How a poverty meme gets created

We're privileged to be at the birth of a new poverty meme. We can actually watch how it is done. First, you create your own definition of some form of poverty. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have done here. They define destitution as being the following:

The number of destitute people in the UK isn’t measured officially, despite growing concerns about rising use of food banks, homelessness and other indicators of severe poverty in recent years. In fact, when we started this research we found there wasn’t even a widely accepted definition of destitution which we could apply to everyone in the UK. The research team at Heriot-Watt University worked with experts to develop a robust definition, which was then tested with the general public.  Using this, we define destitution as being when someone lacks two or more basic essentials in one month, and so has experienced two or more of the following; slept rough, had one or no meals a day for two or more days, been unable to heat or to light their home for five or more days, gone without weather-appropriate clothes or gone without basic toiletries.

We agree, those are not things which should be happening to people in a rich country. We would also note that the major cause of all and any of these things is the incompetence of the anti-poverty bureaucracy run by the government. But do note that there is an important point about the numbers here:

This week we have published the first comprehensive study into destitution in the UK, which shows that 1.25 million people, including over 300,000 children, were destitute over the course of 2015. 

I any one month the number being failed by that State is some 100,000 people. 100,000 too many, of course, but it is 100,000 who experience perhaps a couple of days of that "destitution" in any one month.

And then, only a week later, see how this meme has subtly altered in the popular press (to the extent that The Guardian is popular of course):

This is what destitution looks like. More than 1 million people in the UK are so poor they can’t afford to eat properly, keep clean or stay warm and dry, according to new research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF). What’s emerging in austerity Britain is a new level of class inequality: not simply between the wealthy and the poor, but between people who have enough money to buy toilet rolls and cook a hot meal and people who don’t.

They're referring to the very same report. And yet that meaning has hugely changed, hasn't it? From this destitution being a brief period for that 1 million over the course of a year to something that is happening to that 1 million all year.

And thus are memes created. Invent your own definition, however reasonable, attach a caveat, a qualification, and watch everyone run with the uncaveated, unqualified, extreme version. This has been done for decades now with the definition of poverty itself: the modern definition means "not as much as others" rather than the older meaning of poverty of "not much". 

We don't hold with it ourselves, think this is tantamount to lying to us all. But just look around, it's a very common tactic.