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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I dined behind the Houses of Parliament in my sexually connected foursome

My wife and I would sometimes dine out with another couple. We did not always check the significance of the date. 

I am self-employed and find that working from home, setting your own schedule, the days generally blur into each other, with weekends holding no significance, and public holidays, when those who are employed in factories, offices or shops get time off, meaning nothing. I am often surprised to go out and find the streets empty of traffic because it is some national day of observance, such as Christmas, that I wasn’t aware of. I find myself puzzled as to why the shops are suddenly full of Easter eggs or pancake batter.

Growing up in a Communist household, we had a distinct dislike for this kind of manufactured marketing opportunity anyway. I remember the time my mother tried to make me feel guilty because I’d done nothing for her on Mother’s Day and I pointed out that it was she who had told me that Mother’s Day was a cynical creation of the greetings card monopolies and the floral industrial complex.

Valentine’s Day is one of those I never see coming. It’s the one day of the year when even the worst restaurants are completely booked out by couples attempting to enjoy a romantic evening. Even those old-fashioned cafés you’ll find still lurking behind railway stations and serving spaghetti with bread and butter will tell you there’s a waiting list if you leave it late to reserve a table.

In the late 1980s my wife and I would sometimes dine out with another couple, he a writer and she a TV producer. One particular place we liked was a restaurant attached to a 1930s block of flats, near the Houses of Parliament, where the endless corridors were lined with blank doors, behind which you sensed awful things happened. The steel dining room dotted with potted palm trees overlooked a swimming pool, and this seemed terribly sophisticated to us even if it meant all your overpriced food had a vague taste of chlorine.

The four of us booked to eat there on 14 February, not realising the significance of the date. We found at every other table there was a single couple, either staring adoringly into each other’s eyes or squabbling.

As we sat down I noticed we were getting strange looks from our fellow diners. Some were sort of knowing, prompting smiles and winks; others seemed more outraged. The staff, too, were either simpering or frosty. After a while we realised what was going on: it was Valentine’s Day! All the other customers had assumed that we were a sexually connected foursome who had decided to celebrate our innovative relationship by having dinner together on this special date.

For the four of us, the smirking attention set up a strange dynamic: after that night it always felt like we were saying something seedy to each other. “Do you want to get together on Sunday?” I’d say to one of them on the phone, and then find myself blushing. “I’ll see if we can fit it in,” they’d reply, and we would both giggle nervously.

Things became increasingly awkward between us, until in the end we stopped seeing them completely. 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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