The lie that food poverty is caused by bad choices

Today a columnist for a widely read newspaper addressing the subject of poverty in the UK wrote “where there is hunger, it is generated by bad life choices – not cruel government – compounded by a voluntary influx of migrants from some of the poorest societies on Earth”. This is just wrong, both factually and morally.

One of the main reasons that people are forced to use foodbanks is because of benefit delays with half of all referrals to foodbanks being caused by benefit delays or changes. The DWP’s own research shows the most common reason people receive an out of work benefit in the first place is because they have fallen ill and were unable to work. The second most common reason is that they had to leave their job to look after a friend or family member.  Unless this columnist believes in a cosmic force that means that all illness and bureaucratic incompetence is the fault of “bad life choices” (which is considered terrible theology by most major religions) then they are just factually wrong. The mention of immigration is only relevant as it represents another poorer group who can be blamed for poverty, but in fact can in no way explain the above phenomena.

This vile and pernicious lie comes from a fairly normal psychological bias made terrible by the reality of inequality. The just-world hypothesis is a cognitive bias that says that the world, as it is, is just and that bad things happened because people have done bad things. The reality of inequality is that a few people are rich enough that they have more than enough stored away to protect themselves from income shocks caused by illness. Most people don’t have that security, if something goes wrong they rely on the state’s safety net. IFS research shows that at least 48% of people will at some point in their working lives rely on that safety net and receive means tested benefits. Others being rich enough for this not to be their reality means that sometimes, rather than using their empathy and reading the great work done by those documenting this ongoing tragedy, some people prefer to believe the lie that those who suffer deserve it. We go on and onabout this point because this lack of empathy acts as a barrier to policy solutions which could prevent this injustice. Unless we challenge our unequal society and the harmful attitudes it fosters we may be doomed to face policies that harm those at the bottom for the sake of it.

Tim Stacey, Policy and Campaigns Officer.