The missing dimension of poverty: stigma

The experience of the social stigma around poverty is real, measurable and crucial.

The government’s consultation on developing a new measure of child poverty closes today. Their argument for moving away from the existing (mainly) income-based measure is that poverty is a “multi-dimensional” concept. Few would disagree: the problems arise when people use the notion of “multi-dimensionality” as cover for trying to import their pet concerns as “dimensions” into poverty measurement. The consultation document asks in all seriousness for views on such “dimensions” as drug addiction and family stability, which suggests that the methodology for identifying dimensions is to ask the staff at the Centre for Social Justice to free-associate on the words “child poverty”. (In fairness, it also asks about more reasonable candidates, such as levels of indebtedness.)

Yet in all the talk about the “multi-dimensional” nature of poverty there is one aspect which is never mentioned, even though it is a “dimension” of poverty in the truest sense, it is measurable, it concerns the lived experience of poverty as the government requires of poverty measures, and it is something that we all intuitively understand. This is the social stigma associated with poverty.

Stigma is the external, social counterpart to internal feelings of shame, worthlessness and moral inferiority. Shame is what individuals feel: stigma is the imposition by others of a shameful identity. And to be poor has, almost throughout human history, entailed a particular vulnerability to the imposition of shameful identities. Indeed Amartya Sen has argued that shame is at the “irreducible absolutist core” of the idea of poverty.

Would anyone seriously deny that stigma in this sense is absent from the experience of poverty in the UK today? These are the words an unemployed benefit claimant rattled off to describe how he felt claimants were perceived in a focus group last year: ‘OK, ermm...parasites, skivers, work-shy, lazy, stupid, feckless’.

These words are echoed in countless studies of the experience of poverty in the UK. Does anyone think that the exposure of parents to this sort of stigma has no effect on child wellbeing? (If you do, read this by Anna Hedge)

Mainstream research on poverty has often shied away from the issue of stigma. Indeed purging the idea of poverty of associations with shame and moral condemnation and replacing it with objective measures was an explicit aim of much of the best research of the 20th century, which in turn has influenced the definitions of poverty used by governments and international organisations. But recent research by Robert Walker and colleagues not only supports Sen’s argument that poverty is inextricably linked to shame across societies: it suggests that to ignore stigma is potentially to miss out on some of the most corrosive effects of poverty. http://softinnovators.com/spi/sites/default/files/WP1%20Cultural%20conce...

Their work shows that the stigma of poverty doesn’t just cause painful emotions to the individuals on the receiving end. It leads to social isolation as people try to avoid situations where they might be labelled. This can reinforce exclusion making it even harder to escape from poverty. And stigma undermines social cohesion. Not only does it encourage the majority to wash its hands of social problems by blaming individuals: a recurrent finding in research is that people in poverty themselves seek out others to stigmatise in order to differentiate themselves from imposed shameful identities. There was an excellent account of this happening among benefit claimants in this piece by Fern Brady earlier this week.

So social stigma is associated with poverty at deep level, and has potential negative consequences for the individuals who experience it and for social cohesion. At the same time, despite the fact that the association seems to be very widespread across cultures, we have no reason to believe that the level of stigma is invariant, either between countries or over time, or that it is immune to public policy interventions. Indeed reducing stigma has long been an explicit goal of much social security policy, including Beveridge’s 1942 plan. Often, the motivation for this has been instrumental: to increase take-up of benefits. But it is also arguable that the stigma of poverty is a social evil that should be addressed in its own right, along with and as an integral part of any strategy to reduce poverty.

So my suggestion is that if government is serious about addressing poverty in all its dimensions, it should start measuring the level of poverty stigma (it should not, however, try to combine measures in a single index, for the reasons set out by the IFS). How this should best be done raises all sorts of issues, but it is not a question of starting completely from scratch. Previous research has shown that stigma can be measured through direct attitudinal research, or by looking at the prevalence of erroneous negative beliefs about people in poverty – by way of example, the fact that the public believes more than one in four benefit claims are fraudulent when the true figure is less than one in thirty. No doubt many other approaches are possible.

Measuring stigma levels would also, it is to be hoped, impose some discipline on ministers and politicians of all parties who, consciously or otherwise, make use of stigma as a rhetorical device in argument or in the presentation of policy. Examples have abounded over recent years (not just under the coalition)- indeed it is arguable that the consultation document on measuring child poverty, with its stress on drug and alcohol dependency, is an example. When Ben Baumberg Kate Bell and I researched benefit stigma last year for the charity Turn2Us, we came to the conclusion that the level of benefits stigma cannot be divorced from the statements of politicians and the way they are picked up in the media. That may be true of poverty stigma as well. If so, a government committed to a multi-dimensional approach to poverty would benefit from a measure that would indicate whether things were getting worse or better on this crucial dimension- and encourage it to ask about its own role in any worsening or improvement.

Photograph: Getty Images

Declan Gaffney is a policy consultant specialising in social security, labour markets and equality. He blogs at l'Art Social

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Former Labour leader Ed Miliband tells Jeremy Corbyn: "I would have gone"

Jeremy Corbyn's predecessor broke his long silence to say the leader's position was "untenable". 

The former Labour leader Ed Miliband has swung his weight behind the campaign to oust Jeremy Corbyn after describing his position as "untenable" and declared he would have resigned already.

His intervention is seen as significant, because since losing the general election in 2015, Miliband has taken a step back and refused to publicly criticise his successor. 

But the day after Labour MPs voted they had no confidence in Corbyn, the former leader has finally spoken. 

Miliband told BBC Radio 4's World at One that his position was "untenable". 

He said:

"We are at a time of acute national crisis, a crisis I haven't known in my political lifetime, probably the biggest crisis for the country since World War II.

"At that moment we in the Labour party need to think about the country.

"I've supported Jeremy Corbyn all the way along from the moment he was elected because I thought it was absolutely the right thing to do. A lot of what he stands for is very important. But I've relcutantly reached the conclusion that his position is untenable."

 

But with Corbyn already defying the opinion of most of his parliamentary colleagues, this alone is unlikely to have much effect. It's what Miliband says next that is crucial.

Corbyn has argued the vote of no confidence against him was unconstitutional. Miliband thinks otherwise. He said: "You are the leader of the Labour Party, the leader of the party in parliament and the leader of the party in the country. Some people are saying this is unconstitional. In our constitution it says if a fifth of MPs support another candidate there is another contest."

And he implied it should not even get to a leadership contest: "No doubt that will follow if Corbyn decides to stay. but the question then for him is what is the right thing for the country and the party and the causes he stands for."

Miliband also hit out at accusations of a conspiracy to oust Corbyn:

"I've never been called a Blairite. I'm not a plotter. I'm somone who cares deeply anpout this country, deeply about my party, deeply about the causes I think Jeremy and I care about. I think the best thing on all of those criteria is that he stands down."

Asked what he would have done in the same situation, he replied: "I would have gone.

"One of the reasons I'm speaking out is because of what people are saying about this proceess. If you look at the people saying Jeremy should go, it's not people on one wing of the Labour Party.

"I had my troubles with certain people in the Labour Party. Some of them ideological, some on other issues, but this is not ideological." Some of Corbyn's ideas could continue under a new leader, he suggested. 

Miliband shared his views just minutes after his former rival, the Prime Minister David Cameron, told Corbyn it was not in the national interest for him to remain as leader. "I would say, for heaven's sake man, go," he told the Opposition leader at Prime Minister's Questions. 

Although the Brexit vote was a devastating blow for the PM, the aftermath has unleashed equal waves of turmoil for the Labour Party.

Corbyn's refusal to resign sparked a series of resignations from the shadow cabinet. Unmoved, he replaced them. Meanwhile Momentum, Corbyn's grassroots political organisation, held a rally in support outside Parliament. 

On Tuesday, Labour MPs voted 172 to 40 in favour of a no confidence motion, which paves the way for a leadership challenge.

But Corbyn described the vote as unconstitutional and pledged he "would not betray" the Labour Pary members, who gave him a sweeping mandate in 2015.