I must have been about, I suppose fourteen years old when I complained to my mother about the food we had to eat at home. Why I wanted to know couldn't we have the sort of food I got when I went round to my friend Jim's house in Bootle. Why couldn't we have egg and chips? Jim and his dad always had egg and chips and a big piece of buttered bread, a doorstep, and a big mug of sweet tea. Why couldn't we have that? Why? Well my mother with that keen eye for social distinction which was the principal attribute of the lower middle class quickly put me right – "They only eat egg and chips and bread Laurence because they can't afford any better. They're not like us. They're poor".
Well that word and its resonances lies at the heart of a major Joseph Rowntree Foundation research project which has been ongoing at Teesside University for the last twelve years. The researchers hardly need to travel far to find subjects who would qualify as poor. Teesside has some of the most impoverished areas in the whole of the UK.
A two year old BBC survey for example revealed that in East Middlesbrough forty nine percent of the population was on the official breadline. In Stockton the figure was forty percent and East Hartlepool thirty nine percent.
A major concern of the Rowntree research is to examine the ways in which must of this poverty is recurrent to show how moving from unemployment into a low paid job fails to constitute a step on a ladder up and away from poverty, what is known as the low pay, no pay cycle.
One of the leading researchers of the project is Tracy Shildrick, Professor in the School of Social Sciences and Law at Teesside University. In the paper she gave at the recent British Sociological Association Conference she concentrated not so much on the brute facts of poverty in Teesside, but upon how those who are objectively poor chose to describe their own circumstances. When I caught up with her at the Conference I began by asking about the reasons behind this choice of perspective.
Because we were looking at poverty, we wanted to find out what our interviewees themselves felt about this topic and how they related to it. Perhaps unsurprisingly people didn't connect with poverty particularly easily, so people tended to reject the idea that there was any poverty initially.
So when we asked them "Do you think there's any poverty in Britain?" invariably people would say "No, there isn't" and that's probably not surprising.
But what we find is that people, our interviewees, although objectively they are experiencing really quite severe poverty they want to distance themselves from poverty.
Tell me just a little what you mean by severe poverty. I mean, how are you measuring that? Do you have some indices and ...?
Well we can look at official measures of poverty but they don't really tell us a great deal. What was interesting for us in doing this research and going out to people's homes and talking to people was that we were able to witness some of the circumstances that people were living in.
And we were shocked – and we perhaps shouldn't have been as sociologists, but we were – at the conditions that people were living in I think would be a shock and surprise to some people.
So, we found people who have no heating, no hot water for long periods of time because they're unable to afford to have repairs done to their boiler. We find a regular occurrence is that people are unable to afford everyday essentials such as food. They're relying on family members to bring them meals or to deliver them food. They are relying on family members for clothing.
So everyday basic essentials that we might assume that people should be able to afford were very difficult for many of the people we spoke to.
And when you say to these people "Are you poor?" they say no?
Absolutely. Without exception people say to us that their circumstances are not unusual and I think that is because they often compare themselves with people around them who they see in very similar circumstances.
I think it's in part that poverty is a stigmatising term and people don't want to associate with the stigma associated with poverty so they want to distance themselves from that.
They also want to stress to us how they are able to cope and manage in terms of their small amounts of money.
And in doing so they are distancing themselves from other people who they perceive to be different to them, who maybe aren't managing quite so well.
And how do they describe those people?
What's interesting is that they describe them with what I think is a very dominant discourse now, about how people who might suffer poverty or have experiences of hardship are feckless or lazy or don't want to work or are all of those things together; that people are mismanaging their money, so lots of references to inappropriate consumption – people taking drugs and drinking and not using their money wisely to manage and cope.
So a real powerful account of how other people are like that, but that's not how we are.
But do they know other people like this or were they almost constructing an image?
It's interesting because in our current project we're actually looking for these families. So we've been going back and asking people "If you know who these families are, can you tell us because we'd like to go and speak to them".
And we're having great difficulty in finding them. People talk in very general terms about people "out there". Yes, there's lots of people on this estate who are claiming welfare who shouldn't be, who are claiming that they're ill when they're not ill and they could be going to work, but it's sort of a general perception of what's going on rather than a reality.
Because when you start to unpick it it's actually very difficult to identify these families at all.
And it's peculiarly counter productive because if these people hold this view of "unworthy poor" if you like, you can put it like that, they are almost inclined to say no there shouldn't be increases in benefits or no, we shouldn't do anything to help the poor ...
... because they don't regard themselves as poor ...
... but they have this, this target group who they see as unworthy.
Yes, absolutely. And that's I think for me one of the most worrying things that, that this leads people to support welfare reform that might see more stringent measures against the unemployed, cutting back of welfare that people seem to broadly support that because they subscribe to this discourse and because they distance themselves from it.
So it's almost a sense in which well that doesn't really apply to me and not connecting them up particularly well which has real implications for policy.
Just to move back to the wider picture a little bit, what do you hope this research ends up doing when it's all published, when it's all out in the public area?
I think one of the key messages that we would want to put forward is that people in the sorts of places that we've researched retain a really strong resilient commitment to wanting to work. And people do go into work and do find work very often.
But the nature of the jobs that they get means that there is no progression or long term sustainability in the labour market. So this is a place, Teesside, that has a history of working. It was a place that had reasonably good working class jobs in the past. And what's changed is the nature of the jobs.
So nothing about the people themselves. The people retain a commitment to wanting to work. But what's actually changed is the place.
I think the key message I would want to get across is that it's not something about the people that needs to change, they don't need to be forced into work because often they are going into work. It's the nature of the work that they're going into that, that's the problem.
You often get the story "here are people who are poor, let's get them a job, some sort of a job and then they get out of poverty" - but you're saying it really isn't as straightforward as that at all?
It's much more complex. We find that people who are going into low paid work are often not better off when they're in employment.
And what's surprising is that people remain committed to wanting to work. Often people are made poorer because of the difficulties of the transition period of going into a low paid job.
People end up getting into debt which is cumulative and has a knock-on effect over time. People are pushed back onto benefits and then, again, they have to try to get back into employment.
So basically often people are getting the first step on the employment ladder and that isn't really such a great problem for people. But they get knocked off and fall off that first step for all sorts of reasons and then they have to try and clamber back on.
This discussion was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as part of Thinking Allowed, Wednesday 4th May 2011