Welfare Queens and Scroungers: How Media Narratives Demonize the Poor

Representation matters. It matters because being seen and heard is the first step to being understood. It matters because it explains our differences and what connects us. And because “you can’t be what you can’t see.”

Most of all, representation matters because it often reveals the truth.

Unfortunately, the media has a long and sordid history of misrepresenting or ignoring society’s most vulnerable.

The LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, and even the entire gender of women are just some groups who have been stereotyped, erroneously depicted, or entirely left out of the media landscape.

In some cases, these groups have made great strides (but also suffered terrible setbacks) in the fight for better, more accurate representation. But one group that continues to be ignored and demonized without respite is the poor.

Whether it’s being humiliated on talk shows, paraded on reality television, blamed for society’s ills in tabloids, or exploited for clicks on the internet, the lives of those suffering from impoverishment are continually de-contextualized or remain conspicuously absent in many forms of media.

Often, the result is a disenfranchised and depoliticized working class and a general public that misunderstands poverty and its causes. Something just perfect for policymakers looking for scapegoats and power.

So how has this happened? Why does it keep happening? And what can be done about it?

Media myth-making: an overview

In his essay, Making Magic: Making Class Invisible, Gregory Mantsios argued that the working class is as good as non-existent in the mainstream media, appearing only occasionally as an eyesore. Instead, he suggested that the media presents being middle class as a default state of being, encouraging working-class individuals to identify with what he saw as a politically neutralized “universal middle class.”

Mantsios believed that this state of affairs is achieved by the media dedicating little time to discussions of class privilege, inequalities, or power differences and instead focusing on inter-class issues, such as crime or the interests of the well-off.

You can agree or disagree with the details in Mantsios’s assessment. But much of what he says is in keeping with what multiple studies have told us: that media outlets have historically failed to contextualize poverty or define its causes, that “stories about the poor are relatively rare on television news broadcasts,” (quote from Heather Bullock, et al.) and that the media regularly reinforces stereotypes (often with racial undertones).

And there is no stereotype that the media loves more than the so-called ‘welfare queen.’

Women, particularly child-bearing women, requiring public assistance have, and continue to be, characterized as lazy, promiscuous, and lacking ambition in the media. And their dependency on the state is depicted as the cause, rather than the effect, of systematic failings, with the general public led to believe that the only goal these women have is to cheat the system by breeding early and often.

Right-wing tabloids, sensationalist magazines, and biased news coverage have all played a hand in creating this stereotype. So did the legacy of ridiculous chat shows such as The Jerry Springer Show, and The Jeremy Kyle Show, which arguably set the template for exploiting and parading the extremely vulnerable for entertainment.

Unsurprisingly, such media depictions are just perfect for conservative social reformers who, as academic Susan Thomas writes, “try to redirect the debate [surrounding welfare reforms] to where they believe its origins lay: women’s out-of-control reproductivity, grounded in their entrapment in self-defeating motherhood.”

Of course, it should be no surprise that the media moguls and tax-cutting politicians make for the best of bedfellows since their interests are often much the same. Heather Bullock and co. note how this plays into media depiction in their paper, Media Images of the Poor:

“With many mainstream media outlets in the United States controlled by a few powerful corporations, highly politicized issues are likely to be defined by and to reflect the interests of dominant social groups. When this occurs, less powerful groups (e.g., the poor, people of color, women) are at risk of being devalued and stereotyped in the media.”

Cop shows (in the form of both reality television and dramas, prison documentaries and their ilk enforce other stereotypes, namely that substance abuse is a problem associated with poor minorities living in densely populated areas. Even though, in reality, the typical drug user is white, middle-class, and well-off.

Even seemingly harmless sitcoms have historically made poverty invisible (see the ludicrously large apartments of the mostly low-wage earners in Friends) or out to be a matter of choice or taste (see the contrasts between a working-class father and his snobbish son in Frasier).

Meanwhile, on the news, the poor are frequently dehumanized behind facts and figures or find the lifelines they need just to continue existing being debated over by those in far better circumstances than them.

Then again, even if the working class (or ‘underclass’) were to get a fair showing on television, the public might not be all that interested. Or, as writer Shannon Ridgway puts it bluntly: “We’d much rather watch a show about rich, superficial housewives squabbling over trivial issues.”

Sure, we might see and hear extreme cases. But the banal, common poverty? That just doesn’t make for an interesting enough story.

At best, the poor are passed over by viewing audiences seeking escapism. At worse, they are the spectacle that feeds that escapism.

The rise of ‘poverty porn’ television

“Cause everybody hates a tourist especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh. Yeah, and the chip stains and grease will come out in the bath” — Common People by Pulp

Erroneous depictions of destitution can be found worldwide. But I want to focus, for now, specifically on the media depictions of poor people on UK television over the last two decades. I want to focus here partly because the examples cut to the heart of how the media can weave deceptive and disingenuous narratives. But also because I grew up in the UK. I saw how these narratives played out. And I saw how it changed the people around me.

One particular type of program I remember, that inexplicably survives to this day, was the so-called ‘poverty tourist’ shows. These programs, which included such titles as Duchess on the Estate and Gordon Behind Bars, saw celebrities sent to live with impoverished groups or individuals. Once there, they would play the role of a sympathetic ear before helping the ‘down on their luck’ poor out of their predicament with advice or skill-sharing.

In defense of the celebs, many genuinely seemed to mean well. But like boomers telling millennials to just stop buying cappuccinos if they want to afford a house, their advice could never be anything but condescending or out of touch. And the ‘cluelessness’ often showed through.

Take Rachel Johnson (a presenter who is probably most famous for being the sister of now former PM Boris Johnson), who, after partaking in BBC1’s Famous, Rich and Hungry, would share her disbelief in learning that being overweight doesn’t mean you’re not hungry and suffering from malnutrition:

“The poor people you see on the box are all fat. How in God’s name, can you be overweight and hungry? Now I know,” she’d later tell the Radio Times following her “poverty safari.”

These shows often further entrenched this idea that the poor simply lack the know-how or just need to listen to the smarter, more skilled, and deserving rich people. Or, if you will, that they need rehabilitation for falling short of neoliberal ideals.

More than anything, it fed into the egos of the middle and upper classes, offering a closer-to-home adventure for would-be white saviours (and white saviour programs, also inexplicably, remain a British television mainstay with the added assurance of a safe journey home.

Writer Tanya Gold would later sum up the charade quite perfectly:

“The lesson is simply the familiar narcissism of the ruling class: the most interesting thing about poverty is what a blow it is to those who don’t have to live in it.”

But these programs appear relatively harmless if compared to the barrage of dreadful bile that was (and sometimes still is) found elsewhere on UK television.

‘Broken Britain’: A case study in media narrative-making

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the media and politicians of the UK turned their ire not to negligent banks and the greedy tax-avoiding rich but to the poor, whom Tory government ministers and their media pals frequently blamed for what they labeled a “Broken Britain.”

Entrenching this narrative of social decay were shows such as Benefits Busters, Benefits Street, and Too Many Immigrants — programs that ditched the celebrity mediators in favor of presenting the illusion of allowing their subjects to speak freely. But which, in reality, cloaked under the pretense of sympathy, looked to draw the ire of viewers with careful editing and presenting exceptional stories as the norm.

Notably, such programs reconstructed unemployment as a form of decadence, showing those living on benefits drinking, smoking, and watching television while emphasizing the size of their families and how much they earned (conveniently always mentioned while they were buying minor luxuries) but rarely providing a real calculation on their essential expenses or diving into the failings that led them to their current circumstances. The message instead, was that their poverty was a choice — that these people were having a laugh at the taxpayer’s expense. Maybe some were, but the sly insinuation was that they represented people on benefits as a whole.

Of course, the real sin of their subjects was that, unlike the ‘noble’ suffering poor of those celebrity-to-the-rescue shows, these people found happiness despite their circumstances. And that drove viewers insane. Clearly, as a distant relative once assured me, these people weren’t working because they weren’t suffering enough to get a job. So, they, and everyone else on benefits, would need to have their benefits cut.

Programs such as BBC1’s Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits would even go so far as to literally pit taxpayers against claimants, in a show where four members of each group were invited to explore each other’s lives and ‘speak their mind.’

The result led to all sorts of disapproving remarks and judgments from the taxpayers (who ultimately decided how much the claimants ‘deserved’), including disgust that one claimant would dare to provide a hot meal for her children since they had already eaten a school lunch.

Later programs failed even to keep up the pretense of unbiased observation. Instead, the very titles of shows like On Benefits and Proud insinuated that needing help was not only shameful but inherently suspicious. Meanwhile, Gypsies on Benefits and Proud added a racist twist to the narrative.

In their paper, From Empowering the Shameful to Shaming the Empowered: Shifting Depictions of the Poor in ‘Reality TV,’ academics Barton and Davis analyzed just how bad things would ultimately get during this period of so-called ‘poverty porn’ television. Noting, for instance, how one individual, Viorel Dinu, a Romanian immigrant who had lost both legs in a rail accident, became the subject of a media storm after the narrator of Gypsies on Benefits noted that his 750 quid benefits were ten times what he’d get in Romania. Not only was Viorel assaulted by a former soldier following this revelation, but the media all but spun the soldier as a hero and Dinu as a villain, with the Daily Mail labeling the Romanian a “bragger” who “milked benefits” even though the truth was that Viorel never once bragged about his circumstances but spoke only in gratitude.

On a side note, that is the same Daily Mail (a British newspaper read by nearly a million people daily) that published an article in 2013 under the headline Vile Product of Welfare UK, where they argued an unemployed man who committed manslaughter represented people on benefits. But I digress.

As Barton and David note, “the ideological message” behind these types of shows could not have been any more clear: “Self and social worth are equated solely with paid employment.”

Viorel’s story might be exceptional, but the widespread effects of this down-your-nose ideology are equally devastating, not only in the realm of politics but, as Dr. Ruth Patrick of the University of Liverpool notes, on the mental health of those scrutinized:

“Living with poverty and benefits stigma had detrimental consequences for individuals’ self-esteem, mental health and citizenship status. ‘Poverty porn’ and shows like The Moorside may be successfully recasting poverty as light entertainment, but their impact on those struggling to get by on benefits is anything but.”

New media: An opportunity or a curse?

To be clear, not all media in the UK, or around the world for that matter, can be painted with the same brush. There is fantastic work being done as well. But the fact is that significant questions remain over whether traditional media at large can be a force for good concerning coverage of poverty.

But what about new media? What about the Internet?

In theory, the web offers a fantastic opportunity for individuals and groups to circumvent self-serving outlets and tell their stories, either by starting blogs and vlogs, creating websites, or utilizing any number of communication methods offered by web interfaces.

However, as Fred Robinson and co point out in Poverty in the Media: Being Seen and Getting Heard, while digital storytelling might be more accessible than ever, barriers remain for those looking to be seen and heard, with the researchers pointing out that “it is easy enough to get material on the web, but who will find it and look at it?”

Ultimately, anyone looking to speak their truth online will soon find themselves speaking into the void against millions of other voices, some of which are backed by large organizations of trained professionals. Meanwhile, web culture poses many pitfalls and possibilities for exploitation.

Put simply, without the right skillsets or access to resources, it is highly difficult for society’s poorest to be heard online. Perhaps, even just as challenging as it is to do so offline.

Those who manage to get heard often find themselves dealing with backlash from those who’d rather they remain silent. Take the case of controversial food writer and activist Jack Monroe, who rose to prominence after sharing her experiences of poverty and budget cooking. Since then, she has dealt with internet trolls sharing her address, libelous (and potentially libelous) accusations from right-wing pundits, and, as Monroe notes in an interview with the Guardian, death threats:

“They sent me pictures of nooses. One of them threatened to come to do me over with a piano wire at my book signing. I came across a conversation on Twitter where two of them openly speculated about what vulnerabilities they can lean on to pressure me to top myself.”

Robinson and co note that third-party organizations can aid vulnerable groups in gaining a presence online (and prepare themselves for the response to that presence) by providing training, supporting those with language barriers, and offering free domain space to host and publish material.

Certainly, years on from their study, more work needs to be done before the internet could ever serve as a place where the playing field is truly level. Nonetheless, opportunities are there for those willing to make a difference.

Final thoughts

“People who dismiss the unemployed and dependent as ‘parasites’ fail to understand economics and parasitism. A successful parasite is one that is not recognized by its host, one that can make its host work for it without appearing as a burden. Such is the ruling class in a capitalist society” — Jason Read

Mass poverty, unemployment, and mental health issues cannot be brushed off as personal failings. Logically, it only makes sense that such widespread suffering is linked to structural problems within our culture. Yet, despite this, the media have long perpetuated the myth of the ‘responsible poor,’ feeding into the egos of those who sit from a place of privilege where escaping impoverishment appears easy.

Accurate depictions of the poor in the media can challenge rhetoric that is damaging and dangerous by showing those who do not have personal experience of poverty what it is really like and why it happens. But they can also empower people to share and tell their stories — a right which should never have been a privilege reserved only for the better off — and allow them to see their struggles reflected. It might even allow them to speak the truth to power.

Further reading and resources:

Written by Mike Grindle

Published on 31st August, 2023

Republished here on 22nd September, 2023

Original version published for Counter Arts at https://medium.com/counter-arts

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