Tuesday 26 February 2019

A Recurring Portrait of Poverty.

Poverty Safari, or Othering the Poor?

On a Poverty Safari

In the preface to his Orwell Prize winning book, Poverty Safari, Darren McGarvey talks about the residents of Grenfell Tower. They had been warning for months about the fire dangers they could see in their flats. They were a group of people whose voices were not listened too. After the tragedy, in which 72 people died, the media, and even Theresa May tried to visit the community, but retreated away quickly. Theresa May was criticised for not speaking to any victims of the tragedy, citing security concerns. For her "poverty safari" she kept her distance, the poor were a dangerous and unpredictable alien species, best approached cautiously, and with protection nearby. Certainly not listened to or understood.

The image below of two kids playing in a manky Glasgow close is repeatedly used in the media to illustrate stories about poverty. I fear that it is overly reductive and plays to stereotypes, without being an accurate representation of poverty in the UK. It plays to ideas of poor people not being like "us", best viewed from afar, in their own world, rather than people who should be understood and listened to.

What is poverty?

The most commonly used definition of poverty is based upon income. The OECD defines those living "below the poverty line" as those in households living on less than half the median household income of the country.

("Median"? Brief diversion into statistics. The mean is what most of us understand as the average - you add up all the numbers in a sequence and divide by how many numbers you had. The median is the middle number in a range, used when there are extreme outliers that can skew an average, eg the very rich. If your numbers are 1,3,3,4,5,7,10,17,40 the mean is 90 dived by 9 = 10. Whereas the median is 5 in this example. 
"Poverty" is not those living below half the "average" income, but HALF the MEDIAN income).

By this measure of poverty over a third of the population of Britain is living below the poverty line (a ratio of 0.3555, which is among the worst ratios in Europe). Newer definitions of poverty add in calculations for childcare costs, as the previous measure overestimated the disposable income of households with children.

Statistics are slippery beasts however, so what does this mean in reality if you are living in poverty?

Poverty means lacking food, lacking heat, lacking secure housing, lacking adequate clothing. It means being excluded from things others in society take for granted, such as holidays, trips to the cinema or even using public transport. It means having a lot less than other people, including opportunities to change your position. This leads to mental health problems, physical health problems, feelings of worthlessness, insecurity and feelings of being judged by the media, and by society. 

Children from poorer backgrounds are more likely to be born premature, more likely to suffer chronic illness and disability in childhood. Children living in deprivation fall behind in education at every stage in life. Childhood poverty also has a hugely significant effect on life expectancy. The BBC news article above, from 2018, shows that those living in the most affluent areas of England can expect to live 8 years longer than those in the poorest areas (although the article is about England, have a look at the photograph they use - does it look familiar?).

News article in Glasgow Herald 23rd February 2019
In Scotland the difference is more stark. In the most deprived areas of Glasgow life expectancy for men is 67.8 years, in the least deprived areas of East Dumbartonshire (less than 10 miles away in Bearsden and Milngavie) it is 81.2 years. Remember that for ALL of these men, you won't be able to start collecting your state pension until the age of 66.

In the UK work does not guarantee a way out of poverty. Two thirds of children living in poverty are in a house where at least one family member is working. People with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty than their peers, and people from certain ethnic minorities also suffer higher rates of poverty than the UK average

Okay, without labouring the point, poverty is bad, has a huge effect on people's lives and costs the UK billions of pounds in lost revenue as vast numbers of people lack opportunities to live productive, healthy lives.

Media images of poverty

When it comes to media images of poverty, in newspapers and online articles, the same stock photographs are used again and again and again. And again. It gets dusted off more often than the chunky couple bulging out of their clothes and eating ice cream cones that gets used for every "obesity story".

A couple of faceless young boys play football, or climb a fence beside a graffiti-daubed tenement. The windows are boarded up, the garden is unkempt and overgrown, a shopping trolley is sometimes seen. The unsupervised kids sometimes look like they are actually adding to the graffiti or kicking a ball against the door; "feral" you might say. For the audience and for the editors that keep picking these images it ticks all the boxes.

It's a shorthand, an image that tells the story to the audience. It is also one that looks very familiar to me, for two reasons.

Firstly the tenement is recognisably from Glasgow. It reminded me of buildings in Garthamlock and Dalmarnock, and I spent a bit of time out and about trying to find out where it was. I did find it eventually, although I was wrong, it lies south of the River Clyde, as I will explain later.

Secondly, it looked familiar to me personally as I have a photograph of my brother and me at similar ages, outside a graffiti-daubed tenement, unkempt back court and boarded up windows. I was that media stereotype.

Me with the carrier bag in 1970s Glasgow
Except this photograph of me only tells part of the story. Our tenement was virtually uninhabitable at the time this photo was taken. Rat-infested, no bath or shower, no central heating, no hot water, and (importantly) awaiting demolition shortly after this picture was taken. We were soon  to be re-housed to a newly built council house (ask your dad), in Maryhill.

The photographs that have been used continuously for over 10 years to illustrate news stories of poverty are likewise not what they seem. The other thing I know about the type of tenements I recognised in these pictures, is that they too were demolished shortly after the pictures were taken in 2008. Nobody lived in those boarded up flats. Nobody was there to care for the garden or keep an eye out for vandalism. The images fit a handy stereotype, which I believe is harmful and not particularly accurate or representative. 

POVERTY - as illustrated in The Guardian, Sky News, The Independent,
The Times, Daily Record...and ,eh, David Icke's website.

A poverty of ideas

The Joseph Rowantree Foundation issued a report in 2008 criticising media reports on poverty as drawing on... 
"...stock phrases and a familiar journalistic repertoire which portrayed government as active, while people experiencing poverty (when not overtly stigmatised) were represented as passive victims. Even when coverage was generally sympathetic, it risked differentiating those experiencing poverty from mainstream society, and portraying them as lacking initiative, unproductive and a burden on 'us'."
I would argue that the pictures used repeatedly to present an image of poverty reinforce this idea that the story is not about "people like me". I don't live in a house like that. I supervise my kids, clean my close and cut my grass. These images feed a narrative of "them and us".

Other analysts have looked at how the media stigmatises those living in poverty, describing how media representation...
"...contributes to the public's perception that people living in poverty are at fault for their financial circumstances due to individual character flaws and weaknesses, as opposed to structural constraints...framing techniques that present poverty as an individual problem rather than a societal issue rooted in economic and political inequality further reinforce the perceived undeservingness of the poor"

Read all about it. The undeserving poor

An LSE research paper in 2014 analysed how British newspapers represent poverty, and came to some interesting conclusions. In domestic stories the focus was limited to stories of poverty in the elderly and in childhood. The causes of poverty in these stories was unknown or unreported. However in stories on poverty outside the UK the socio-political inefficiencies responsible for the poverty were examined and analysed. I was struck by that today when I was driving home from work and poverty in Venezuela was being discussed alongside debate about the political and governmental situation that was causing it. The LSE researchers also concluded that British newspapers had a...
"...tendency to distance poverty from general society and portray it as a problematic Other."
That's the problem I have with these unsupervised children in a neglected building illustrating every single story we read on the topic, this "othering". They are not like "us", these poor people. We wouldn't end up in that situation. It must be the fault of the parents, not society or government.

In a lecture in 2017 Ruth Lister, Professor of Social Policy at Loughborough University, talked about "Othering the poor". She described it as a process...
"...through which 'the poor' are treated as different from and inferior to the rest of society....a line is drawn between 'us' and 'them'...It is not a neutral line, but one imbued with negative value judgements that diminish and construct 'the poor' variously as a source of contamination, a threat to be feared, an 'undeserving' economic burden, an object of pity or even as an exotic species to be explored. Broadly, 'othering' condemns 'the poor' for what they do or looks down on them for the qualities or capacities they are considered to lack." 
 A counter narrative can be constructed, based on a politics of redistribution. This needs recognition of the causes of the problem, and recognition of the attributes and strengths the people being discussed. It also needs their voices to be heard and their opinions listened to.

Agencies working in this area are trying to challenge misconceptions about poverty, and present a different image, such as this video produced by Poverty Alliance.

Reality versus the photos

I do not mean any criticism of the photographer who created these stock photographs for Getty Images. The are a very good piece of photo-journalism that clearly struck a chord with editors up and down the land who continue to use these images over a decade after they were taken. Shot in September 2008, the images clearly state on the Getty Images website "note to editors - since these images were taken the street pictured has been demolished".

So I went to see what image of "Child poverty in the UK" we could use if we went back to the street in these images today.

I vaguely recognised the high flats seen behind the fence in one of the pictures as blocks in Govan and with some help from Twitter I was able to locate the street and find the fence, which is the only part of these images standing today.

These kids again illustrating stories of child poverty in the UK.
Same fence today, at Ibrox football complex, behind Ibrox primary school,
 The flats and tenements behind it were demolished in 2009 and 2010

The photograph of the kids climbing on the fence is the one that helps locate the street where the original pictures were taken in September 2008. The fence is still there, but the tenements and silhouetted tower block behind the children are long gone. The tenements photographed lined the streets between Hinshelwood Drive and Paisley Road West in Govan.

However these photographs of children playing amidst boarded up and vandalised houses are deceptive. Like my 1970s tenement in Whiteinch the picture was taken at a time when they were awaiting demolition and were empty. The tenements are visible in the photograph below from early 2009, taken from Broomloan Court, looking east. The petrol station which is still there on Broomloan Road helps you orientate yourself.

Broomloan Court, 2009
By late 2009 the streetscape had totally changed, as this photo below demonstrates. By then 400 tenement flats had been demolished and preparations were being made to demolish the tower blocks (photos posted on Hidden Glasgow forum). Yet every few weeks, these derelict tenements awaiting demolition are re-built in the pages and websites of the national media to illustrate "childhood poverty".

Looking west towards Broomloan Court flats, Ibrox, Glasgow. 2009

By 2010 the multi-storey flats at Broomloan Court were also going, going, gone.

The demolition and regeneration of these areas is something I have watched with interest, as after my Victorian slum demolition in Whiteinch, I have subsequently watched my former block of high flats being demolished, where I lived for about 10 years. I revisited the high flats in Knightswood that I used to live in several times to watch my old block being rightly torn apart and I have written about it here

From visits to my old flats in Knightswood. Gone, but not forgotten, but definitely not there now

So what is the reality today of the street reproduced repeatedly in media to tell us about poverty in the UK? Do these images still represent a fair version of areas of deprivation today? Here are more stories from the past 12 months that show the poor as "an exotic species" for our delectation. 

But here is the reality of that derelict street today. It may still be an area with problems, but I think we need to find a more nuanced way to talk about poverty. The stereotype we get accompanying these news stories is just that. A stereotype.

Then and now
Stereotypes are widely held and oversimplified ideas that can be harmful and stigmatising. If you are wanting to tell a story about child poverty, it would be more accurate to have a photograph of an ordinary class of 30 school children bent over their work, but point out that 9 or 10 of them will be destined to fall behind their  peers because of disadvantages beyond their control. Not because they are out in the street playing football, not because they are different from your kids or my kids. Simply because they have less money coming in to their household than their classmates.

Fair representation?
The flats pictured again and again in the papers were demolished 10 years ago. They were photographed just before their demolition. The kids in the pictures must be about 18 and 14 years old now. The space where these flats used to be is still in part a building site, with more new flats still under construction (below).

The Skene Road side of the Govan redevelopment. Ibrox Stadium just poking over the rooftops.


If you were to create an image to illustrate poverty in the UK there would be a myriad ways to represent it. You could use a family where both parents are in low-paid, insecure jobs, one parent working night-shift, one working day shift to save on childcare, yet still having to rely on benefits in the form of Working Tax Credit to get by. A person with a disability struggling to find paid employment, but continuing to volunteer for 20 hours a week in a charity shop. Or why not a 70 year old surviving on a state pension, but looking after his grandchildren 5 days a week to let his daughter get out to work. Don't forget that in Britain the poor pay a far higher proportion of their income in tax than the wealthy. It has also been shown that the poorest in our society also give a far higher proportion of their income to charity than the wealthiest in society do.

If you casually stigmatise certain sections of the population, you undoubtedly reduce people's understanding of their lives. 

There is an increasing lack of people from poorer backgrounds getting their voices heard - whether in the media, in politics or in professional positions. If the endless succession of gibbering idiot politicians wittering on about Brexit has demonstrated anything, it is now clear to everyone that Britain is certainly NOT a meritocracy.

If you feel that your voice and opinions are not being listened to, why bother taking part? If the journalist or politician that you hear does not talk like you or have any insight into how your life works, it is hard not to be cynical about what they say. There therefore needs to be increased opportunities for people from different backgrounds to contribute to a more diverse society that represents all of the people in it.

I hate ghettoised areas, where people don't share shops, cafes, schools and streets with their fellow citizens, whether it's people of different class, or lifestyle or ethnicity. I fear that these media images of poverty falsely push poverty into a ghetto, to "other" those affected by it and absolve the rest of society from solving the problem.

Ordinary woman carrying an ordinary child on an ordinary street. This is how The Big Issue illustrated a story on child poverty this week. Easy.