Are we experiencing compassion fatigue in wake of welfare reform?

March 20, 2012, 11:50 AM GMT+0

We are only just starting to see the impact of welfare reform and benefit cuts on the poorest in the UK, but even so it appears that we may already be losing our capacity for empathy.

Public discourse seems to be anaesthetised at best: “A widening gap between rich and poor? Yes, noted, a shame but…”; “Over a million young people out of work? What we need are some work experience schemes to keep them occupied for a few weeks…”

Compassion fatigue is a well-known feature of charitable response to disasters overseas. Other than through occasional injections of ‘Geldofism’, we are usually only interested for a short time in social issues that we experience merely second-hand through media coverage. We now seem to be seeing a similar public response to the long, slow burn of the ‘Great Recession’ at home.

British attitudes

During previous recessions, over the past 28 years, the British Social Attitudes survey has shown that public sympathy for those who are out of work has increased as things have got tougher. This time round, the opposite seems true. People are blaming poverty on ‘laziness’, with more than half believing that social security benefits are too high. Fewer than one-third now say they would be willing to pay higher taxes to support schools, the NHS or the environment.

The latest YouGov/Prospect study indicates that three-quarters of people think that Britain spends too much on welfare, and should cut benefits. Four out of ten think that a significant minority of welfare claimants are “scroungers”. Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) indicates that attitudes to those on low incomes are often more negative than attitudes towards the rich, even amid the demonisation of bankers after the 2008 banking crisis. There is a widespread belief that there are adequate opportunities to earn a reasonable income, and that benefit recipients will not contribute to society.

It is easy to say: ‘everyone knows there are scroungers and benefit cheats’. But this widespread, shared perception can hardly come from direct experience. How many of us actually know those feckless individuals, living in council house mansions while driving luxury cars and claiming stratospheric benefits? There may be a few, but they are surely outside almost everyone’s direct experience. We are much more likely to know people who find that every pound lost from benefits means going without essentials.

From media stereotypes to political myths

It is a feature of modern living that a few individual stories, possibly contrived to illustrate an argument, become ‘facts’, and then all-too-soon ‘widely acknowledged social issues’. Even when they contradict our own direct experience of people experiencing poverty, we seem nevertheless to subscribe to them. Then, in no time at all, they become features of political life about which ‘something must be done’.

What is revealing is the vocabulary with which those in poverty are increasingly being described. Words such as ‘scroungers’ and ‘benefit cheats’ are almost no distance from the Victorian concept of the ‘undeserving poor’, a notion used to justify the existence of workhouses. It can be no coincidence that the contemporary change in social attitudes to those in poverty has come about in a time when a swathe of media coverage has become increasingly hostile to, and disparaging of, those who are poor.

It is not just the public who can be disproportionately influenced by media coverage. Politicians and other ‘opinion-formers’ are at risk of becoming merely ‘opinion-receivers’. The facts of poverty are harsher, and policy to deal with them harder to frame, than for stereotypical myths. They represent a fearsome challenge.

The welfare system can undoubtedly trap people. Low-paid, insecure jobs are not a route out of poverty, instead they confirm it. Thus over half of the children in poverty are members of working families. The solution to this does not lie solely or primarily in the welfare system, but in a fundamental re-thinking of the state and of the individual’s responsibility for – and experience of – poverty.

The re-thinking of public policy needs to be carried on the basis of valid independent data. Media coverage of poverty may be a valuable goad to action, but rarely offers an informed response. The YouGov/Prospect study represents one such body of substantive information. The annual Joseph Rowntree Foundation study, Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion, provides another authoritative, independent comparison of key trends each December.

Those who make public policy for poverty need the most robust data to find the best solutions for what has become, once again, the most pressing social issue of our times.