Study uncovers ‘Victorian views of the poor’

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Welfare reforms by the coalition Government are being blamed for reinforcing hostility toward unemployed people and the disabled in attitudes reminiscent of the Victorian era, experts in Yorkshire say.

A study by Sheffield University says British society is becoming increasingly intolerant of disadvantaged groups, claiming there is a growing sense unemployment is caused by individuals’ personal failings rather than by structural problems in the economy.

Academics at the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute said people tended to believe work was plentiful, that unemployment was a lifestyle choice, and that poverty was due to moral deficiencies.

The research carried out from interviews with people from a variety of social backgrounds in Leeds also highlighted an “alarming” intolerance towards disabled people, with participants questioning the legitimacy of benefits for disabled people deemed incapable of working.

Resarchers found middle class people they interviewed tended to identify and condemn “chav” culture to “validate and re-affirm their own superior social position”.

Working class respondents were more likely to point to and condemn “chav” culture to distinguish themselves from it.

The experts said their findings appeared to indicate the re-emergency of traditional distinctions between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor once linked with the Victorian era.

They said the coalition Government’s welfare policies were in part a response to the kind of popular prejudices identified in the research.

But rhetoric on welfare “scroungers” was likely to reinforce the attitudes – focusing blame for poverty on individuals rather than on wider problems in Britain’s increasingly low-pay, low-skill economy, they said.

They warn of a danger misplaced fears and prejudices relating to welfare claimants will present a threat to social cohesion, potentially legitimising policies which might exacerbate inequality.

Report author Prof Gill Valentine, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for the Faculty of Social Sciences at Sheffield University, said views expressing class prejudice were returning to society.

“The evidence is mounting that the coalition Government’s austerity agenda has been targeted at the poorest groups in society rather than the most affluent,” she said.

“This research shows that this is reinforcing prejudicial and intolerant attitudes towards the most disadvantaged members of society, as the government has been successful in individualising the causes of poverty and unemployment, and marginalising the socio-economic determinants of hardship.”