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Pathological poverty: the divide between deserving and undeserving poor

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Heather Kennedy
WVoN co-editor 

For years, a high number of poor mothers in America have been diagnosed with  anxiety disorder.

But a new study suggests that the cause of anxiety for many of these women is not psychiatric but rather a reaction to the severe deprivation of their lives. The study examined nearly 5,000 families and their children living in urban areas of America.

What might look like a psychiatric disorder to a comfortable, high earning doctor was often a mother reacting rationally to her circumstances.

So whilst mothers have struggled with the pressure of providing for their families with scarce resources, they’ve been hit with the added stigma of being diagnosed mentally ill and all the implications that comes with it.

And on the other side of the Atlantic, we are witnessing a more deliberate attempt to reframe what it means to be poor.

It was back in late 2011 when work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith announced plans to change the way poverty was to be measured in the UK.

Both Smith and Prime Minister David Cameron distanced themselves from the current indicator of poverty, enshrined in law under the last Labour Government, which measures it in relation to national income averages.

They argued that rising income doesn’t always lead to rising wellbeing and that state provided welfare could in fact make you less happy.

“Take a family headed by a drug addict or someone with a gambling addiction: increase the parent’s income and the chances are they will spend the money on furthering their habit, not on their children.

“According to the relative income poverty figures they might be above the line, but by any reasonable measure of long-term life chances they would be stuck firmly below” Smith said.

Embedded in another Tory policy, the Troubled Families programme represents an insidious bid to shift the goal posts on what it means to be poor.

When it launched earlier this year, this programme was billed as a policy that would “turn around the lives of 120,000 troubled families by the end of this parliament”.

It was sold to us as the families we all love to hate; noisy neighbours, drug addicted mothers, welfare scroungers and other disreputables who sap far too much state funding.

But what does the government really mean by ‘troubled families’ and where did the figure of 120,000 come from?

Closer inspection reveals that it was taken from a 2004 study which measured extreme deprivation in UK families.

The Troubled Families agenda lays bare a deliberate attempt to repackage poor and struggling families as feckless, anti-social drains on the public purse.

Interestingly, a mother with mental health issues was one of the factors that allowed a family to be defined as severely deprived (or severely troublesome, to use the new Tory lingo).

And recent public debates about whether parents should be given their benefits in food stamps rather than money, to stop them squandering it on gin, drugs and fags, are likely to have had Smith and Cameron grinning from ear to ear, feeling that their work was done.

The idea that there’s a scrounging, malignant underclass that can be separated from the virtuous poor is not new.

In Elizabethan England, the Poor Law separated people into ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor to dictate how they should be treated by the public and the state.

Now, over 500 years after the Poor Law was introduced, we are seeing the same ideology resurrected.

The stage is being set for a return to social policy which dismisses vast swathes of people below the breadline as deserving to be there.

As rising numbers of families and individuals find they can’t sustain a basic standard of living, we should be even more sceptical of policies that write people off as pathologically poor.

Because once this has happened, it won’t be long before the rich and powerful begin to fully relinquish their responsibility to those most in need.

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