‘Scrounger’, ‘workshy’ and ‘skiver’ are among the labels frequently applied by the mass print media and political parties to people who claim out of work Social Security benefits such as jobseeker’s allowance and disability based benefits. The discourse involving the poorest members of UK society creates a constructed reality in which issues of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor are foregrounded and provide a basis for the stigmatisation of individuals and whole classes of the population which in turn provide the justification for ideological attacks on the concept of the existing social security system.
The topic of Social Security benefits and the welfare system is a deeply contentious political issue. Even the naming of the subject is fraught with linguistic issues. In a private conversation with Professor George Lakoff and Baronness Lister of Burtersett (commonly known as Ruth Lister) at a Trade Union Congress seminar on October 4th 2013, I asked them whether opponents of the government and tabloid trend of referring to social security benefits in the UK as ‘welfare’ should resist this usage. The response from them was a resounding “Yes”. Their explanation of this position demonstrated that the use of ‘welfare’ demonstrated an attempt to invest previously established frames of reference from the American Welfare debate into the UK debate. The major difference is that the UK system of benefits is an entitlement, not a charitable act. This essay will therefore refer to out of work social security benefits and its associated systems and frameworks using ‘benefits’ and the ‘benefits system’ rather than ‘welfare’.
The newspaper articles examined were selected because they demonstrated features which were considered to be typical of the sector of the press that demonised those who received benefits. Although only a small selection of data is examined in this essay, according to Baumberg et al it is consistent with the general pattern of reporting in which “the Sun, Mail and Express, are often accused of promoting ‘scrounger rhetoric’ with regard to claimants.” (Baumberg et al., 2012). However, the final article analysed demonstrates discourse usage that attacks the hegemonic position.
The opening paragraphs of the first newspaper article (Hall, 2012) examined were analysed for lexical choice, and the way in which the author used these to create an ideological square to stigmatise those in receipt of benefits as an ‘undeserving other’
The article (Figure 1) uses a headline with a war metaphor in ‘Tories to wage war’. Although the subject of the attack is absent, the conjunction ‘as’ rather than ‘on’ is used in the subheading, which shows that this metaphor refers to the ‘government’s war on scroungers’
The subheading also uses the pejorative label ‘scroungers’, framing the discourse to utilise the rhetoric of ‘undeserving’ claimant to homogenise those receiving working age benefits as in some way undeserving.
The author also uses the word “handouts” in referring to benefits received by the low paid, jobless and teenagers in paragraphs one and two. This moral-metaphorical framing places these people as recipients of government largesse or charity, rather than people who have an entitlement to receive these social benefits. This lexical choice, with its association to Victorian era charity, frames the moral aspect of benefit claimants in that historical context, where recipients were seen as morally defective for requiring help (Rimstead, 1997).
Paragraph three, however, makes it clear that “pensioner’s universal benefits will be protected from the cuts”. Although universal benefits are age related (Age Concern, 2013), rather than means tested, the government’s protection of these benefits has no negative connotation attached by the author.
In paragraph four, the author uses a reference to “millions of hard working families” to create a structural opposition between “hard working families” and the “workshy”, although neither of these labels is defined. It is left to the reader to presuppose what these labels mean, although the use of ‘workshy’ rather than ‘scrounger’ leaves little doubt of the article’s opinion of those receiving benefits. The use of aggregation in “millions of hard working families” also works to reinforce the idea of a deviant ‘other’ out of those receiving benefits and provides the moral rhetoric that the “hard working families” are supportive of this action, in the absence of any facts to support this position.
These lexical choices serve to reinforce a ‘them and us’ attitude in the reader, which creates an ideological square (Van Dijk, 1998, p. 267), where those benefit recipients are seen as the enemy as a result of the war metaphor. ‘They’ are morally defective ‘workshy’ ‘scroungers’ who are receiving ‘handouts’ while ‘we’ are representative of moral ‘hard working families’ who are under attack from deviant ‘others’. The reader is left with the impression that something must be done by the government to prevent these implied abuses of charitable support of the ‘others’.
Analysis of an article from The Telegraph (Porter & Winnett, 2010) reveals the use of presupposition of the ‘workshy’ and ‘scrounger’ rhetoric to reinforce this message, as well as framing benefit recipients in an assumed position of ‘non deserving’ claimant.
This article uses presupposition in its use of the phrase “life on benefits”. The article also reinforces the deserving/undeserving poor paradigm discussed earlier, but omits what defines the clauses and conditionality of “those capable of returning to work’ and ‘if you can work”.
By repeating this message in paragraphs five and thirteen, the authors reinforce the government’s presupposition that a ‘life on benefits’ is a choice, rather than a result of lack of jobs or genuine illness. This grants agency to those affected where there, in reality, may be none. If the presupposition is not challenged, benefit claimants can be shown to be agents of their own poverty, having a choice where there is none, and ultimately responsible for their own position. According to Lakoff and Wehling, this Conservative Neo-Liberal viewpoint illustrates the ‘strict father family model’ in which the individual ‘…is the model of individual, not social, responsibility—responsible for himself and his family but with no responsibilities to outsiders and no major dependency on them’ (Lakoff, 2012). The presupposition that subsistence on benefits is a lifestyle choice is a significant enough strategy that is has been researched and challenged (Shildrick et al., 2012), but still remains a powerful rhetorical device.
In contrast to articles previously examined, the following article (Moss, 2013)demonstrates the use of metapropositional expressives (Coulthard, 1994) and quoting verbs by a newspaper that is opposed to the government’s ideology to position the opposition Labour party as being responsible for showing that the government is guilty of obfuscation and implicit guilt.
In the following quotes from the text the quoting verbs are underlined.
“…Labour’s analysis of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement cutbacks reveals.” (para. 3) portrays the Chancellor as having hidden something within his Autumn Statement, and that the Labour Party’s analysis has discovered and shown this to unsuspecting readers. This in turn allows the author to use the matalinguistic verb accused in “…Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has accused Mr Osborne” which reinforces the impression that the Chancellor has been guilty of wrongdoing (para. 6). In paragraph ten we find, “Experts warn more families will be hit…” and “Critics have pointed out the unfairness…” used, both of which serve to add to the impression that there will be consequences to families, rather than to the implied transgressor, the Chancellor. The final quote; “…Labour countered claims it was soft on shirkers…” (para. 12) is used in order to place the Labour Party rhetorically as answering the charge in a way that satisfies the populist charge that benefit claimants are ‘shirkers’.
The images used to portray George Osborne, the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, also serve a discursive purpose:
The image in Figure 1, from a newspaper that is widely considered to support Conservative ideology and policies uses an offer image, with the Chancellor shown with a level gaze, looking off frame. This invites the reader to imagine what he is thinking (Machin & Mayr, 2012:p. 71) and so creates empathy between reader and subject. In this image, George Osborne is also framed using a medium shot and with a hand extending toward the viewer. The framing presents him in a conventional manner for a serious politician, and the extended hand works in the same way as the gaze to create a connection between subject and viewer. Conversely, in the image (Figure 3) from The Mirror, a traditionally left-wing newspaper, George Osborne is shown closely cropped, with his mouth open with a gaze which is insufficient for either a demand or offer image. This leaves him looking slack jawed and shifty.
The reality constructed through these discursive strategies presents a world which varies dependant on the newspapers read. To a reader of Right Wing newspapers, reality is that hard-working families are being attacked by workshy welfare scroungers who choose a life on benefits; whereas the perspective from the Left is that the government are untrustworthy and guilty of wrongdoing in their financial dealings. These realities result in direct stigmatising effects in the attitudes toward those in poverty.
Age Concern (2013) Older People’s Universal Benefits – Q&A, Available from: <http://www.ageuk.org.uk/money-matters/claiming-benefits/older-peoples-universal-benefits—qa/> [Accessed: 10 December 2013]
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£10bn welfare cuts: Tories to wage war as jobless with big families lose benefits
GEORGE Osborne today stepped up the Government’s war on scroungers by announcing an extra £10billion in welfare cuts.
By: Macer Hall
Published: Mon, October 8, 2012
The Chancellor used his speech to the Tory conference in Birmingham to confirm that handouts to the jobless and low paid need to be further squeezed to save more cash for repaying the Treasury’s record deficit.
A key part of the crackdown will be on teenagers who leave school and do not go into training, further education or a job who will find their access to handouts such as housing benefit severely curtailed.
But Mr Osborne made clear that pensioners’ universal benefits will be protected from the cuts.
Senior Tories believe the move will be popular with millions of hard-working families who are fed up with workshy scroungers ripping off the benefits system.
Mr Osborne’s announcement today signalled that the Treasury has won a Whitehall battle with Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who was resisting further cuts to his budget. The new £10billion of cuts, to be implemented by 2016-17, come on top of £18billion in welfare cuts previously announced by the Coalition.
Those who make the greatest effort will get the greatest rewards
Treasury sources say many of the savings will come from squeezing housing benefit and the budget for the new universal credit, which is replacing a complex string of handouts.
Mr Osborne and Mr Duncan Smith confirmed their truce in the cuts row with a joint article supporting the £10billion cuts.
“We are united in our determination to deliver universal credit, the most fundamental reform of our benefits system for a generation, on time and on budget,” the two Cabinet ministers will say.
“We are both satisfied this is possible and we will work together to find savings of this scale.”
They will argue that the cuts are part of the Government’s commitment to ensuring that cutting Britain’s deficit is “fair”.
The only alternative to welfare cuts would be cutting investment in the economy, slapping more taxes on middle-income earners or hiking borrowing even higher, the pair will say.
And they repeated Mr Cameron’s pledge at the last election to preserve age-related universal benefits including winter fuel payments and free bus passes, prescriptions and TV licences.
Tory sources said the new welfare system will require “those who are out of work to make the same kinds of choices as those who are in work”.
A spokesman for the TaxPayers’ Alliance said: “Every family is facing huge pressure on their budgets, those in receipt of housing benefits should not be immune to making the same choices everyone else is.
“Most young people in work share, so there is no reason for younger people on housing benefit not to do the same.”
In his conference speech today Mr Osborne insisted that the Tories are in touch with what the British people mean by fairness.
He said it means to back aspiration and ensure “that those who make the greatest effort get the greatest rewards”.
He insisted that, under the Coalition, the rich are being made to contribute to deficit reduction through higher taxes.
But also argued that it is an economic “delusion” to think the budget can be balanced only on “the wallets of the richest”. Mr Osborne said that it is wrong to have a welfare system where those on benefits can be better off than those with a job.
He went further to anger the Lib Dems by repeating his opposition to their proposal for a “mansion tax” on the largest properties. The decision to go ahead with the extra cuts is bound to enrage the Lib Dems after Nick Clegg pledged that the Coalition would not cut the deficit “on the backs of the poor”.
A report yesterday claimed that benefit cheats are living “millionaire lifestyles” with taxpayers fleeced by widespread organised scams. The damning dossier, written by a cross-party panel of councillors in Conservative Westminster City Council in central London, reveals cases of alleged fraudsters with more than £100,000 in the bank as well as people claiming housing benefit while living overseas and subletting UK property.
In another twist yesterday, the Royal Mail sparked anger over its scheme to sell cheap stamps this Christmas to those claiming benefits. The controversial plan is not offered to millions of hard-working families who will have to pay the increased postage following a price hike earlier this year that saw first class stamps rise to 60p and second class to 50p.
Britain’s deficit hit £98billion in the last financial year and City experts fear it could soar to more than £120billion next year.
Benefits shake-up: work-shy to lose benefits for three years
Unemployed workers will be barred from claiming benefits for up to three years if they repeatedly refuse job offers under radical plans to reform the welfare system.
By Andrew Porter and Robert Winnett
11:21PM GMT 10 Nov 2010
Anyone claiming unemployment benefit will have to sign a “three strikes and you’re out” contract setting out punishments for the work-shy. Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, will announce a “claimant contract” which will set out the sanctions against those refusing to take up offers of work.
Those who fail to accept a job offer, or refuse to apply for a position recommended by an employment adviser will, on the first occasion, lose their £64-a-week Jobseeker’s Allowance for three months.
If they do it a second time their benefit will be halted for six months. If they refuse for a third time they will lose the benefit for three years.
Those who refuse to take part in unpaid community work, which will become mandatory as part of the Government’s new welfare-to-work plans, will be subject to the same penalties.
Last night, David Cameron said a “life on benefits” would no longer be an option for those capable of returning to work.
The sanctions are part of a radical raft of reforms being proclaimed as the biggest changes to the welfare state since it was set up more than 60 years ago.
The wide array of benefits currently offered to those out of work will be replaced by a single “universal credit” from 2013.
This will ensure that those returning to employment will always be better off than if they remained on benefits.
At the moment, people returning to work can lose up to 95p in benefits for every £1 they earn, but this is expected to be limited to around 65p.
Ministers believe the change will mean that about 2.5 million people will be better off.
Mr Duncan Smith hopes the measures in his welfare White Paper will cut the number of workless households by 300,000 by ending the current “perverse system”.
The new system will be administered by HM Revenue and Customs, leading to fears of potential administrative problems.
Last night, speaking in South Korea, Mr Cameron said: “The message is clear. If you can work then a life on benefits will no longer be an option.”
He added: “If people are asked to apply for a job by an adviser they will be expected to put themselves forward. If people can work, and they are offered work, they will be expected to take it. This is the deal. Break that deal and they will lose their unemployment benefit. Break it three times and they will lose it for three years.”
Downing Street aides insisted the measures were not simply about appearing to be tough on “scroungers”. Instead, they claimed Mr Cameron was in no mood to listen to a host of “tired excuses” about people who did not attend job interviews or accept jobs. Details of the proposed sanctions may be met with some scepticism as previous attempts to penalise those refusing employment have often failed. Ministers will be reluctant to approve anything that leads to families losing their homes or being unable to afford food and other basics.
There are fears that malingerers may accept offers of work and then behave badly so that they are quickly dismissed. Well-placed sources said that the scheme was designed to deter those “milking the system”.
“Very few people will actually lose their benefits but this is to stop people transgressing,” said a source. “Most unemployed benefit claimants want to return to work with the right support and help.”
The Coalition’s measures are aimed at helping to cut the soaring welfare budget. Britain has one of the highest numbers of workless households in Europe, with 1.9 million children living in homes where no one is employed. About five million people rely on out-of-work benefits, including incapacity benefit.
Since 1997, the welfare budget has risen by more than 40 per cent, after inflation, from £63 billion to £87 billion. The system currently penalises some people returning to work with high marginal rates of tax which the new proposals are designed to address.
Mr Cameron said: “It simply has to pay to work. You can’t have a situation where if someone gets out of bed and goes and does a hard day’s work they end up worse off. That’s not fair and it sends entirely the wrong message — both to those on benefits and to the hard working majority who are being asked to support them.”
Last night, Douglas Alexander, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said: “If the Government gets this right we will support them because of course we accept the underlying principle of simplifying the benefits system and providing real incentives to work.
“But the government will not get more people off benefits and into work without there being work available.”
By Vincent Moss
£1,152 worse off: George Osborne will clobber almost 8 million working families with “Strivers’ Tax”
Shock figures show Chancellor will squeeze £9billion from grafters
George Osborne’s “Strivers’ Tax” will leave working families £1,152 worse off over the next five years.
His huge cuts to tax credits will hit 7.9 million families with at least one adult earning… and shock figures show the Government will have squeezed £9billion out of them by 2018.
They will bear the brunt of a £15billion package of welfare cuts, Labour’s analysis of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement cutbacks reveals. But the shake-up of working tax credits and child tax credits for families on lower wages is just part of Mr Osborne’s double whammy for millions of households.
Tomorrow, 1.2 million families will be worse off through the introduction of a means-testing system for child benefit payments which range from £13.40 a week to £20.30 for the eldest child.
The average loss will be around £1,300 a year of the £1,752 paid to a family with two children.
Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has accused Mr Osborne of forcing families to “pay the price for this Government’s economic failure”.
He also attacks his bogus claim that the measures target “scroungers”, adding: “The truth is two-thirds of the people being hit are in work and thousands of families on middle incomes will lose every penny of child benefit from tomorrow.
“Yet at the same time the Tories and Lib Dems are handing out a £3billion tax cut to the highest earners – worth an average of £107,000 to 8,000 millionaires.”
Any household in which someone earns more than £50,000 will no longer get full child benefit. It stops completely over £60,000.
Experts warn more families will be hit by the change as the threshold is expected to stay the same despite rising wages. Critics have pointed out the unfairness of a couple with a joint income of £100,000 a year being just under the threshold and not losing any benefit.
The row will be re-ignited on Tuesday when Labour votes against the Chancellor’s plan to limit most benefits and tax credit increases to one per cent for the next three years.
On Friday, Labour countered claims it was soft on shirkers with proposals for compulsory work for anyone jobless more than two years.