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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Morning after pill: It's time to say no to the "ultimate sexist surcharge"

A new campaign aims to put pressure on the government to reduce the cost of emergency contraception.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service recently launched its Just Say Non! campaign to highlight the fact that British women pay up to five times more for emergency contraception than women on the continent. The justification for the UK price of up to £30 – and the mandatory consultation with a pharmacist – is that otherwise British women might use the morning-after pill as a regular method of contraception. After all, you know what us ladies are like. Give us any form of meaningful control over our reproductive lives and before you know it we’re knocking back those emergency pills just for the nausea and irregular bleeding highs.

Since BPAS announced the campaign on Tuesday, there has been much hand-wringing over whether or not it is a good idea. The Daily Mail quotes family policy researcher Patricia Morgan, who claims that “it will just encourage casual sex and a general lack of responsibility,” while Norman Wells, director of the Family Education Trust, which promotes what it calls "traditional values", fears that “there is a very real danger that [emergency contraception] could be misused or overused.”  

The Department of Health has indicated that it has no intention of changing current policy: “We are clear it is only for use in emergencies and we have no plans to change the system.” But why not? What is the worst that could happen? Wells argues that: “The health risks to women who use the morning-after pill repeatedly over a period of time are not known.” This may be true. But do you know what is known? The health risks to women who get pregnant. Pregnancy kills hundreds of women every single day. There are no hypotheticals here.  

The current understanding of risk in relation to contraception and abortion is distorted by a complete failure to factor in the physical, psychological and financial risk posed by pregnancy itself. It is as though choosing not to be pregnant is an act of self-indulgence, akin to refusing to do the washing up or blowing one’s first pay packet on a pair of ridiculous shoes. It’s something a woman does to “feel liberated” without truly understanding the negative consequences, hence she must be protected from herself. Casually downing pills in order to get out of something as trivial as a pregnancy? What next?

Being pregnant – gestating a new life – is not some neutral alternative to risking life and limb by taking the morning-after pill. On the contrary, while the UK maternal mortality rate of 9 per 100,000 live births is low compared to the global rate of 216, pregnant women are at increased risk of male violence and conditions such as depression, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and hyperemesis. And even if one dismisses the possible risks, one has to account for the inevitabilities. Taking a pregnancy to term will have a significant impact on a woman’s mind and body for the rest of her life. There is no way around this. Refusing to support easy access to emergency contraception because it strikes you as an imperfect solution to the problem of accidental pregnancy seems to me rather like refusing to vote for the less evil candidate in a US presidential election because you’d rather not have either of them. When it comes to relative damage, pregnancy is Donald Trump.

There is only a short window in a woman’s menstrual cycle when she is at her most fertile, hence a contraceptive failure will not always lead to a pregnancy. Knowing this, many women will feel that paying £30 to avoid something which, in all probability, is not going to happen is simply unjustifiable. I’ve bought emergency contraception while conscious that, either because I was breastfeeding or very close to my period, I’d have been highly unlikely to conceive. If that money had been earmarked to spend on the gas bill or food for my children, I might have risked an unwanted pregnancy instead. This would not have been an irrational choice, but it is one that no woman should have to make.

Because it is always women who have to make these decisions. Male bodies do not suffer the consequences of contraceptive failure, yet we are not supposed to say this is unfair. After all, human reproduction is natural and nature is meant to be objective. One group of people is at risk of unwanted pregnancy, another group isn’t. That’s life, right? Might as well argue that it is unfair for the sky to be blue and not pink. But it is not human reproduction itself that is unfair; it is our chosen response to it. Just because one class of people can perform a type of labour which another class cannot, it does not follow that the latter has no option but to exploit the former. And let’s be clear: the gatekeeping that surrounds access to abortion and emergency contraception is a form of exploitation. It removes ownership of reproductive labour from the people who perform it.

No man’s sperm is so precious and sacred that a woman should have to pay £30 to reduce the chances of it leaving her with an unwanted pregnancy. On the contrary, the male sex owes an immeasurable debt to the female sex for the fact that we continue with any pregnancies at all. I don’t expect this debt to be paid off any time soon, but cheap emergency contraception would be a start. Instead we are going backwards.

This year’s NHS report on Sexual and Reproductive Health Services in England states both that the number of emergency contraception items provided for free by SRH services has “fallen steadily over the last ten years” and that the likelihood of a woman being provided with emergency contraception “will be influenced by the availability of such services in their area of residence.” With significant cuts being made to spending on contraception and sexual health services, it is unjustifiable for the Department of Health to continue using the excuse that the morning-after pill can, theoretically, be obtained for free. One cannot simultaneously argue in favour of a pricing policy specifically aimed at being a deterrent then claim there is no real deterrent at all.

BPAS chief executive Anne Furedi is right to call the price of Levonelle “the ultimate sexist surcharge.” It not only tells women our reproductive work has no value, but it insists that we pay for the privilege of not having to perform it. It’s time we started saying no

 

 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.