Blaming the poor for poverty

By Symon Hill
October 6, 2009

There are some politicians who, if given a choice between attacking powerful people and attacking vulnerable people, find it much easier to choose the latter.

A significant example occurred yesterday, with David Cameron's announcement of a new policy on disabled people's benefits – quickly described by Church Action on Poverty as “appalling”.

Given how many disabled people are not in work, it makes sense to consider the suggestion that many employers are still heavily prejudiced against them. However, reaching such a conclusion would involve criticising employers and earn condemnation from the CBI and other business leaders' organisations.

Cameron, like so many before him, seems to have decided that it's easier to attack disabled people themselves.

The Tories are insisting that all people on Incapacity Benefit must be tested for fitness to work. A similar call was made by former Labour cabinet minister James Purnell only last year. Every so often, it seems, a politician from one party or another will pop up to demand that claimants be re-tested.

Such demands are nonsensical, given that people claiming Incapacity Benefit are already subject to stringent tests (and always have been). The Tories' remarks seem to be aimed primarily at middle class voters with little understanding of how benefits work. They generate favourable headlines in the Daily Mail rather than realistic policies for welfare provision.

As a spokesperson for Church Action on Poverty put it yesterday, “It seems our politicians are competing to see who can target the nastiest policies at the most vulnerable groups of people”.

Incapacity Benefit claimants may prove not to be as vulnerable as the Tories imagine. Disabled people's campaigning groups and anti-poverty activists are already gearing up to campaign against the proposals.

This does not stop Cameron, Purnell and others with similar views simply ignoring the possibility that employers are primarily to blame for the lack of disabled people in employment. They fail to recognise that the people who hold power in a political or economic system are the people most likely to be responsible for its injustices.

Sadly, politicians of various parties seem happy to ignore this reality and fall back on the old Victorian idea of blaming the poor for their own poverty.

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