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Littlejohn: Massaging figures to make his point

October 8, 2010

You may have seen the Mail holding up a woman named Kelly Marshall as a typical example of a benefit scrounging, feckless single parent who is ‘living the high life at the taxpayer’s expense’ this week, in a story headlined ‘As millions of decent families face benefits cuts, one woman who’s never worked in her life is investing hers… in a £4,500 boob job.’

By ‘millions of decent families’, I suspect The Mail means married couples, although I can’t say for certain. I also can’t verify or deny this particular story, which The Mail appear to have lifted from Closer magazine (who, presumably, paid Ms Marshall for it), but I would like to draw attention to a bit of information at the bottom, where it says:

However, although Miss Marshall receives more than many hard-working families she admits that she has also run up £10,000 of debt.

£10,000 of debt may go some way to explain at least some of the apparent lavish spending by Ms Marshall. Whatever I think of her and her story, she isn’t the reason I’ve been moved to blog about this today.

Rather predictably, Richard Littlejohn has chosen to have a rant about Kelly Marshall in his column this week, calling her a “shameless slattern” and a “welfare whore”. He uses her story as an argument that the government’s proposed benefit cap of £26,000 has “set the bar too high,” and has used figures from The Spectator magazine to back him up.

But figures obtained by The Spectator magazine show that there are over 90,000 unemployed single parents in Britain claiming benefits for four or more children.

Among those in receipt of jobseekers’, incapacity or lone parent allowances are 6,870 with six children, 2,260 with seven and 910 with eight or more. That’s a pretty sizeable minority.

The problem is, Littlejohn’s figures aren’t exactly honest. The Spectator piece, written by Fraser Nelson, says:

I put in a data request for the number of people who are living on various out-of-work benefits, broken down by the number of dependent kids. The result is below.

It would appear that Littlejohn has looked at the last column in this data table and used these figures, along with the assumption that everyone included in the table is a single parent, to make his assertion that“there are over 90,000 unemployed single parents in Britain claiming benefits for four or more children.”  Counting the number of people with the main claim of job seeker and those with incapacity together with those of lone parent is a huge and wrong-headed assumption.  There is nothing to say they are all single people, and there is the added complication that there is no information about the length of time any of these people have been on benefits.

The figures are somewhat different when only those with ‘lone parent’ as the main claim are counted, these being the only verifiable single parents in these numbers, although this still can’t be put in context with length of time the benefits have been claimed for.

People with lone parent as their main claim who have four or more children add up to 56,490 (63% of Littlejohn’s “over 90,000” figure).  This is significantly lower and less dramatic than the number claimed by Littlejohn.  Those with six children number 3,710 (54% of Littlejohn’s 6,870 figure) , seven children 1,160 (51% of Littlejohn’s 2,260 figure), and eight children 400 (43% of Littlejohn’s 910 figure).

Of the 1,207,830 total claimants counted in the table, 1.4% with job seeker as their main claim have four or more children, 1.9% with incapacity as their main claim have four or more children, and 4.7% with lone parent as their main claim have four or more children.    4.7% isn’t really the “sizeable minority” Littlejohn made out, and if the figures for single parents with six or more children are looked at, since there was a focus on these in his article, they shrink to an even more insignificant 0.4% of the total claimants.

The debate about benefits is often coloured by people’s views on single parents, particularly when attention is drawn to those with large families by papers such as The Mail.  It becomes further skewed when commenters like Littlejohn dive in with inaccurate figures massaged to back up their prejudices, assumptions and ideas about a group of people he apparently detests.  I sometimes find it bizarre that The Mail pays this cartoonish bigot huge sums of money to air his opinion every week, particularly when it contains inaccuracies, untruths or utterly contemptible statements.  Then I remember that this is The Mail, and that most of the paper runs along the same lines.

***Disclaimer:  The calculations I’ve made are based on a table of data from a magazine.  There’s no way to put them in context with length of claim because of the limits of the data.  The differing circumstances of the families cannot be taken into account, and we can’t know how those whose main claim is lone parent became single.***

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