to help. We don't just want to adopt the projects we are particularly interested in; we want to know what is most useful and will make a disproportionately significant impact for the common good.

The Myth of the Undeserving Poor is available here. For more information about Jubilee+ visit their website or follow @JubileePlus on Twitter.