Poverty porn – why is there so much of it in the Guardian and is it justified?

This is a Guardian article about Ken Loach’s latest film – about the benefits system.

It is pure Guardian. A sort of bewailing about some sort of undefined injustice. Something is wrong. People deserve better. Someone, somewhere, is a bastard for allowing this to happen. Etc. But no critical analysis. Not a word questioning capitalism – which might conceivably have something to do with poverty. Just an indulgent wail ‘something is wrong’.

The review shares a characteristic with many of the articles on the Guardian about people in ‘poverty’. They are almost always (if not always) desperately short on facts. There is a benefits system in this country. People receive living allowances plus their rent paid. It may not be much but – look at the figures in this Guardian article. It is certainly more than enough to put 3 square meals on the table a day, albeit basic ones. If someone is going without meals to feed their kid how did that happen? This editor is quite willing to believe that that happens. From a journalistic point of view it would be very interesting to know how it happens. In detail; with facts and figures. That would be a good piece of journalism; a good story. But we never get that. These stories ostensibly take the side of the impoverished. But we never really get to grips with how people end up in these situations. As a result the stories provide material for ‘right-wing’ advocates of the personal responsibility theory of poverty. The people described in these stories must be feckless. Ironically, the Guardian provides endless fuel for the view it claims to be fighting against.

These over-dramatized, emotionally loaded stories invite us to feel both sympathy for the’victim’ and rage against the ‘powers that be’ at the same time. One subtext appears to be (a unifying theme) that more public money should be poured into the social security system. But the fact that the narrative is presented without the key facts suggests that it may just be a little bit phoney. Could it be that the real aim here is to manipulate the public and politicians into spending more public money on the benefits system? Who would benefit from that? One group of people who would obviously benefit from increased spending on social security is all those who work in the the benefits industry; all sorts of advisers and trainers in charities, and local authority officers of various kinds. A sector which perhaps forms a significant part of the Guardian’s readership?

The Guardian informs us, in a tone decrying how small it is, that weekly unemployment benefit for an adult in this county is £73.10. This works out at around £315.00 per month. In addition to this sum people with no other income or wealth are entitled to have all of their rent paid. (There are caps on the total amount payable but in most cases the sum available will pay for modest accommodation in full). For comparison the current average monthly salary, after tax, in Russia is approximately £370.00. [1] Out of which people will have to pay for their accommodation. True; the cost of living in Russia is cheaper. For everyday essentials the cost of living is quite a lot cheaper. But the differential is not so great for any items other than food and accommodation. (As a guide; a smart shirt may cost 2/3 of what it does in England. A digital camera only slightly less). The sum paid to an unemployed person in the UK which the Guardian is complaining about is only slightly less (a difference which vanishes when rent is taken into account) than a worker may earn in Russia. And Russia is by no means the poorest country on Earth.

This comparison exposes the narrative about ‘poverty’ in the UK. Could it be that the people making all this fuss about ‘poverty’ somehow have an interest in it continuing? Do they even help their clients’ to assume the posture of victim? Is the problem really the (not so) pitiful amounts paid in benefits or is it something else? People really are suffering. Yes. But is the answer really to pump more money into the state welfare system? If we had those missing facts from the poverty stories we might begin to be able to understand what the problem really is. But, frustratingly, the facts are missing.

We’re told (also by the Guardian and the liberal left to which it belongs) that we can improve ‘standards in education’ by pumping more public money into state schools. And we can improve ‘health’ by pumping more money into the NHS. But the last Labour government pumped billions into education [2] and after that the UK remained near to the bottom of educational standards amongst developed nations. [3] The same government also massively increased public spending on the NHS [2]. But is the population any more healthy?

The people who stand to benefit from ‘servicing’ the poor, unschooled and ill are always likely to talk up the need for their services. Typically these demands will be presented in moral terms. Nonetheless their words should be treated with skepticism.


1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_European_countries_by_average_wage

2. http://www.ifs.org.uk/bns/bn92.pdf

3. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/oct/08/england-young-people-league-table-basic-skills-oecd

Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer