Do the British still have difficulty distinguishing poverty from crime?

Steve Crossley

29 October 2021

Ever since the happy sixteenth-century custom of chopping off the ears of vagabonds, rogues and sturdy beggars, the British have had some difficulty in distinguishing poverty from crime. The poor have been a nuisance, a threat and a financial burden throughout our history. (Golding and Middleton, 1982: 186)

Concerns about troublesome or deviant, anti-social groups who threaten wider societal norms are not a new phenomenon, and nor are attempts to split people living in poverty into categories along an axis of ‘deserving’ to ‘undeserving’. As the quote above illustrates, there is also a long history of British individuals and institutions conflating poverty with crime and anti-social behaviour. Put simply, being poor has often been equated with behaving poorly, even to this day.

As far back as the 1500s, legislation categorised poor people into three distinct groups: the impotent; casualties; and the thriftless. The first group comprised orphans, and those who were sick or disabled. The second group included those who had been injured or wounded at war, and the third group, covering vagabonds, sturdy beggars, rogues and ‘the idle’, was the one that was viewed as problematic.

The Poor Law of 1834 included an official distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor and the state then began to get more involved in the control, as well as the care, of poor families. Social historians have charted the fairly frequent emergence of new labels for the ‘undeserving poor’ since Victorian times. The ‘social residuum’ of the late 1800s morphed into the ‘unemployables’ in the early 1900s and then, with the help of interest and interventions from the Eugenics Society, into the ‘social problem group’ of the 1920s and 30s. The evacuations of slum children during the Second World War provided the impetus for the concept of ‘problem families’ to emerge aided by a report published by the Women’s Group on Public Welfare.

In the 1970s the Conservative MP Keith Joseph argued that ‘transmitted deprivation’, whereby poor parents transmit their problematic beliefs and behaviours – and consequently their deprivation – to their children required investigation. Charles Murray, an American political scientist was influential in propagating the idea of an ‘underclass’ on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. On his arrival in the UK, Murray announced himself as ‘a visitor from a plague area come to see whether the disease is spreading’. The ‘underclass’ label was widely used in British politics and was associated with the concept of ‘welfare dependency’. Although Tony Blair’s first speech as Prime Minister included reference to an underclass and a ‘workless class’, New Labour preferred the term ‘social exclusion’, which, as Ruth Levitas (1998: 7-8) has noted, contained elements of a ‘moral underclass’ discourse.

This pattern continues through to the current time. Following the riots in 2011 in town and cities across England, the then Prime Minister David Cameron set up the Troubled Families Programme. At the launch of the programme, Cameron said he wanted to ‘be clear’ what he meant by the phrase ‘troubled families’:

Officialdom might call them ‘families with multiple disadvantages’. Some in the press might call them ‘neighbours from hell’. Whatever you call them, we’ve known for years that a relatively small number of families are the source of a large proportion of the problems in society. Drug addiction. Alcohol abuse. Crime. A culture of disruption and irresponsibility that cascades through generations.

Cameron cleverly conflated families with ‘multiple disadvantages’ with ‘neighbours from hell’. However, data on the families that took part in the programme showed that very small numbers of them were involved in high levels of crime and/or anti-social behaviour, but many of them struggled with mental health issues, disability or chronic illness and the majority were living on an income far below the poverty line. The programme, now in its 10th year and third phase, has changed its name to the Supporting Families Programme and the rhetoric about feckless, anti-social families has dropped off a little, but there is still little attempt to improve the material circumstances of the families involved.

In recent years, the use of sanctions against people claiming benefits has increased dramatically, to the point where David Webster from Glasgow University has referred to them as ‘Britain’s secret penal system’. He notes that benefit claimants are often treated much worse than those who come before the courts for minor offences, and goes on to say that:

Sanctions undermine physical and mental health, cause hardship for family and friends, damage relationships, create homelessness and drive people to Food Banks and payday lenders, and to crime. They also often make it harder to look for work. Taking these negatives into account, they cannot be justified.

The COVID-19 pandemic, as well as exacerbating existing inequalities, has highlighted the differential treatment of marginalised groups during lockdown. The Joint Committee of Human Rights stated that the Fixed Penalty Notice system for breaches of lockdown regulations ‘disproportionately hits the less well-off and criminalises the poor over the better-off’ [see here].

Unfortunately, one of the clearest illustrations of the long links between treating poverty and destitution with criminality, can be found in the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill (2021) which campaigners have argued ‘could in effect criminalise large numbers of people simply for being homeless.’ [see here]. The Vagrancy Act of 1824, which criminalised rough sleeping and begging, has still not been repealed, as discussed on this blog recently [see here].

It appears that little progress has been made and some long-held prejudices remain. Our current Prime Minister Boris Johnson has written a book on Winston Churchill, although reviews of it have not always been flattering [see here]. It is unfortunate that Johnson, and indeed many other politicians and policy-makers, appear to be unfamiliar with a statement by Churchill, paraphrasing George Santayana, in 1948 to the House of Commons: ‘Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.’

Stephen Crossley is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department at Durham University


Golding, P and Middleton, S. (1982) Images of Welfare: Press and Public Attitudes to Poverty, Oxford: Martin Robertson.

3 thoughts on “Do the British still have difficulty distinguishing poverty from crime?

      1. Thank you for this work: mine is related to yours, and I think that our blogs complement one another, if you have time to pop by mine (don’t be put off by all the lesson plans -I’m hurrying to finish posting the series…)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: