When the United Nations Human Development Report 1998 appeared, it revealed a somewhat damning picture of the UK as one of the most impoverished nations of the developed world: the UK was ranked fifteenth out of the seventeen countries included in the poverty index used by the report. In the UK one in seven of the population was below the poverty line, and the country contained about 30 per cent of Europe's children in poverty (UNDP 1998:28). This was not the image conjured by the sparkling glitter of new Labour's 'cool Britannia', its millennium dome ascending symbolically skyward from reclaimed London mudflats, and consumer spending running riot on digital television sets in the homes of a population who were now all middle class.
Something was amiss, and as ever it was in the working and reworking of popular cultural narratives provided by the news media that explanations could be forged and framed. When the 'new Labour' government of Tony Blair came to power in 1997, one of its primary targets in the battle to 'modernise' the British state was the social security budget. Social security minister Frank Field, with a reputation for an independent and tough approach in this area after an early career as a 'poverty lobbyist', and several years chairing the Commons Social Services Select Committee, was charged with 'thinking the unthinkable'. But this task, as always, had to draw on public and deeply rooted mythology and understanding. In this chapter I briefly review how this process was worked out in the 1990s by examining news coverage of poverty and social security, and its consequences for public beliefs and policy.
In earlier work I have argued that contemporary understanding of welfare is drawn from three roots-'efficiency, morality, and pathology: efficiency of the labour market and the economy; morality of the work ethic and self-sufficiency; and the pathology of individual inadequacy as the cause of poverty' (Golding and Middleton 1982:48). These three vary in intensity as conditions change. With rising structural unemployment (growing from 1 million in 1979 to 1.9