Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law

Sociology and Social Policy

The stigma of poverty: challenges, interventions and possibilities

11 October 2016 |

Over recent years there has been an intensification of stigma around poverty and benefit receipt. This has arguably been fuelled by media reporting of poverty and the popularity of highly controversial programmes such as Benefits Street. There has also been an intensification of political rhetoric that individualises the causes and consequences of poverty. These narratives are often articulated through easily digested soundbites, such as ‘shirkers and strivers’ and through the regular deployment of divisive myths around ‘welfare dependency’.

A growing body of research has highlighted the extent and consequences of the stigma around poverty and benefit receipt. Poverty stigma has implications for the sorts of support people are able to access, how they are viewed and treated by professionals and the wider public, and how those experiencing poverty see themselves. Yet there have also been efforts to counter this stigma. In Scotland, Poverty Alliance has led a campaign against poverty stigma – Stick Your Labels – that has worked closely with policy makers, employers and local authorities to encourage actors to adopt language and practices that mitigate against poverty stigma.

On the 29th of September, over 50 people gathered at in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh to share the latest research evidence on poverty stigma and discuss recent campaigns and possible strategies to address this. The event was organised by Ruth Patrick (University of Liverpool), Tracy Shildrick and Kim Allen (University of Leeds) in association with anti-poverty charity Poverty Alliance, and sponsored by the Social Policy Association. The key questions that framed the event were:

  • What is the impact of poverty stigma?
  • How have campaigns such as Scotland’s own Stick Your Labels campaign sought to address and reduce poverty stigma?
  • What role can policy makers, employers and academics take here?
  • What more can and should be done?

Keen to encourage debate and discussion about what policy learnings can be learnt from campaigns such as Stick Your Labels the roundtable was structured around four very short introductory presentations before being opened up to the floor.

The first presentation came from John McKendrick of Glasgow Caledonian University who opened his presentation with a declaration of both optimism and frustration. John stated that poverty is not inevitable and can be tackled but that at present policy responses have not been sufficient. John proceeded to provide an incisive overview of poverty levels and disadvantage in Scotland and introduce the many policy interventions and initiatives developed to address this, showing that there was no shortage of interest and commitment to tackle poverty across the political spectrum. John then presented data from the most recent British Social Attitudes survey to examine public perceptions of poverty in Scotland. One positive finding was that the general public in Scotland are keenly aware of child poverty as a key social issue that needs addressing, more so than in other parts of the country. However, the survey also illustrates that when it comes to explaining poverty, the general public in Scotland tend to draw on individualising explanations (namely parental drug and alcohol addiction). John’s presentation emphasised how engaging in discussion about the complex causes of poverty is a necessary and fundamental step in reducing poverty stigma.

Next to speak were Ruth Patrick (University of Liverpool) and Tracy Shildrick (University of Leeds) who between them have conducted research on people’s experiences of poverty, low paid and precarious work, and on the lived experiences of welfare reform. Their presentation began to unpick how poverty stigma is generated by politicians and the media through the circulation of virulent and damaging myths about poverty and welfare: what Tracy termed ‘poverty propaganda’. Ruth then presented data from her research participants which demonstrated vividly the lived effects of poverty stigma, as she recounted how labels such as ‘scrounger’ contributed to feelings of worthlessness and shame among those she interviewed.

Having clearly outlined the scale and significance of poverty stigma, the next two presentations focused on how stigma can be challenged through practical strategies. We heard first from Carla McCormack of the Poverty Alliance who described how and why their Stick Your Labels campaign came about. Carla emphasised the importance of the kinds of language used by politicians, the media and service providers when they talk about poverty. What seems like relatively innocuous and well-meaning statements can have problematic consequences on how poverty is understood, and all too often this poverty talk shifts the focus from structural causes of poverty to explanations that lay the blame firmly at the door of the individual. Carla also emphasised how poverty stigma is produced powerfully not just through words but via images. Flashing up the familiar image of a discarded trolley on a housing estate which we regularly see in media reports around poverty and welfare, Carla reminded us of the need for journalists to think carefully about the kinds of photos they use when communicating with the public about these issues. The Stick your Labels campaign has sought to challenge these through engaging over 30 organisations in Scotland who have committed to the Poverty Alliances ‘Pledges’.

Finally, we got to hear about the experiences and motivations of one such organisation who had signed up to the campaign. Gerald McLaughlin, Chief Executive of NHS Health Scotland, discussed how and why they became involved, explaining how addressing poverty stigma within NHS Health Scotland was not simply about their relationship with service users but also with staff within the organisation who themselves experience poverty.

A lively discussion followed. Some of the key issues that were raised were as follows. There was much debate about how Scotland is different to England and in particular how attitudes to poverty are sometimes less stigmatising and more understanding in Scotland. It was also suggested that Scottish policy was sometimes less punitive than the policies coming out of Westminster, with the current consultation on Scottish Social Security – foregrounding issues of dignity and respect - being identified as an exemplar. Discussion moved on to consider how we might better engage other employers in the debate - including those outside of the public sector such as those working in the media – but also how we must recognise and promote the good practice that some employers are already demonstrating. It was also highlighted that we each, as individuals, can play a role in challenging myths – with evidence – when we hear them being repeated. There was consensus that there is a strong need to join up research to challenge dominant myths around poverty. The event ended with time for networking.

You can read a Storify of the tweets from the event.

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