By Wendy Stainton Rogers, June 2019
As a critical health psychologist, I have been haunted by the image of the feckless wastrel – my name for the character created by neoliberal forces to justify treating particular people as incompetent, unworthy and undeserving.
The demonization of those deemed wastrels’ (AKA ‘welfare queens‘, ‘skivers‘, or ‘moochers’) is a clever way to impose governmentality. It is the creation, in people’s minds, of a despicable identity: one who ‘scrounges’, ‘sponges’ or ‘freeloads’ (you get the picture) off the hardworking taxpayer. Viewing people this way allows us to treat them as subhuman, undeserving of humane treatment. It is a particularly pernicious strategy, not so much a form of ‘prejudice’ (that is more personal); it is more a matter of ‘Othering’, a collective enterprise in which people constantly mutter to each other and egg each other on, whipping up a shared sense of blistering resentment and hostility.
Feckless: lacking initiative or character; irresponsible
Wastrel: one who wastes time, money, etc.
As a person with tremendous privilege – I’m white, with middle class levels of pension, habitus and social capital – I assumed that I was ‘safe’ from that kind of name-calling. But I just got my comeuppance! It came in an angry, spiteful group email. My crime? Not doing my bit ‘at the coalface’ as a Food Bank volunteer distributing the food parcels. My ‘medical issues’ were acknowledged, but these were clearly not seen as severe enough to excuse me from my obligations. I was not trusted, seen as over-stating my limitations to could get out of my duties. Behind an angry and spiteful attack, clearly intended to publicly humiliate me was a powerful sense of righteous resentment.
This kind of attack is, in principle, illegal in this country because in Britain legislation has been introduced to offer disabled people the same kinds of legal protections and entitlements given to other groups subject to discrimination. The Disability Discrimination Act defines disability as
‘a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’.
Broadly it is intended to guarantee disabled people the services and income they need to live meaningful and satisfying lives, just like other citizens.
Part of this legislation included the provision of a Disability Living Allowance (DLA) paid to people whose disabilities prevent them from earning a sufficient income. This is where ‘the problem’ was seen to lie: paying state benefits so that disabled people could use taxis or run cars in order to pursue hobbies and have a social life; to get about in high-tech wheelchairs; to hire people ensure that they take their medication or to do house-work for them. All this came at a high cost and, under adversity policies, this level of welfare was held to be completely unsustainable and as needing to be stopped. This despite the fraud rate for DLA being assessed at just 0.5 per cent.
Recently, on the ISCHP list, I learned of an excellent book Crippled, by Francis Ryan, a journalist and activist for disabled people’s rights. Its sub-title: Austerity and the Demonization of Disabled People told me it was a book I needed to read. I found it outstanding. It offers a stark and thorough analysis of the way in which the welfare ‘problem’ has been solved by ‘demonising the disabled’, detailing the transformation of disabled people into Feckless Wastrels.
Ryan writes about how, long before the DDA, a Conservative Government, headed by Thatcher, set out to challenge the principles of the welfare state and its responsibilities toward people with disabilities. Given its feel-good credentials at a time when disability rights were being lobbied for by the charities and the Crip community in particular, it was clearly not going to be an easy message to sell. In the era of Live-Aid, raising money for the less-fortunate was seen as a very ‘cool’ thing to do. To counter that, the narrative had to be changed. A different story had to be told, a different image created. Thatcher chillingly argued:
‘I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it’.
Ryan draws attention to the way that this has played out more recently in the post-2010 period of austerity . In 2013, the Minister for work and pensions announced stricter conditions to end the ‘something for nothing culture’. The DLA has since been replaced by more frugal benefits and a draconian system where regular ‘assessments’ are made so that disabled people have to repeatedly prove that they are unable to work.
By off-loading the assessment onto private companies, (using mainly unqualified and under-trained staff and strictly limited criteria) the numbers of people who ‘qualify’ has been massively reduced. In the process it has brought real hardship and desolation to those drawn into the net of the ‘work shy’. As Ryan points out:
Disabled people and their social security not only became fair game in the vilification of benefit claimants – they became the prime target. Newspapers and television showed haunted examples of the disabled, ‘milking the state’. Politicians talked openly of the ‘bloated disability benefits bill’. … Britain witnessed the emergence of the ‘undeserving sick’.
Ryan, 2019: 28
I cannot begin to compare my experience to the massive numbers of disabled people in Britain thrown into extreme poverty – who cannot afford to feed themselves, who huddle in bed most of the time because they have no money to heat their homes, as Ryan depicts them so passionately and eloquently in her book. I can bear witness to the impact of being classed as a Feckless wastrel. It is a penetrating personal attack and very hard to bear. I find it saddening and shaming that it has become acceptable to treat disabled people with mistrust, misgiving, and cruelty within a supposedly honourable and civil society like mine.
Wendy Stainton Rogers was one of the founding members of ISCHP and its chair for several years. After retiring from the Open University in September 2011, within a month she had to have surgery which went badly wrong. A few more medical catastrophes since then have left her ‘bodily challenged’, but in the last few years she has been able to return to academic work and other ways of enjoying life. She is a Professor Emerita (at the OU) and is currently completing a book: The Psychology of Human Being, for Routledge.