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The 'Idle Poor' : A Shift in Perception of Disability

Published: 2015-01-27 - Updated: 2021-01-28
Author: Paul Dodenhoff - Contact:
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Synopsis: When we look at facts surrounding British welfare provision towards disability today, we can highlight a number of falsehoods and half-truths that have been consistently used to sell welfare benefit change to the British public. Welfare changes continuing within Britain by the current government and carried out under the banner of 'austerity' can be called many things - harsh, cruel and unfair, just for starters. The provision of relief to the poor also costs money, something which the relatively well off in Britain have often been seen to have a strong aversion to providing.

Main Digest

Having spoken to a number of disabled people, I'm often surprised by the level of 'shock' or 'horror' displayed by the disabled themselves as regarding the current negative political and media campaign waged against them regarding welfare benefits. Very few would have predicted that they would become one of the chief targets for economic reform within the UK, as well as one of the chief scapegoats for Britain's national debt problems, problems generated after the economic global crisis of 2008. But should we really be that surprised by this turn of events


The welfare changes continuing within Britain by the current government and carried out under the banner of 'austerity' can be called many things - harsh, cruel and unfair, just for starters. Certainly, these changes are unfair, not only because they are deliberately targeted at the poorest within British society (in which the disabled make up a significant percentage) but because they are implemented on the back of half-truths and falsehoods. Deliberate manipulations of the truth that are designed, if not to intentionally generate anger towards the disabled, but definitely designed in order to gather support for changes to Britain's welfare system - and to gather support from 'the poor' themselves.

But cynical manipulation of the general public is not a new thing within British politics, nor the politics of any nation. All societies need to create scapegoats for their economic woes, and usually it is sections of 'the poor' themselves that are targeted. The poor are targeted basically because there are so many of them, a great mass of people that cut across all races and creeds. And a group of people who generally consider themselves to be 'powerless', yet would not be if they ever actually acted as one coherent unit.

Therefore, scapegoating sections of the poor is a very old trick, as it not only drives wedges between the poor themselves, getting them to blame each other for their personal economic circumstances, but is an continuing expression of dominance by the ruling classes.

A brief look back at British social history reveals that not only have 'the poor' within Britain been continually dominated throughout the centuries, but feared by the ruling classes for being 'idlers' and 'scroungers'. So much so, that British parliament have consistently targeted the poor via legislation, in order to enforce establishment concerns over a lack of work ethic amongst its poorest citizens. That is why we should not be too surprised that the disabled are targeted for welfare reform today, particularly for being 'idle'.

Fear of the 'Idle Poor'

Fear of the 'idle' poor can be traced back to the medieval period itself, particularly after the 'Black Death' pandemic in the mid 1300's that resulted in the deaths of millions of people in Europe, a pandemic that decimated Britain's population by an estimated 40%, and leaving a massive shortage of labor that also drove up the 'wages' of the laborers who survived. Therefore, shortly after the 'Black Death' pandemic, it was expected that all those who could work should work, an expectation that also gave expression to a deep rooted fear amongst Britain's political elite that some people are just too bone idle to work, and would quite happily survive on charity.

Parliamentary concerns about 'idleness' and a diminishing 'work ethic' are therefore not a new thing, and highlight enduring negative beliefs about Britain's poor by its middle and upper classes - beliefs that can be traced back as far as we wish. For example, archives from 1495 reveal the harsh statutes concerning the 'idle' poor, implemented by Britain's parliament of the time: "....vagabonds, idle and suspected persons shall be set in the stocks for three days and three nights and have none other sustenance but bread and water and then shall be put out of Town. Every beggar suitable to work shall resort to the Hundred where he last dwelled, is best known, or was born and there remain upon the pain aforesaid".

Law Concerning 'The Poor'

Continuing concern over 'idleness' of the poor eventually brought about Britain's 'first poor law' of 1601. By this time Britain's population had grown and deteriorating economic circumstances caused partly by war, had generated an increase in the numbers of those suffering severe poverty, leading to an basic acknowledgment that not all those in poverty were solely there because of bone 'idleness' alone.

The 'poor law' of 1601 therefore made a very clear distinction between those who are poor through no real fault of their own, and those who are poor just because they are too idle to find 'work'. A classification and separation of the poor into those 'deserving' of help and those 'undeserving' of help that still persists today, and one that generates continuing anxiety over the motives and attitudes of the poor within modern British society.

A brief look through Britain's social history also reveals the development of institutions such as 'correction' houses in the 1600's and 'workhouses' in the 1700's, that were aimed primarily at changing attitudes of 'idleness' amongst Britain's able-bodied poor. However, because of an ever growing population and increasing poverty, workhouses eventually had to take in all sections of the poor, including orphans, the disabled, the sick and the elderly - and paid for by taxes collected from the middle and upper classes. Disability, particularly mental disability, came under particularly close scrutiny during this time, forcing the disabled off the streets and into institutions were they could be properly controlled and monitored.

By the 1800's, the establishment's continuing obsession the 'undeserving' poor again raised its ugly head when the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed by Parliament in 1834, an act designed to reduce the cost of looking after the poor by stopping any money going to them at all, except only in exceptional circumstances.

One of the chief arguments for changes in the law was that workhouses were seen as too 'soft' an option, an option that actually encouraged laziness amongst the poor and a dependence on others. A second argument was that money raised by taxation of middle and upper class people in order to provide relief to the 'poor' was causing not only resentment, but complaints that the money went to people who did not want to work. Does that sound familiar

Introduction of this new poor law certainly altered conditions within 'the Workhouse', which was now made deliberately so harsh that only those who desperately needed help would ask for it. Within the workhouse, the poor were made to wear uniforms, made to adhere to strict rules and regulations, and made to work hard (often doing very unpleasant jobs) and were often fed very little food. Workhouses became so vile that some were often found to have workers half-starved to death.

One of the saddest things about looking back through social history, is that we can see British society taking the same actions and making the same mistakes over and over again. Only that these are not actual mistakes, but intentional policies pushed forward by Britain's most dominant individuals of the time. Policies driven by a fear that is twofold. Firstly, 'poor' people are perceived as always wanting something for nothing. Secondly, this something for nothing 'culture' comes from a lack of work ethic, and one that also breeds a diminished work ethic in others.

The provision of relief to the poor also costs money, something which the relatively well off in Britain have often been seen to have a strong aversion to providing. While we have wealthy people within Britain who undoubtedly pay taxes and contribute to charitable causes, it has been illustrated time and time again that it is the poor themselves who contribute the most to its poor. As well as providing a bigger percentage share of their overall income to the government in tax.

Reducing State Involvement in Disability

In the 1980's, widespread institutionalization of the disabled largely came to an end in both the UK and the United States. However, this was less as a response to pressure from organizations fighting for the human rights of the disabled, and more a realization by the establishment in both countries that institutionalization was expensive, and keeping more of the disabled in their own homes was a much cheaper option. At the heart of this policy was the notion of 'care in the community', or as some critics came to christen it, 'care by the community'. A shift away from state provision of care and welfare, and a shift back towards the 'family' taking up the needs of their loved ones.

However, even this was not a new idea, but a continuation of an ideology that has been prominent amongst the political establishment of both the UK and the US for hundreds of years - that all individuals should take responsibility for themselves, and failing that, any slack should be taken up by the families of those individuals. This ideological tinkering can even be traced back to the statue books of the 1600's, and with the introduction of the first poor law.

However, during the 1600's, the disabled were considered as being poor through no fault of their own, and were not classed as being part of the 'idle' classes. Something that may have shifted within Britain since 2008.

The Disabled - 'Deserving' or 'Undeserving' of State Support?

When we look at the facts surrounding British welfare provision towards disability today, we can highlight a number of falsehoods and half-truths that have been consistently used to sell welfare benefit change to the British public. The first major falsehood is Britain's welfare system is being systematically abused, both by the unemployed and the 'disabled'. Yes, welfare benefit fraud costs the British taxpayer around £1 Billion per year, however, this is only 1% of the overall total welfare budget and more than that amount is saved each year by the underpayment of welfare benefits to those who need them, and those who are entitled to them, but don't claim them.

The second major falsehood is that abuse of the system causes widespread economic problems for the UK. However, Britain's financial crisis has not been caused by benefit fraud, but solely by a global financial and banking system that is not fit for purpose - a system that is being systematically abused by a number of individuals for their own ends. In addition, tax avoidance within the UK is estimated to cost the British Treasury more than £15 billion a year, yet we do not witness the same level of angst displayed by our Politician's nor by our media concerning that issue, particularly when compared to the constant concern raised about the cost of disability benefit fraud.

One of the problems of this cynical manipulation of the facts, is that studies now indicate that the British public actually believe benefit fraud to be more prevalent than it is, and secondly, that much of this fraud is perpetrated by the disabled themselves.

Despite the large numbers of disabled people being in employment, many people within the UK undoubtedly perceive the disabled to be economically dependent upon the state or charity for survival. Certainly, the working disabled are far more likely to live in poverty than not, but if the disabled are not only being perceived as a burden to others, but also as benefit cheats and fraudsters too, then we should not be too surprised if the public react to this perception.

Many disabled people report that they have been targeted by members of the public for being 'layabouts' and 'scroungers'. The introduction of the first poor law within Britain way back in 1601 made the very clear distinction between people incapable of providing for themselves (such as young orphans, the elderly, and the mentally and physically disabled) and those who were physically able but were too lazy to work.

That distinction has been pretty much in place ever since. However, in recent times there has been a dangerous shift, brought about by an political elite and its associated media circus that has cynically painted the disabled not only as fraudsters and cheats, and but part of the 'idle' classes. Certainly we can view this development not only as a display of continuing establishment fear over the 'work ethic' of its citizens, but an excuse for a further roll back of state provision of welfare that costs the wealthiest in British society, plainly too much.

Author Credentials:

British born Paul Dodenhoff, is a regular contributor of UK disability related news and content. Paul has always taken an interest in disability issues, and writes for Disabled-World trying to highlight issues that don't always get a great deal of attention from Britain's popular media. Paul Dodenhoff completed a part-time Open University Bachelor of Science degree in Social Problems, Health and Social Welfare; graduating at the Guild Hall, Preston, United Kingdom. He also gained a part-time Master of Arts degree in Research Methodology in 2003 with the Open University; graduating at the UNESCO headquarters, Paris.

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Cite This Page (APA): Paul Dodenhoff. (2015, January 27). The 'Idle Poor' : A Shift in Perception of Disability. Disabled World. Retrieved September 21, 2023 from

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