The report “The lies we tell ourselves” includes the following paragraph
“It is always possible to find examples of individual good or bad behaviour, including by people living in poverty. It is also possible to use a story of this example to justify an opinion. However we should not attempt to understand a large group of people on the basis of a single story, rather than on the evidence.”
This morning’s Daily Mail coverage of the awful Philpot case does just that. It uses the example of Philpott, someone convicted of killing five of his own children, to attack the entire welfare system and those who use it. The system encompasses well over 9 million people, but this morning one person has been chosen to represent them – a less representative representative would be hard to find, but I am sure they will one day.
Let me be clear Philpott is no more representative of those on welfare than Shipman was representative of GPs. Because we know and value GPs in our communities it would not have crossed anyone’s mind to name Shipman as typical of the healthcare system. It is telling (not to mention worrying) that a newspaper editor believes that Philpott will be a popular example of benefit claimants to the general public. What’s even more worrying is that he might be correct.
The reason the Churches gathered together to write the Truth and Lies report is that the stories of the poorest were being told by people who could use them to suit their own purposes – and the poorest were being grossly misrepresented as a result. Stories are much more powerful at conveying a message than statistics are, but when drawing conclusions about a group of millions of people an understanding of the numbers is nevertheless essential. In the report we highlighted how unrepresentative some of the most commonly chosen stories about the poorest are, and that statistics have been continually used in a misleading way. Today’s story is a new low, but the process is the same old routine.
The stories that represent the poorest communities in our country are not being chosen by the poorest themselves – they are chosen by politicians and media who have their own objectives – politicians and media increasingly drawn from privileged backgrounds, removed from the places were poverty most commonly resides. Yesterday the chancellor talked of families receiving £100,000 a year in housing benefit – much less tasteless – but if you read the report you’ll find it is no more representative – literally a one in a million case.
Initiatives such as the Glasgow Poverty Truth Commission allow people from disadvantaged communities to tell their own story in their own way to people in power. They are a beacon of hope against a background of negative stories and slander. It is not easy hope – Martin Johnstone, a Church of Scotland minister and the secretary of the Commission, writes of the moving and sometimes disturbing testimony given here – but a genuine hope. The people giving testimony are clearly the real poverty experts, people of value, dignity and worth, who deserve their place at the decision-making table – not out of sympathy or charity but because of the simple truth that policies developed without their stories at the heart will be unjust and will simply fail.