Thursday, 22 December 2011

Scroungers, cheats and fraud: How does the media stigmatise benefit claimants?

We can all sense that over the past few years there has been a deep shift in attitudes towards benefit claimants and, more broadly, against the welfare state.  Data on social attitudes show as much - with huge swings since the early 2000s against supporting those who need social security.

But what role has the media played in this?  Excellent bloggers like Sue Marsh have consistently held the media to account for their often vitriolic and false accusations against benefit claimants.  Similarly, Ben Baumberg over at the collaborative Inequalities blog has recently written three excellent articles on John Humphrys' controversial TV show on the welfare state.

But how can we quantify the media's role?

So we all sense that there has been a qualitative shift in how the media represent benefit claimants, but is there also a quantitative shift?  Are the media not just being more pejorative about claimants, but are they doing so with increasing consistency?

One way to check this out is to examine the frequency with which the media uses certain loaded and derogatory terms aimed at benefit claimants.  Using the Nexis UK system, I explored the extent to which national daily newspapers in the UK used certain phrases associated with benefits: 'scrounger', 'benefit cheat' and 'benefit fraud'.  I looked at this for the past 12 years and the results are shown below:

Number of articles (per year) which reference certain phrases associated with benefits

The results are, sadly, as we might expect.  In short, I think we can split the above graph into three
different periods of time.  The first is between 2000 and around 2003/04, when media use of the above phrases was fairly steady.  Then, after this period we being to see quite a stark increase.  The number of articles referencing 'benefit fraud', for example, doubled from around 200 in 2003 to 400 in 2005.  Similarly, the number of articles referencing 'scrounger' jumped from 140 in 2003 to 338 in 2006.  These years in the mid-2000s appear to represent a first phase in the hardening of attitudes towards benefit claimants.

The third period - which the graph clearly shows as originating in 2009 - appears to mark a third, profound shift in how the media portrays benefit claimants.  Between 2009 and 2010, the annual media use of 'scrounger' jumped from 291 to 902, the use of 'benefit cheat' increased from 277 to 693 and 'benefit fraud' from 299 to 530.

While there has been a significant reduction in the use of these terms in 2011, the frequency with which newspapers use them is still way, way higher compared with the start of the century.  Thus, in what will surely confirm many people's worst suspicions, it seems true the media has used the onset of financial crisis and economic recession to increasingly pin the blame of our troubles at the hands of the poorest in society.  It is data like these which can sometimes make the UK a rather gloomy place to live in.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The Spirit Level, inequality and social hierarchy

Christopher Snowdon, arch-critic of The Spirit Level and author of The Spirit Level Delusion, has written a lengthy post here about what he perceives as Wilkinson and Pickett's flawed reasoning about the relationship between inequality, social hierarchy and anxiety.  

In short, the chain of reasoning in this relationship is as follows.  Higher levels of inequality lead to greater social hierarchies.  In societies where there are greater social hierarchies, people are more concerned about their social status and their relationships with other people.  This makes people anxious and stressed which, in turn, affects mental and physical health. 

As Snowdon rightly points out, this theory 'is crucial to everything that follows in The Spirit Level'.  If inequality does not lead to stress- and anxiety-inducing social differences which damage people's health, then the theoretical basis of The Spirit Level falls down.  Snowdon goes into great detail about the empirical weaknesses to the theory, yet one particular, popular argument is used.

What about Japan?

Snowdon, like other critics, looks to the seemingly paradoxical example of Japan; both equal and highly socially-stratified, 'It would be hard to find a more hierarchical and status-driven society than Japan'.  The same point is made by John Goldthorpe in this 2009 article, where it is argued that Wilkinson and Pickett misconstrue the relationship between status and inequality.

But does the fact that Japan has both high income equality and wide social hierarchies disprove Wilkinson and Pickett's theory?  I don't think it does.  If it does disprove their theory, we are effectively saying that wide social hierarchies - whether in Japan or the US - are of qualitatively the same nature as each other.  It is an argument that gives no room to the idea that two deeply hierarchical societies can have fundamentally different types of hierarchy.

The idea that hierarchies can be varied and, thus, have different consequences should not surprise us.  In our everyday lives we exist in and confront hierarchies that are different all the time.  The family, for example, is an extremely hierarchical institution, yet not one that particularly induces stress or anxiety because of its hierarchical nature.

It's not just hierarchy, but the type of hierarchy

This raises the prospect that Japan and the US, despite both being highly hierarchical, have qualitatively different types of hierarchy.  In particular, I think there might be something about the more US-oriented meritocratic structure of status difference which makes it more prone to higher levels of stress or anxiety than other forms of hierarchical difference. Meritocracy, by virtue of its meaning, tells us that we are where we are because of who we are.  In other words, the poor deserve their lot, just as the rich deserve their wealth.  If we find ourselves at a low ebb, meritocracy tells us to look at ourselves and our own purported failings and weaknesses.

Now I don't know much about Japanese society, but there is surely the prospect that its form of status-differentiation is different to America's: less stigmatising and less competitive.  In other words, it might be less shameful to be who you are.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Is there such a thing as the 'feckless benefit scrounger'

In a blogpost for the Telegraph today, Dan Hodges urged Ed Miliband to shift to the Right in order to win back public support.  In one particularly notable sentence, Hodges argued that Miliband needs to convince people that 'he won't take their money and hand it to a bunch of feckless benefit scroungers'.

I suspect Hodges used this phrase because he knows that it will seriously annoy many on the Left who, despite New Labour's heady shake-up of welfare, remain deeply uncomfortable with the direction of welfare reform and the language of scrounging.  There is a very strong sense - and one that I think is getting stronger - that these attitudes need to be seriously taken on.

The challenge for those of us with this disposition is to question the common use of an anti-benefits language.  This is certainly no easy task; as the British Social Attitudes series has show, it seems that people from all walks of life are now united in their view of benefit claimants.  The use of this language by a person like Hodges - supposedly a man of the Left - shows how ingrained this kind of psyche is.

But how can this be done?  I would argue that there are two ways to challenge this dominant narrative: an ethical way ('is it morally right to conceptualise our fellow citizens in such a way?') and an empirical way ('who are the benefit scroungers and do they actually exist?').

As much as I think that the ethical debate is an important one, it seems a matter of fact that most people do think it is fair - providing it is true - that if people are 'scrounging' then they deserve to be shamed for it.  While many of us find this view untenable, changing it is not something that can be done overnight: it will require a longer-term shift in the social attitudes of the British population.

In the shorter-term, a potentially more fruitful approach may be to ask questions of a more empirical nature.  What is a benefit scrounger?  Who are the benefit scroungers?  How many benefit scroungers are there?  What cost does scrounging have?

When I come across people with a very open hostility to benefit claimants, these are the kind of questions I'll ask.  Quite often, people are forced to reconsider their seemingly ingrained views.  They clearly don't think a scrounger is someone who genuinely wants a job or whose health gets in the way of one.  They often don't know that there are strong conditions in place to monitor those who might are turning down work.  They don't tend to think that £60 per week is enough to live on and agree that unemployed people need good support to get back to work.  Finally, they will often agree that tax evasion costs us far, far more than that which benefit fraud is estimated to do.

In other words, if we use such questions to challenge the reality behind the rhetoric, we challenge the very notion that there is such a thing as the 'feckless benefit scrounger'.  Only by questioning this myth - and hopefully exploding it - can the Left even begin to outline its own vision of a better welfare state.