Resistance to Povertyism in the United Kingdom: The Roles We Play

This article is excerpted from Volume 3 of Artisans of Peace Overcoming Poverty, available for free download at:

The woman in the photo on a poster looks ordinary. Leaving a house and advancing towards the camera, she could be anyone’s neighbour — except for the fact that the image shows her heart as a target in the middle of a bulls-eye. The text, in dramatic red-on-black, blares: “We’re closing in”. The woman is being hunted. The text continues, “We’re closing in on benefit thieves with the help of hundreds of calls to our hotline”.

This poster was part of a government campaign against benefit fraud. ATD has blurred the face of the woman in the image, which was not the case in the original poster.

This poster is part of a UK government advertising campaign urging people to report even their faintest suspicion that acquaintances might be receiving more welfare benefits than they should. Other photos in the same campaign show people holding a sign in front of their torso in the style of a police mug shot. The signs read, for example, “Benefit thief ”, or “Made to pay back the benefit I stole”.

Launched by the Department for Work and Pensions in 2002 and amped up with dramatic graphic designs in 2009, the “Targeting Benefit Thieves” campaign offers rewards for tips — made anonymously — that lead to ending another person’s benefit payments. The campaign also included a website inviting anyone to customise its posters and press releases and to publicise its radio and television ads. The bulls-eye posters have been used on bus shelters, billboards, and phone kiosks throughout England, Scotland, and Wales. They have also inspired myriad tabloid headlines denouncing “Mansions for Scroungers”, condemning “Four Million Scrounging Families in Britain”, or describing an offer for “A Bounty to Trap Cheats”.

Beginning in 2009, ATD Fourth World’s members decided to push back against this campaign and its distortions, which have been devastating to families living in poverty. One effect of the campaign has been to convince the general public that welfare fraud is much more widespread than it actually is. A survey by the Trades Union Congress found that, “On average, people think that 27 percent of the welfare budget is claimed fraudulently, while the government’s own figure is 0.7 percent.” 1

The 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey shows hardened views towards recipients of unemployment benefits, who are “certainly viewed less favourably now than they were 30 years ago [… and] 81 percent agree that ‘large numbers of people these days falsely claim benefits’, up from 67 percent in 1,87. […] Attitudes towards the unemployed and the role of government in providing support to them are, across a range of measures, far less supportive now than they were three decades ago — suggesting the public have indeed become less ‘collectivist’ in their attitudes towards this group.” 2

Several voices have publicly criticised the “Targeting Benefit Thieves” campaign. Prof. Stuart Connor of the University of Wolverhampton has examined this campaign and writes that it “[…] portrays those who commit fraud as a threatening other, whose presence necessitates and legitimates the government’s increased use of technical, legislative, and punitive mechanisms for managing ‘problem populations’.”3 Prof. Fran Bennett of the University of  Oxford notes, “There have always been the deserving and undeserving, especially in countries such as the UK, which has tended to see people living in poverty as ‘them’ who are different from ‘us’. But recently the stereotypes seem to have been getting stronger, and the language of politicians and the media more negative. Even under the previous [Labour] government, many politicians found it difficult to see the positives. They too often saw people living in poverty as passive. I remember in particular my anger about a speech by Tony Blair along these lines.”

Journalist James Bloodworth denounces the campaign as “purely political: the government believes there are votes in ‘cracking down’ on benefit fraud.”4 Dr John Jewell of Cardiff University writes, “The weakest and most disenfranchised in society shoulder the blame for the UK’s wider economic woes. They become the targets for our hate and resentment. […] Unbalanced, vitriolic, and unsympathetic coverage […causes] the denigration of the poor.” 5 Dr Daniel Newman, also of Cardiff University, writes:

[…] despite the facts, large swaths of the population are coming to resent the poorer in society. […] Desperate people look for others to blame. […] The coalition government is playing a neat trick in deflecting this ire away from them and their cuts and onto weaker sections of society less able to defend themselves, such as benefit claimants; the opposition is keen to do the same in a pre-emptive strike. […] The public reaction to the new Channel 4 series, Benefits Street, which started this week, offers but a glimpse of the potential hatred that may accompany this demonising of the poor. The show focused on a Birmingham street with a supposedly large proportion of social security claimants […]. In true tabloid style, the programme depicted benefit claimants (who claim they were tricked into appearing) as lazy scroungers, stigmatising the local population as an exploitative detritus choosing to live off the taxes of others. The Twitter response was phenomenal, with the show trending for the whole of the next day, carrying with it a torrent of abuse aimed at residents on the street. This went beyond mere vitriol and onto inciting violence, even including death threats, or as one charming Tweeter professed: “I want to walk down #BenefitsStreet with a baseball bat and brain a few of these scumbags.” […] The anger and disdain displayed by so many at what was so clearly a sensationalised narrative exaggerating specific examples to suit a ratings-driven agenda highlights how readily ordinary people will be persuaded to turn on their peers in times of austerity.”6

Since the beginning of this campaign, ATD Fourth World’s members in the United Kingdom have felt hurt and angry by the highly publicised flood of negative messages and images accusing people in poverty of laziness and fraud. We wanted to respond together to this grossly misleading picture of benefit recipients. This led us to develop a project called The Roles We Play: Recognising the Contribution of People in Poverty. Published both in book form and as a multimedia website in 2014, the project also includes a short film and a travelling exhibition.

Moraene Roberts, who lives in poverty and who is a member of ATD Fourth World–UK’s national coordination team, recalls how hard it has been for people in poverty to see everyone with a low income repeatedly targeted and stigmatised in this way:

“We wanted to react to the really terrible things that Parliament and the press were saying about people in poverty. You never even heard the word “poverty” without hearing attached to it words like “scroungers, feckless, lazy”. And the media reported only on extremes. One day, they’d write about a man getting a huge excess of benefits, and the next article would be about someone scrounging to get by on almost nothing. Everything said publicly about people in poverty amounted to verbal abuse. It was disrespectful, and a lot of it was downright lies. […] Hardly anyone spoke up for us publicly. There was another campaign, too, called “Rat on a rat”! What a vile, terrible image of people living off the waste of the land. It was the beginning of the war on the poor. I call it that because I feel there has been a concentrated war of verbal attacks to build discrimination against people caught in this awful trap. Talking about it with our members, people said it was getting to them emotionally. So we spent a weekend when we decided to talk to each other about our lives outside of what we do together as a group. And we discovered all kinds of things about each other and the many ways we contribute to society. It might be helping a neighbour, or caring for an elderly relative, or raising children. And we decided we needed to get the general public to realise that most of us don’t fit those extremes the media talks about.”

Those conversations among our members resulted in the project “The Roles We Play”, evolving in 2009 with discussions and workshops that used positive imagery to challenge the widespread negative stereotypes about poverty. The project grew organically over several years. It yielded an exhibition of professional portrait photographs that toured the country in 2010 and a participatory film project in 2012. By 2014, we had expanded the photo exhibition to include autobiographical essays focused on what participants do to overcome poverty and the types of social exclusion they experience in their lives and throughout their communities. These activities range from working in a local charity shop to helping a terminally ill friend.

To raise awareness of social discrimination against people living in poverty, we continue to run interactive community workshops focusing on the photo exhibition and book. In addition to this outreach, our members who created the book have been travelling around the country to run creative workshops at festivals and galleries and to take part in academic panel discussions. Using drama, poetry, and music, they focus on stimulating creative responses in disadvantaged communities to highlight contributions of people in poverty.

Professional artist and photographer Eva Sajovic offered her talent to the project, and people in poverty were involved in all aspects of the collaboration. This included writing, editing, choosing the photos, and honing their public-speaking skills to launch the book during a tour of the expanded exhibition. Moraene explains why they chose a photo-album format for the book:

“You can make a statement, but it’s more powerful if you put a face to the words. You have to be very courageous to do that. The participants have dared to put their heads above the parapet. […] Once your face is in a book that’s distributed or online, you’ve exposed yourself, not just given your opinion. But putting a face to the words is important. It’s harder for the public to look at the photo and imagine a scrounging monster. Instead, they realise, “That could be my sister.” It shows that we’re normal. We may experience poverty, some of us may not have work, but we’re normal people. Showing our faces takes away the illusion that we’re less than human. It brings more of our full identity into the world. Now, whenever “The Roles We Play” exhibition is shown, one or more of us whose faces are in the book go along with it to run the workshops. […]

“People ask so many questions — not aggressive ones, but challenging questions. They really want to understand where and why and how this project was done. Those viewing the exhibition are very impressed that it wasn’t just a few people planning it and then asking others to take part. It’s our own collective work and our own ideas in the book. There’s a very strong ownership of the book by all of us. At every event, some of us whose photos are in the book are there to speak. We make a point of saying that we came up with this idea together. We were able to go through every single photograph and text to decide what we wanted to have published or not. […] Hopefully actions like these will, in the short term, begin to erase the stigma imposed on people living in poverty and, in the long term, build a unified front to eradicate poverty for all — with those who live through it leading the way.”

“The Roles We Play” project combined two main themes. First, it encouraged participants to be aware of and value the ways in which they were active in their families and neighbourhoods. The project also built participants’ confidence to speak publicly about how they contribute to their communities. Beginning in 2011, a core group of key ATD members expanded the project to involve more of our long-term active members, young people involved in our European project, and other friends and supporters. They began by talking about how they see the roles they have played, both in ATD Fourth World’s work and in their neighbourhoods. Each person acknowledged the importance of other participants’ contributions to their communities. At the same time as they were preparing to speak publicly, many participants were also coping with various stressful issues their families faced, with help from ATD Fourth World.

One workshop that focused on sharing skills and building confidence to speak publicly also examined the words, phrases, and slogans used in advertising, as well as those used to talk about ATD Fourth World: Why do we choose certain words? What impact do they have? One participant commented, “The language of politicians is lots of hot air, and desensitised. We should do it our way. What we did today — the use of role-playing — stops people from switching off. It’s a new language.” With these exercises fresh in mind, participants at the following workshop were videotaped by a local film-maker so they could get used to being filmed in different situations, from playing games and quizzes to speaking at a lectern on a subject of their choosing. During the next video workshop in 2012, participants spoke about poverty and dignity, and what those words meant to them. This work resulted in a four-minute film, Our Voices. Later that same year, through weekly workshops, a small group of participants learned how to set up and use film equipment, record sounds and images, and create storyboards for scenes and narratives. They examined the varying impacts suggested by different camera angles. Eventually, they selected the stories and final footage for a ten-minute film: The Roles We Play.

Photographer Eva Sajovic says about the project:

“I hope it’s [helped] to create a bond — a common bond of humanity. When [others] have edited your stories, that doesn’t come across so much. […] People reveal themselves; it’s not always easy to do that when you’re being photographed [and] have experienced a lot of prejudice and are vulnerable. They are reaching out. […] The project was not only conceived together with everybody, it was shaped together. I was behind the camera, but we decided together how people wanted to present themselves. The collaborative aspect comes from the production and continues through the dissemination: people finding new ways and forms of making known [who they are].”

Derek is a long-term member of ATD Fourth World who agreed to have his image and voice included in the book and on the project’s website. He says, “It makes a difference to other people around us when you’re not just focusing on what a mess you’re in, but on what you can do for others around you.” Kathy Kelly, another contributor to the book, says:

“When I first heard of the title “The Roles We Play”, I had a job to relate to it because, to me, the wording created some imagery of having decision, choice, and control. I thought, ‘Well, what decision, choice, and control have we got?’ […] It’s quite dehumanising and demoralising how we are portrayed. […] There’s no value given to our human skills and capacities. […] The only value is on formal education. It’s so easy to feel ashamed, lose confidence, lose self-esteem. People end up believing that we are what they say we are. […] We do spend our time building up and giving confidence to young people, only to have it destroyed time and again by the system. […] Those attitudes are getting much harder and nastier. It makes me worry for future generations, for our children and grandchildren, and what sort of life they’re going to have. […] I feel that people don’t know enough about the mental, psychological, and emotional toll of years of poverty and the impact that can have on you […] There’s a tendency to talk about us, but not to us. […] This project is a celebration of who we are. This project is very important to me because it means I am not invisible any more; I am recognised as a human being with thoughts, feelings, and aspirations. I feel respected. It helps me define myself more positively and feel I have a valuable part to play in society.”

Comments from other participants include the following:

  • “I felt really rough and bogged down until I got here today. Discrimination deadens you. You forget what it’s like to meet up with people. When I got here, it took a lot of stress off. After meetings like this, I can go back to my environment and feel completely different. It alters my perspective.”
  • “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in. It shows ordinary people with ordinary lives who go that extra mile to help other people. Being part of the new exhibition shows people there is a lot more to ATD Fourth World’s work than they think. I feel I can speak out more now, and when the exhibition goes around the country I feel proud to be associated with it.”
  • “Working on the film has given me more confidence, and with that confidence I can challenge myself more. I’m more confident in what I’m doing and how I speak to people, and the film gives us another avenue to put our points across.”
  • “We’ve done the ATD thing of writing exactly what the person says. […] It’s not paraphrased. It’s lovely that when you’re reading it, you can hear them.”
  • “It’s not preachy. […] It’s polished, but the people haven’t been polished. […] What you see is what you get.”
  • “The word ‘poverty’ puts a lot of people off, but reading people’s stories makes [them] understand, especially people from our housing estate who are afraid of the stigma that comes with that word. […] People just don’t want to be treated differently from anyone else.”

Feedback and reviews about the exhibition have been positive 7. Prof. Robert Walker of Oxford University spoke at an event held in 2014 to launch the book:

“It’s a celebration about life itself. While it’s created by groups of individuals, I think that what we find in the achievements of the group is replicated globally. Individuals in this community [have] global resonance [because] the experiences that you are going through and the way that you are contributing to other people’s lives has occurred with other people in poverty around the world. It’s a small project, but its implications are enormous. […] The lives revealed in the photographs challenge the derogatory language so often used in popular debate. Labels such as “the poor” deny people their individuality. Words like “scrounger” impugn the character of millions of our fellow citizens. These words drive a wedge through society, creating myths and false differences. […] The people in the photographs are not “poor people”. They are in many ways successful people coping with challenges and events that might bring the rest of us to our knees.”

Moraene Roberts said: “I gave a copy of the book to my doctor. Then he asked for another to put in his surgery [waiting room] so people would have something more interesting to read than the magazines. Then he wanted one for his brother as well, who’s a barrister-at-law. He made contributions to pay for the books. And he said, ‘This is so interesting because it’s not what’s in the news at all; it leads me to a different way of accepting or not accepting what I hear on the news or read in the paper that’s supposed to be about all the people on the dole. The media says “scroungers” or “claimants” to the point where you lose track of the word “people”. There are people being attacked.’ The doctor told me that he does know plenty of his patients who are on the dole, and who also care for an elderly parent or for children. But it had never before occurred to him to think, when the media talks about ‘lazy, idle dole-scroungers’, that it is his patients they’re attacking. He had thought those were some other ‘lazy, idle dole-scroungers’. But now he sees that they have been talking about people he knows who are not like that.”

Groups facing prejudice know that being constantly stigmatised is damaging and disheartening. Humanity has made progress towards recognising the inalienable dignity of each person, regardless of gender, skin colour, and ethnic origin; yet because of prejudice and indifference, people in poverty continue to be regarded and treated as though they are worth less than others. Together, our members in the United Kingdom were able to stand up to the disparagement and banish “the illusion that we’re less than human”. Their courage in telling their stories helps people from all walks of life to rethink the way we treat one another.

[1]   Trades Union Congress, “Support for benefit cuts dependent on ignorance, TUC-commissioned poll finds”, 2 January 2013.

[2]   Alison Park et al (eds.), British Social Attitudes: the 30th Report, London: NatCen Social Research, 2013.

[3]   Stuart Connor, “We’re onto you: A critical examination of the Department for Work and Pensions’ ‘Targeting Benefit Fraud’ campaign”, May 2007, Critical Social Policy, volume 27.

[4]    “Another ‘crackdown’ on benefit fraud, yet it accounts for just 0.7 per cent of welfare budget”, ThinkProgress, 16 September 2013.

[5]    John Jewell, “Hatred, envy fear — it’s all in a day’s work for British tabloids”, 17 January 2014, The Conversation, United Kingdom edition.

[6]    Daniel Newman, “How a Hollywood B-movie sent shivers down my spine over demonisation of the poor”, 8 January 2014, The Conversation, United Kingdom edition.

[7]     Fiona Elsted, “The role of p.o.v.e.r.t.y in the roles we play”, Fielsted: Thoughts about the things that matter, October 2014; “The Richness in Poverty”, Brixton Bugle, November 2014; and Gary Grattan, “Belfast exhibition highlights the hard truth of poverty across the UK”, Belfast Telegraph, 29 January 2016