Poverty, inequality, and that..

You probably saw two interesting reports this week – the first was the British Social Attitudes survey which showed that although we’re getting socially more liberal (far more tolerant of homosexuality and cohabitation, particularly) we’re moving rightwards politically and economically. People are less in favour of redistribution, and most don’t believe a role of government is to create a more equal society.

Which is rather depressing in the week when Harriet Harman’s economic equality report shows that inequality is huge and growing.

What you might not have seen is that at Community Links we spent a week looking at how the media covers poverty and inequality. Some really interesting stuff – I’ve copied my summary below, with links to all the good posts.

And the two reports also reinforced in my mind the difference between equality as a tool for greater social good, and equality as a desirable end in itself. The Spirit Level shows that more equal societies perform better on a whole range of measures of health and social well-being. Lefties love it because it provides evidence to back up  what they’ve been saying for ages, that inequality is good.

However, perhaps we could use it more widely than that. I think if it gets hijacked and turned into evidence supporting an ideology, we might be stifling its potential. Because what it actually shows is that irrespective of your ideology or your ideal society, and irrespective of exactly who inhabits the top 10%, or which group of people are at the bottom, narrowing that gap will improve the UK’s performance in a range of areas that surely everyone can agree are good (we live longer, are happier, trust eachother more, are less likely to be obese, etc etc).

So perhaps someone needs to stop promoting income equality as a desirable end in itself and start promoting it as a tool for greater well-being. An instrumental argument for equality. The message should be clear – if you’re going to argue you have to argue with the evidence, not the ideology. At the moment I think too many people are mixing them up…

My summary post from Community Links blog.

It has been a fascinating week of discussion – we’ve had 20 authors grappling with the issue of how poverty is portrayed in the media, approaching it from very different angles. So what have we learnt?

The way the media portrays people on low incomes is neither positive nor reflective of the true situation. Those covered are often the tiny majority who are also criminal or antisocial – the ‘visible poor‘. Meanwhile poor people of the past are portrayed as nobly struggling, while those of the present are seen as feckless scroungers. And young people often get a particularly raw deal in the media.

There was less agreement on why this distortion occurs. Some focussed on the role of journalists, highlighting how little many journalists know about the lives of those they report on, and how they often don’t take the trouble to find out. Others blamed it not on the journalists themselves but the media as a whole, where a desire to shock and sensationalise can override all other considerations.

On the other hand, perhaps charities have to shoulder some of the blame for being overly hostile towards those journalists who are genuinely interested. And politicians and their language have a powerful influence, both in promoting negative stereotypes, and reacting to them. Indeed, it could be argued that government have thwarted their own ambitions for tackling poverty by turning the public against poor people.

So finally, what do we do about it? There’s perhaps a role for better understanding between journalists and charities, ensuring they work together rather than against each other. Perhaps ignoring the mainstream media and producing your own content or starting conversations in communities is the way forward. And JRF’s excellent guide to reporting poverty is being taken into journalism schools and promoted to students, hopefully influencing the next generation of reporters.

However, I can’t help feeling there is more we could do. Is there room to seriously engage with politicians on this issue, pointing out that stigmatising poor people is a direct barrier to tackling poverty? Are there ways we could engage the media better with people on low incomes? An idea that hasn’t been mentioned this week, but that I’ve heard before, is of a citizens’ panel that holds to account media outlets offering negative portrayals.

This discussion certainly isn’t over, and perhaps over the next few weeks we can keep it going, on this blog or elsewhere. In the meantime we can challenge negative portrayals wherever we see them and perhaps come up with some more concrete proposals for harnessing the power of the media to better represent and promote the interests of people on low incomes.


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