The conviction of Karen Matthews for kidnapping her daughter, Shannon, has led politicians and the media to denounce the supposed “underclass” of benefit claimants that exists in Britain.
According to the Sunday Times, the case has demonstrated “the perverse consequences of the welfare system”.
Predictably, the Sun went further: “Vile Karen Matthews is a product of the sink-estate underclass of chaotic families that loaf away their days on easy welfare benefits.”
These assertions have helped to fuel a picture of council estates filled with work-shy layabouts who refuse to “integrate” into respectable society.
In reality there is no such thing as an “underclass”. The idea that there are whole streets and communities in Britain where no one works is a myth.
Even on Karen Matthews’s street in Dewsbury – now held up as the classic sink estate – the Guardian found this week that almost every household had someone in work.
Areas where poverty is common do of course exist, but repeated studies have shown that poverty is a threat across the working class.
Many of those in poverty are families surviving on minimum wage or low paid jobs with little to show for it at the end of the month.
A 2002 report called Poverty and the Welfare State: Dispelling the Myths, by social policy expert Paul Spicker, attacked the notion of an underclass and took Labour to task for its attacks on “welfare dependency”.
The report found that although certain groups – such as young people, those out of work, or pensioners – are the most likely to be poor, no group “is immune to poverty”.
Throughout the 1990s some 60 percent of the population spent at least one year in the bottom 30 percent of income distribution.
Spicker concluded, “Poverty is not the moral, cultural or social problem of a permanently excluded underclass, but an economic risk that affects everyone.”
So for those truly concerned about the sort of society children are growing up in, the urgent question should be how to address the scandal of poverty.
The concept of some sort of “underclass” conjures Victorian-era notions of the “undeserving poor”.
These ideas inform much of New Labour’s “reforms” including its approach to welfare, crime and education.
The Tories refuse to be outdone by New Labour and have proposed that benefit claimants should have to disclose their family history.
Those whose parents and immediate family have been on benefits “long term” will be scrutinised, including their child’s performance in school.
The demonisation of those who receive benefits does nothing to address the real problem of poverty.