The psychology of poverty, mental health, and #BenefitsBritain


It didn’t take many minutes in last night’s channel 4 Benefits Britain debate before Telegraph journo Allison Pearson had suggested that depression is not only something which she as a journalist is a valid person to diagnose, but that she can diagnose it (or rather its absence) through the media of a television documentary with a specific agenda. That’s the same Allison Pearson, incidentally, who last year wrote that the behaviour of child murdering Mick Philpott was a product of a culture of benefits entitlement – ignoring like most people the undiscussed issue of his behaviour being the product of a culture of domestic violence – a culture which extends not just through the council estates but right up to the echelons of the Lawson/Saatchi marriage.

Her ignorance on invisible illnesses is not uncommon, although the support that grew when I challenged the Sun’s use of sensationalist disableism last Autumn  – my petition reaching over 80K in a handful of days – suggests she may have less support in her nasty victim blaming than she thinks. But the topic of benefits is one which invites amateur psychologising – how do generations stay in poverty and how can society change to stop it?

It would be nice to side-step the vile biological eugenicist arguments, which date back to a time where genetics were at best poorly understood, but still tend to be alluded to these days by the over-privileged such as London mayor Boris Johnson and on last night’s show, a Spectator journalist who argued pretty much that the poor should not breed. There isn’t of course any concrete evidence to suggest genetic differences on the basis of class, though there is plenty to be gained in terms of propping up your bloated public school boy ubermensch positions in assuming that your superiority is “natural” rather than culturally constructed – as an ideology, it reinforces your ability to believe in deserving the privilege that keeps others in squalor, of course, by implying that others simply just aren’t hardwired the same way.

When a lot of people talk about benefits, they are using (however unknowingly) behaviourist arguments; focusing on rewards and punishments and their impact on behaviour. As the behaviourists showed, when we positively reinforced behaviour then it is repeated, so a simplistic application of this suggests a “culture of dependency” is the result of us rewarding “idleness” through the social security system. This is mixed in with a bit of social learning theory – basically the idea that we learn behaviour by observing those around us, and then repeating whatever they do if it is rewarded (or as a police officer put it to me when I was “debating” the matter with him, “Monkey see monkey do”)

It’s an argument which has a bit of common sense logic to it – if you ignore the issue that behaviourist theories tend to be based on animal research, whereas humans can consciously think about their actions, and if you ignore the issue that levels of depression suggest a life on benefits is not particularly rewarding, and if we don’t think too carefully about where this idea takes us in terms of benefits being removed…. more on that in a minute.

A slightly more liberal, humanising behaviourist view might focus on learned helplessness – Martin Seligman’s theory that depression (or in this instance benefits dependency) is the result of consistent experience of failure. Seligman showed by electrocuting dogs (and then humans) that if we repeatedly are unable to escape something unpleasant, after a while we give up trying, even when escape is possible. Again ignoring the reductionism of the research (i. e. there are clearly more complex factors in play in a lived experience than in the lab), this seems a fairly common sense and credible explanation, and it’s echoed in the arguments made by Big Issue founder John Bird and others – passionate declarations that if we just believed and invested in people (in Bird’s case, through the use of social enterprise) then we could stop trapping people in dependency and leave them free to flourish and grow.

So. People are trapped in poverty because either we reward laziness or alternatively because they experience failure from an early age as a result of poverty and then lose their ability to respond to opportunity. Therefore we need to either

a) Remove the benefits from all who are able to work, thus stopping rewarding the workshy behaviour, and replacing it with new industriousness

or, alternatively

b) Remove the benefits system trapping people from exploring their potential as a whole class group of capitalists, and give some money for start-up businesses

These are popular solutions to the poverty trap, so why don’t we do them?

Well, if we can step on from pseudo-biology and learning theory for a minute to consider cognitive factors, we can look at another idea – that there are consistent and wide spread cognitive errors in the way we think about benefits culture.

One of the biggest of these is the distorted way in which the general public estimate benefits in terms of fraud. We tend to grossly overestimate the amount we think is being fraudulently claimed

“People estimate that 34 times more benefit money is claimed fraudulently than official estimates: the public think that £24 out of every £100 spent on benefits is claimed fraudulently, compared with official estimates of £0.70 per £100”

Alongside this, there is a tendency to vastly over-estimate the money received by claimants, along with the subsequent achievable lifestyle – again an important issue if we are removing benefits on the basis that they reward fecklessness.

But the elephant in the room really when we are looking at behaviourist solutions to benefits “dependency” is the way that dependency is interlinked with the economic system. If capitalism was a system where everyone could co-exist fairly, then Bird style enterprise investment could be a rewarding alternative to a welfare state. But it isn’t – the free market is based on competition and monopoly. So while we could get a few more council-estate billionaires, the “underclass” is not going to disappear at the appearance of some social diversity in wealth – it is a necessary part of the capitalist system. There are winners and losers, that’s how it works.

Like it or loathe it, the welfare state is a panacea for capitalism. It’s very easy to focus on the individuals within it for a cause and solution – but ultimately that in itself is a cognitive error; a self-serving bias which protects us from ethical inquiry by suggesting that the poverty in communities like Ladywood is directly linked to those individuals making up the community, and not the function those communities fill in maintaining the power positions of wider society. Mental illness is unsurprisingly intertwined with poverty – poverty is one of the biggest stressors associated with mental illness, and there is also the factor of social drift, where the mentally ill are more vulnerable to social pressures leading to poverty – but it’s possible to step outside individual cases to make an argument that poverty is the result of a wider reaching form of mental illness:  a shared delusion that our rights to access resources are ultimately and in some way fairly linked to privilege of birth and ability within the capitalist system.




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