Challenging the myth of the workless

In a guest post, Kayleigh Garthwaite talks about the important new book that she – together with her co-authors, Tracy Shildrick, Rob MacDonald and Colin Webster – released this week on the realities of the low-pay no-pay cycle in Britain.

Signing saying 'Benefits Agency' and pointing rightwardsEvery single day in the media we are fed crude headlines that lament the lazy, workshy and scrounging benefits recipients who do not work because they prefer to live a life courtesy of all of the hard working taxpayers. Apparently, they make a decision to avoid employment, instead choosing to watch The Jeremy Kyle Show on their vast plasma screen televisions, accompanied by plenty of cigarettes and alcohol, of course.

This narrative of ‘undeserving’ benefit scroungers has been firmly cemented in the public mind, with opinion polls such as the British Social Attitudes survey revealing that a considerable section of the public clearly does view welfare recipients, and people receiving unemployment benefits in particular, as undeserving. More than a third (35 per cent) currently think that many getting social security “don’t really deserve any help” – while the proportion has fluctuated between just above 20 per cent and 40 per cent over time. A perception that most people on the dole are “fiddling” is also quite widespread and has more or less tracked the proportion who believe that many people receiving social security “don’t really deserve any help”; in 2011, 37 per cent of the public believes that most people on the dole are “fiddling”.

Yet such mythology does not tally with the findings of research carried out at Teesside University funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Refuting these widely held beliefs, our research, published today by Policy Press, clearly highlights that unemployment was not ‘a lifestyle choice’.

‘Cycling between poor work and welfare’

Based upon the detailed life stories of men and women aged 30-65 who live and work in Middlesbrough, the main town of Teesside in North East England, the research reveals stories of repeated labour with little progress, of recurrent engagement with hard work but constant returns to unemployment. The people in the study were all living in recurrent poverty but often were unable to assign this label to their own situation, given that being poor is now so tainted with stigma that they refused it for themselves.

Drawing on their experiences of juggling precarious work and meagre benefits, the book shows that cycling between poor work and welfare kept them in, or near, poverty. Our overall findings show that while participants moved in and out of unemployment and low-paid jobs stretching over years, most expressed an enduring commitment to work. However, this repeated engagement in jobs failed to provide routes away from poverty, largely because of there being insufficient decent job opportunities available in the local job market. A strong motivation to work coupled with the insecurity of the low-paid and low-quality jobs on offer was the main reason why shuttling between benefits and jobs had been the interviewees’ predominant experience of working life. Dependency culture myths are also challenged in a recent blog from some of the research team.

The real impacts of a non-existent dependency culture

A sterotyped picture of a 'benefit claimant' as presented by the pressSuch a narrative is having a direct impact upon the lives of people on benefits. Recent evidence shows how hundreds of thousands of poor people are missing out on vital benefits they’re entitled to as a result of the perceived stigma generated by these false media depictions of “scroungers” – leading many to forgo essentials such as food and fuel.  Indeed, such stigma along with hassles and failures of the benefit system meant that some people even avoided claiming benefits during periods of unemployment, a group we term ‘the missing workless’: they are not counted in figures of the unemployed and do not claim welfare benefits while unemployed.

What’s more, the stigma and fear caused by such negative representations alongside ongoing welfare reform is represented in research which looks into the lived experience of receiving long-term sickness benefits.These examples show the reach and power that these myths hold. Such myths distract attention, cover up realities and justify actions. Frankly, such myths are unsubstantiated and only serve to punish the poor and do nothing to tackle the low-pay, no-pay cycle.

All of the stories of the people who took part in the research act as a cautionary tale about the meaning and implication of poor, insecure and low-waged work for an increasing number of people caught up in this low-pay, no-pay cycle in Britain. Living on benefits meant poverty and insecurity. It was to be avoided if possible, not embraced in a culture of dependency. Ongoing welfare reform will bring with it further discussions surrounding the myth of the workless. Therefore, exposing these myths and challenging such representations is an integral first step towards better-informed debate and policy.

This post originally appeared on the LSE Politics and Policy Blog.

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where I write articles and short blog posts. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on disability, the workplace, inequality, deservingness and the future of the benefits system, and the relationship between evidence and policy. You can find out more about me at
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3 Responses to Challenging the myth of the workless

  1. PAL says:

    The BSA survey says that 35% of the people believe that those who receive benefits are likely scroungers. From your article, it looks like your view is that there is little or no scrounging. You said: “Our overall findings show that while participants moved in and out of unemployment and low-paid jobs stretching over years, most expressed an enduring commitment to work.” So, if “most” do indeed express a desire to work, then that seems to say that a small proportion do not express a desire to work. Can you quantify what percentage of benefit receivers do *not* express a desire to work? For example, 1% or 2% or 5%? In any case, if the number is above 0%, then that seems to say that this belief that scroungers exist is based on a small core of truth. It might be more conducive to meaningful dialog if you would use the phrase “true, but significantly over-broad beliefs” rather than “myth” when describing the 35% who believe that scrounging is a real issue. To describe someone’s perception as a “myth” (when it is actually 5% true) shuts down the dialog with the very people who you would like to be able to reach.

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      It’s an interesting point – you might be interested in some of our other posts that try and quantify perceptions and compare them to ‘reality’ (i.e. our best guess of what the truth is), such as this and this. While I think it’s fair to call something a ‘myth’ if people are getting it substantially wrong, I agree that it’s a problem if we suggest that there is absolutely no fraud (because this would also be a myth!). And as a form of argument, I think you’re right.

      • PAL says:

        I always hate to apologize, but I think that maybe I should here, since my tone was kind of pushy towards the end of that first comment. Sorry. :-p A nicer way for me to have said the same thing would have been to focus on the idea of gaining public support for specific policy changes. So, for example, if, as I think to be the case, your general position is that you believe that the poor are making a reasonable & good-faith effort to help themselves, then it kind of stands to reason that we (via the government and charities) should *increase* our support for the needy. So, the main thing that stands in the way of increasing financial support are these 35% of voters who happen to see things differently. So, in order to reach these 35% and convert them, it probably makes sense to acknowledge that there is some truth in their beliefs (i.e., that scroungers exist). Then, once you soften them up, they would probably be more receptive to considering data showing that the pct of scroungers is actually *less* than they originally were thinking – with the happy result that they would be more willing to increase the funding.

        Having said that, though, I suppose that I should tell you that I am a part of the 35% (who believe that scrounging is widespread) that you are trying to reach. And I might be a tough sell! 😉 I’m looking forward to reading the other articles.

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