Truth and Lies about Poverty

This morning many of us will have read or heard news reports of Mick and Mairead Philpott being found guilty of starting a fire which killed their six children in May last year.

The tragedy was the result of a plot in which Mick aimed to frame his ex mistress for arson, and gain custody of four of his other children whom she had removed from what had been the family home.

It brought tears to my eyes to see the cheeky little faces of those innocent children. They remind me of the hundreds, maybe thousands of children I have met as I have worked in schools, churches and communities.

One report I read was in the Daily Mail. The front page:


It seems to me to be both unfair and completely disrespectful to use this story to take shots at the welfare system. To describe innocent children as being ‘bred’ as ‘cash cows’ dehumanizes them and detracts from the true horror of this story. The true horror of this story is not that this family took home £60,000 per year in benefits. The true horror of this story is not that they had 17 children. The true horror of this story is not that this man appeared on the Jeremy Kyle show asking for a bigger house for his huge and convoluted family.

The true horror of this story is that six innocent children, human children with personalities and friends and tempers and favourite subjects and toys and toothbrushes, died because of the actions of the people who should have loved them and protected them from harm.

I do not think that the welfare system caused Mick Philpott to turn mystically into the selfish, controlling, deceitful man that he seems to be. This is what the Daily Mail seems intent on implying. What makes a person who they are? What makes someone risk the lives of their children, for any reason? To blame the welfare system is a pretty big and unsubstantiated leap. There are thousands of people who need to claim benefits and are honest people and loving parents. At the other end of the scale there are those who are rolling in money yet cheat on their taxes, exploit others and have unhealthy relationships. A recent headline story of a man who killed his parents for their £230,000 inheritance shows us what we actually already know; rich, poor or somewhere in the middle, people can choose to be selfish, or malicious, or deceitful.

The danger of running a headline such as the one in the Daily Mail is that it twists the emphasis of a tragic story to create a rhetoric that demonises those in our society who are living in poverty and relying on the welfare system. This is an abuse of the memory of those children.

Our society is being encouraged to believe a number of lies about people living in poverty. We are told that ‘they’ are lazy, that ‘they’ are cheating the system, and that ‘they’ have an easy comfortable life raking it in on benefits. Cases like this are out there, but they are the absolute minority. Yes, there are people who take advantage of our welfare system, but not many, and we need to know that despite what our government and the media sometimes tell us. According to the Truth and Lies about Poverty Report recently published by the Joint Public Issues Team, benefit fraud is about 0.9% of payments, about £1.9 million. On the other hand tax avoidance is about 6% of revenues due, about £30 billion. Only 3% of families on benefits receive more than £10,000 in housing benefit a year – many struggle to make ends meet on a daily basis. Only 8% of families claiming benefits have three or more children.

People living in poverty need to be helped, not hated – even those abusing the welfare system. As Christians we are called to love people. In my opinion the story of the Philpott family shows the disastrous consequences of selfishness and greed, not the disastrous consequences of the welfare system. And I think that the lies about poverty that we hear – and ultimately the idea that some people deserve good and healthy lives and some don’t – boost the selfishness and greed in our society.

The story of the Philpott family didn’t make me angry that they took home whatever in benefits. It made me sad most of all; sad because of the suffering of those children, and sad because it showed me that the claims of the Truth and Lies about Poverty report are correct. We are being tricked. We are allowing ourselves to be tricked. Stories of individuals behaving in awful ways are being used to turn us against those living in poverty. As Christians we must speak out against this.

‘Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves. Defend the rights of those who have nothing. Speak up and judge fairly, and defend the rights of the poor and needy’.
Proverbs 31.9