The ‘scrounger’ myth is causing real suffering

From LSE blogs . . . 

Negative portrayals of benefits recipients can be widely seen in the media, yet new research carried out at Teesside University and funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation calls these into question. Kayleigh Garthwaite argues that the ‘scrounger’ myth is leading to great suffering for increasing numbers of people.

Read on


Class and Food

Following this mornings outrage over TV size corollated to income, here’s a piece from 2008 when Jamie Oliver showed the poor how to cook, and the nation how a great many poor people live .

Elizabeth Dowler, professor of food and social policy at Warwick University who was recently involved in the government’s Low Income Diet and Nutrition survey, says the class differences are stark but complicated. “If you live for more than six months on the minimum wage or on benefits there is growing evidence you cannot afford to buy the food you need for health. It is still to do with class but it’s complex to unpick. Food is the flexible area that you cut back on when you are on a low income. Unlike council tax or utility bills, no one fines you if you don’t spend on food and no one takes your children away, so that’s what you cut, and you have a fag because that takes the hunger away.”

Oliver met a woman who spent £70 of her £80 income on trash non-food for herself and the kids.

Natasha turns out not only to have a big cooker and TV but debts large enough to make her a pawn-shop regular, and depression deep enough to make her give up trying. When Oliver finds this out he confides to the camera in his car, “I don’t blame her … but I’m fucking angry. I’m fucking angry and I don’t know who with or what with.”

When you’re angry and you can’t work out why, it’s much more easy to punish the people who have already been punished – Natasha and her children will save the nation a fortune by dying a decade or more before their more affluent neighbours – than it is to engage with complexity, and to blame people and groups who have in many ways created the situations people like Natasha find themselves in.  People who decided to remove cooking from the school curriculum; or build large estates with no shops; or who got rid of local markets in the push for gentrification;  or who allowed huge out-of-town supermarkets that resulted in the closure of local shops; or made childcare so expensive that it makes more financial sense not to work; or who sold and stopped building public housing so that vulnerable people are kept in run down B&B’s that offer no cooking facilities at all at catastrophic public expense, and so on. The people who make these decisions, rather than the decision to eat crisps for dinner, are respectable, hard working tax payers. These are the kinds of people many of us aspire to be.

 If we want this kind of situation to change we need to engage with hard facts.

What may seem ignorant choices to others are in fact quite rational. Lobstein has calculated the cost of 100 calories of food energy from different types of food. The cheapest way to get your 100 calories is to buy fats, processed starches and sugars. A hundred calories of broccoli costs 51p, but 100 calories of frozen chips only cost 2p. Good-quality sausages that are high in meat but low in fat cost 22p per 100 calories, but “value” fatty ones are only 4p per 100 calories. Poor quality-fish fingers are 12p per 100 calories compared with 29p for ones made with fish fillet that are higher in nutrients. Fresh orange juice costs 38p per 100 calories, while the same dose of energy from sugary orange squash costs 5p.

The FSA pointed out when it published its survey on the effect of low income on diet that middle-class people were eating increasingly high levels of junk, too. However, the same survey found that nearly a quarter of poor households skipped meals because they didn’t have enough money. Nearly 40% worried that they would run out of food before more money came in.

Back in 2008, before benefit cuts, 40% of very poor people were worried about running out of food. What’s it like today? Why would counsellors be interested in this?

Flat Screen TV


The basis of their diet, therefore, is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea and potatoes  – an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent their money on more wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread, or even like the writer of the letter to New Statesman, saved on fuel and ate their carrots raw? Yes,it would, but the point is that nobody is going to such a thing . . . The peculiar evil is this: the less money you have the less inclined to feel to spend it on wholesome food. A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man does not. . . When you are unemployed, which is to say that you are underfed, harassed, bored and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a little ‘tasty’. There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you. Let’s have three pennorth of chips! Run out and buy me a tuppenny ice-cream! Put the kettle on and we’ll have a nice cup of tea! That is how your mind works when you are at the PAC level. White bread and marge and sugared tea don’t nourish you to any extent but they are nicer (at least most people think so) than brown bread and dripping and cold water. Unemployment is an endless misery that has got to be palliated, and especially with tea, the Englishman’s opium. A cup of tea or even an aspirin is much better as a temporary stimulant than a crust of brown bread.

George Orwell 1937


Jamie Oliver is getting some unwelcome attention this morning, which won’t do his new series any harm.

There’s a script around people who are on benefits. They all have 52 inch flat screen tv’s. They all have satellite tv. They all buy designer clothes. They all go on holiday all the time.

Apart from many of Them being Us (child benefit and tax credits are State Benefits and by far the largest proportion of benefit spending goes on pensions.) this constant grind of how devious and well-off people on benefits are has become ludicrous. The Politics of Envy always refers to poor people wanting what rich people have but as ever reality is infinitely more complex: a great many poor people support the arguments for people who are well off to have tax cuts, and it is poor working people who tend to be envious of people who are unemployed.

So what does TV, flatscreen or otherwise, bring to a family who can barely afford food?

Distraction – there’s a limit to how often you can take the kids to the park after school or read improving literature to them before bed. There’s a limit to how much Radio 4 a person can listen to. When working people come home their TV habits aren’t scrutinised, and unemployed people are allowed to enjoy sport, soap operas, documentaries, films, children’s TV, holiday programmes or the news.

Involvement – If you don’t know what’s happening in the world you are excluded from it, whether that’s your kids not knowing what’s happened in the latest soap that all the other children in the playground are talking about, or having no idea what your choices are during a general election. TV is an opportunity like no other to be part of a zeitgeist.

Inclusion – when a TV is a normal part of everyone’s life not having one makes you different. If that’s your choice then that’s fine, but it’s another matter altogether if it’s because you’ve been told you shouldn’t have one. I’m not aware of any data on what kinds of TV people on benefits possess or how that TV finds its way into their home. I haven’t bought a single TV in my life, being given other peoples when they buy a new one or getting one from Freecycle.

Light and warmth – TV fills the same niche as an open fire used to, bringing movement and light into the home. It’s a cold, dark winter. The kids have had dinner. Your heating may be off. Which would you rather do: watch TV together under a duvet or go to bed at 7pm?

Company – when you have no money socialising is severely compromised. Yes, you can go round to friend’s homes but that’s about it. Bus fares, bringing a token gift, not being able to join your friends when they decide to spontaneously go out for dinner or the pub (don’t you dare go the pub!) makes life depressingly small. TV brings company to you, free.

When Jamie Oliver says he “cannot understand modern day poverty in Britain” he’s not joking. He grew up in an affluent family who ran a successful, up-market business in a beautiful, very prosperous village. Despite having ADHD and dyslexia he left school at 16 with 2 GCSE’s after 7 years at a prestigious Grammar School: his life would have been very different if he’d been brought up in less favourable circumstances.

I like Jamie Oliver, he cares about and, more importantly, is practically involved in helping disadvantaged young people and he’s genuinely concerned about the health and welfare of poor families and children. He has many excellent points about the way in which we all eat and how we may choose to spend our money. But in reiterating one of the most pernicious myths about disadvantaged families he demonstrates the blindness that comes with privilege.

PS If I gave you mussels, tomatoes and spaghetti, what would you make with them and would your children eat it?

Complexity, Complexity

A woman who struggled to feed herself and her child for a tenner a week has written a cookbook. A review of this situation has resulted in some controversy:


Monroe was judged lightly because she uses her money to buy things that the middle classes buy. Swapping her chips for chickpeas shows her to be aspirational, and thus worthy of our respect. We read it as a symbol of her desire to claw her way out of the soup of inequity that is “Benefits Britain” and become middle class. The lifestyle enjoyed by the middle classes, scented by Jo Malone and lit by starlight, has become not only desirable, but honourable. To not live the upper middle-class aesthetic ideal is to live a life worthy of that class’s contempt. Taste becomes a moral quality, and the way in which you spend your money reflects your morality.


The author has replied, and it gives some insight into how an intelligent, articulate, capable woman experiences being on benefits.


Try it. For a month. Two. Five. Unscrew your lightbulbs, turn off your fridge, sell anything you can see lying around that you might get more than two quid for.

Stop going out. Walk everywhere, in the pouring rain, in your only pair of shoes, with a soaking wet and sobbing three year old trailing behind you. Drag that three year old into every pub and shop in unreasonable walking distance and ask if they have any job vacancies. Get home, soaking, still unemployed, to ‘dry out’ in a freezing cold flat.

The Conundrum of Privilege


I’m writing this at 6am having just come home from J’ouvert, the opening ceremony for Carnival where the route is walked widdershins very early in the morning before the main part of Carnival begins. Paint and flour are thrown at people and buildings, there’s a real sense of anarchy and misrule.  My husband and I were amongst about 5 or so White people there, and he and I were observers rather than participants. In a group of around 300 hardly anyone made eye contact with us and a few people gave off an air of restrained hostility.

It’s easy to call some of this behaviour racist. I don’t particularly enjoy Carnival, for me it’s a massive imposition on an area that has long been under-privileged – in reality it has never been Notting Hill Carnival, Notting Hill wouldn’t stand for it, this is North Kensington Carnival. North Ken was Rachman territory, and the area still has large pockets of terrible deprivation. I find the sound systems loathsome and to those people who say that it only lasts two days a year I reply that in that case I’ll invite dozens of people round to use their garden or doorstep as a toilet and play very loud music into their elderly parent’s house, but only for two days a year.

All that said, I grudgingly recognise the value of Carnival. North Ken has some of the very best community integration in the UK. We have communities from the Caribbean, the Horn of Africa and North Africa, Ireland, Spain and Portugal as well as generations of white working class families who still call Portobello ‘The Lane.’ Daddy V the owner of the iconic People’s Sounds sums the situation up well, “In our own homes we all say how we don’t like other people, but outside we all get along.’ (Peoples Sounds has been on All Saints forever, but has been omitted from shopping websites more interested in the bespoke upholstery businesses and ‘design boutiques’ that are gentrifying the entire area.)

Privilege is a convoluted and dense concept. Here’s the latest Wikipedia discussion on White Privilege:

White Privilege refers to the set of societal privileges that white people are argued to benefit from beyond those commonly experienced by people of color in the same social, political, or economic spaces (nation, community, workplace, income, etc.).[note 1] The term denotes both obvious and less obvious unspoken advantages that white individuals may not recognize they have, which distinguishes it from overt bias or prejudice.[1] These include cultural affirmations of one’s own worth; greater presumed social status; and freedom to move, buy, work, play, and speak freely.[2] The concept of white privilege also implies the right to assume the universality of one’s own experiences, marking others as different or exceptional while perceiving oneself as normal.

And here’s a link that describes Privilege as I understand it.

Counselling is profoundly White and profoundly middle and upper class. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being the wife of a rich man and there seem to be a huge number of counsellors who fit that description. If that statement makes you feel uncomfortable or defensive I’d propose that your privilege is being tweaked. What did you just lose?