Monday, 3 December 2012

The unethical language of 'welfare dependency'

It is unethical to stigmatise people without foundation. Creating a stereotype, a generalised brand, in order to  demonize a group regardless of the individual and without regard for the potential harm it may do is unfair and prejudicial. It is one reason, and a major one, why racism is unethical; it fails to give a fair consideration of interest to a group of people simply because they are branded in this way. They are not worthy of equal consideration because they are different.  It seeks also to influence the attitudes of others to those stereotyped. If I said 'the Irish are lazy'; you would rightly respond that this is a ridiculous and unfounded stereotype. It brands all Irish on the basis of a prejudice. It is harmful certainly; but it is worse if I intend it to be harmful. If I intend to influence the attitude of others. And so it is with 'the unemployed'. All I need do is substitute 'work-shy' and use it in an injudicious way; to imply that it applies to a sufficiently large proportion of the unemployed, then it is unethical because it is designed to influence others against the group. It is prejudicial and harmful. It assumes or implies that the 'exceptions' are the rarer of the beast. But this is what the government is doing to those on welfare or to the unemployed, and the way the government is doing so is unethical.

When Mr Cameron and Ian Duncan-Smith refer to 'welfare dependency' they imply a certain characteristic, a flawed characteristic of a group; it sounds like a 'drug dependency'. They are not alone or the first politicians to use such a term. Labour governments have used it too. 'Welfare dependency' is seen as a fundamental problem.  But it can also be a stereotype, a tool used to mark a group,and it is harmful. What they really mean is that it becomes difficult to find work because by doing so they become economically worse off; they can't earn enough on low pay to manage the transition.

 But that is not a characteristic of the person; it is a characteristic of the circumstance. By all means change that circumstance. Make work pay. But it is  how this is done that matters. Better it is done by paying a 'living wage' then by trying to drive people into work by cutting their benefits. The latter is harmful and cruel and assumes that jobs are easily available.  Creating a living wage is a better strategy because 1) it doesn't seek to stigmatise people, 2) it is not harmful and 3) it is good for the economy because it make workers more productive.

In his speech to his party conference Mr Cameron said "there is only one real route out of poverty and it is work." He is right of course, which is why creating real jobs is the answer; and that can only come with a real strategy for growth. Real jobs with a living wage.

But Mr Cameron chose his words carefully because he implied that those in poverty were themselves to blame for not working, or not working hard enough. This is why just a few sentences later he said we had to get rid of 'welfare dependency'; language again! 

 But then we have the people living behind closed curtains. What was Mr Cameron seeking to achieve by his remark, repeated by government ministers? The narrative of 'scroungers' lurking lazily behind closed curtains is a demonizing stereotype designed to influence attitudes of those who are employed against those who are not; and it is unethical. It seeks to justify harming this group by stigmatizing them and making it easier for voters to believe it is right to cut their benefits or force them to work for low wages or indeed no wage at all. After all, they are diseased with welfare dependency or flawed in character as 'work shy'.

Language matters in ethics. We need a better language; a language that reflects the realities of circumstance and not of the person. Language matters in ethics. Politicians should address circumstances, create jobs, ensure a living wage and take account of individual circumstances that affect the well-being of families. They should stop using unethical language.


  1. There is no greater fear than losing a steady handout and then being forced to work for a buck. Self-esteem or annoying alarm clocks are not needed for those that choose to suck on the big nipple. More than one hundred million recipients depend on Obama for their survival; he is the great provider and jungle king.

    1. I am sure for some that is so. But for many a greater fear is of losing a job as recession bites deeper. The rise in unemployment in the UK wasn't because suddenly hundreds of thousands decided they would rather live on unemployment benefits. In the UK too we have another problem. The majority of people receiving benefits do work, and many of them have more than one job. Their problem is low pay. It would be better for us if we stopped subsidising business through the benefit system and insisted they pay at least a living wage. 'Dependency' is a circumstance, not a human frailty.