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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

Archive for the ‘welfare’ Category

Living wage slavery

Nov 14, 2012Last week was officiallyLiving Wage‘ week (UK) – and only the most committed sadist would object to a campaign to raise the wages of the working poor. But, for me, the framing was wrong, and served to reinforce some deeply conservative ideas about “jobs” and “income”.

For example, the Living Wage Foundation states in big letters on its homepage that: “We believe that work should be the surest way out of poverty.”

The “surest way”? What are they thinking? Are we living inside a Dickens novel or something? (No wonder we’re seeing a rise in regressive measures such as workfare). In the technological 21st century, only a small fraction of total wealth is generated by human labour (and the fraction seems to be dwindling all the time, according to Jeremy Rifkin’s book, The End of Work) – I see no logical or economic sense in making “work” a condition for having a living income.

And I see no “moral” sense in the idea that work “should” be the “surest way” out of poverty. I’m not even certain what that means, since there’s nothing very “sure” about jobs these days – regardless of wage levels.

If this were a TV debate, I’d probably get drowned out by “orthodox” economics-talk from both left and right. The right talks about “job loss” resulting from raising incomes; the left counters with statistics about minimum wage, etc. But both accept the aim of getting as many people as possible “into work”. It’s like a superstition.

This “orthodox” economics reflects Victorian (or earlier) frames and metaphors (eg see economist Paul Ormerod’s work in this regard*). And, going back to Charles Dickens, you can see the whole worldview described (and seemingly subtlely satirised) in his novel Hard Times: the “self-made man”, the “dissipated, extravagant idler”, time as commodity, escape from poverty through hard work, etc.

More than a century later, we’re still labouring under the notion that “work” will cure the malaise caused by any economic “crisis”, personal or global. So, when the economy is brought to its knees by a corrupt/greedy financial sector, the answer is to get everyone “back to work”… until the next financial collapse (which is never caused by idleness).

Of course, there are good cognitive reasons why we think in this limited way. In our own personal experience (replayed thousands of times in our brains), “work” produces direct, tangible results, while inactivity leaves work to be done. Repetition in our nervous systems creates the appearance of a universal principle: that “wealth” (in a broad sense) comes primarily from work.

This framing might be appropriate for barter of turnips and chickens – or even, at a stretch, for Victorian mills (if you ignore how the created wealth was distributed). But how can it be suitable for thinking about an economy in which only a small percentage of the total wealth is “produced” or “earned” from present-day human work? (Estimation of ‘total wealth’ should include technological production, infrastructure and land-use, scientific know-how, accumulation of the common wealth of centuries of past human labour – which should be distinguished from current-work “productivity”. It’s the “commons”, the “public” – it’s vast).

Ponder this figure: In just over a decade, the Credit Default Swap market grew from nothing to $54 trillion. That’s close to the total GDP of the planet. Our cognitive frames for human “work” just don’t apply here. (Credit Default Swaps were a main – and diabolical – cause of the recent global financial collapse. They are a type of derivative – they resemble insurance against defaults on loans, but streamlined, packaged, computerised – on an industrial scale, but without human “work” production.)

I want to say, in all seriousness, that a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work. (Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness)

The solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income. (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Chaos or Community)

Update 10/12/2013: I’ve previously written widely about economic alternatives such as a Universal Basic Income, which I favour. Here’s one example, an article I wrote for the Idler magazine – Bluffer’s Guide to Revolutionary Economics.

* “as the twentieth century draws to a close the dominant tendency in economic policy is still governed by a system of analysis inspired by the engineers and scientists of the Victorian era”. (Paul Ormerod, The Death of Economics).

◊ The graphic above is from my spoof charity website, NSPCO

Graphics by NewsFrames

Written by NewsFrames

November 14, 2012 at 9:15 am

The ever-popular “war on workshy” frame

Oct 8, 2012 – Today’s Express headline concerns the “WAR ON WORKSHY”. I first became aware of this “war” back in 1998, when the following headlines screamed at me (on March 27th, 1998):

“WELFARE WAR ON WORKSHY” (Daily Mail)
“BLAIR IN WELFARE WAR ON THE IDLE” (Daily Telegraph)
“SHAKE-UP IN WELFARE HITS THE WORKSHY” (The Times)
“THOU SHALT NOT SHIRK” (The Express)

I was unemployed at the time, and I took it personally – it seemed like a war on me. It also struck me as being political and journalistic bovine excreta. The same media had just reported the lowest official unemployed count for 18 years (given as 1,383,800 in The Daily Telegraph, 19/3/98). Government figures showed that only 5% of welfare expenditure went on the unemployed, including benefit fraud. (The percentage is pretty much the same today – see my earlier post).

As Larry Elliott (Guardian’s economics editor) put it at the time:

“..ministers should stop conniving in the fallacy that the welfare state is in a terminal crisis when it palpably is not…What is not legitimate is to pretend that welfare is a luxury Britain cannot afford”.
(Larry Elliott, The Guardian, 19/1/98)

It’s all déjà vu for me. We were in a “terrible crisis” then, and we’re in a “terrible crisis” now. And we’re encouraged to think about this crisis – repeatedly – in terms of a war between “hard-working families” and “workshy scroungers”. Or, as today’s Express puts it:

Senior Tories believe the move will be popular with millions of hard-working families who are fed up with workshy scroungers ripping off the benefits system. (Express, October 8, 2012)

This frame tends to exclude the thoughts: 1) that large numbers of “hard-working families” are themselves dependent on various benefits (since the market often doesn’t pay a survival/living wage), and 2) that many of those “hard-working families” will eventually find themselves unemployed (at which point they land in the “workshy scrounger” category – until they can find another job).

After decades of relentless tabloid attacks on the unemployed, the cited Tories are probably right – in a sense – about the “popularity” of the proposed welfare cuts. Because the “real” war is in the framing, and the Framing Wars are currently being won by the rightwing press (which, as noted recently by George Monbiot, gets much of its editorial content direct from neoliberal thinktanks). We see an indication of the success of this framing (in shaping people’s thinking) from the 2012 British Social Attitudes survey, which reports that:

62% agree that unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work, more than double the proportion who thought this in 1991 (27%)

So, don’t think about the trillion pounds spent bailing out the banks, or the $21 trillion stashed in tax havens by the tax-avoiding super-rich, etc – those are separate, different news compartments. Focus your anger on the unemployed people. The frames in your head tell you they deserve it.

Alternative headlines:
‘WAR ON YOUNG & OLD & VULNERABLE’
‘WAR IS PEACE, WORK IS MANDATORY’
‘BANKS BAILED OUT BY SLAVE LABOUR’
‘ANOTHER SUCCESSFUL ANGER-REDIRECT HEADLINE’

◊ Read more about the metaphorical framing of welfare here and here,
– and more about the framing of work here & here.

Written by NewsFrames

October 8, 2012 at 8:52 am

Welfare “criminals”

Welfare "criminals"Dec 28, 2011 – Today’s Express front page reports that 33% of JobSeeker’s Allowance recipients have “records of offending” in the last five years. The Sun and Telegraph also covered this story under the blunt headings: “One in three on dole is a criminal”; “Third of unemployed are convicted criminals”.

The figures reportedly come from a “data sharing agreement between the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Justice”, but at the time of writing, neither DWP nor MoJ appear to have this finding on their websites. [See update, below*]

Predictably, the rightwing TaxPayers’ Alliance (so-called) is quoted by the Express. Robert Oxley (TPA campaign manager) says: “The minority who split their days between claiming benefits and getting rich from the proceeds of crime are giving those who fall on hard times a bad name”. Of course, there’s no indication that the crimes involved made anyone “rich” – after all, we’re not talking about Goldman Sachs here.

(For example, poor people receive criminal records for watching TV without a licence. I don’t see anyone getting rich from that “crime”.)

Not that the details matter to the hard-right ideologues at the Express, Telegraph, Sun and TaxPayers’ Alliance. What matters for them is that welfare is framed as “criminal” and immoral. What matters to them is that public anger is directed away from the wealthy beneficiaries of public misery, and towards “criminals” and people receiving benefits. And if the distinction between “criminals” and people receiving benefits is blurred, that’s viewed as a bonus.

* Update – This story has also been covered by the Daily Mail, Mirror, Star, Metro and Times, but the “government study” on which it’s based remains unavailable – which means it’s difficult to check the figures, and to put them into context. One aspect of context is statistical comparison – for example, 1 in 4 US adults has a criminal record (according to Yahoo! News), the same ratio that the Express cites for all out-of-work UK benefits recipients. It would be interesting to see what proportion of Express journalists has a criminal record.

Alternative headlines:
• ‘BENEFITS RECIPIENTS ROUTINELY CRIMINALISED’
• ‘WAR IS PEACE, WORK IS MANDATORY’
• ‘JOBLESS PUNISHED BY SHAME & EARLY DEATH’

Written by NewsFrames

December 28, 2011 at 2:11 pm