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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Is "successful" sperm really the measure of a man's masculinity?

An advertising campaign challenging men to "prove your worth" is being proposed to increase dwindling numbers of sperm donors – will the myth that only "real" men have potent sperm ever die?

Are you a superman? By which I mean, do you have the kind of sperm that would be accepted by the UK Sperm Bank, currently stuck with only nine donors on the books? Laura Witjens, chief executive, is currently launching a drive to recruit more donors. Her secret weapon? An appeal to male vanity.

Speaking to the Guardian, Witjens claims that if she advertised saying, “Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are”, it would be a route to gaining “hundreds of donors”. The implication is that beta males need not apply; this is for “real” men only. And what better way to demonstrate one’s manly credentials than through the spreading of one’s super-strength, 100 per cent proof, ultra-potent seed?

The proposed campaign approach serves to remind us of two things: first, the male ego is ridiculous, and second, reproductive ability is still treated as an indicator of whether or not one is a “successful” representative of one’s sex. However much we claim that biology is no longer destiny, certain expectations linger. “Real men” have high-quality sperm and want to see it distributed as widely as possible. “Real women,” on the other hand, only end up unable to reproduce if they have “left it too late” (that is, spent too much time in what is still seen as the world of men).

That fertility is primarily linked to luck rather than sexist morality tales is something we’d rather not admit. After all, far too many cultural edifices have been built around the idea that the opposite is true.

For something that resembles runny PVA glue, sperm has done well for itself. Throughout history, men have been obsessed with their precious seed and what it means for their status as the dominant sex. Since it is women who get pregnant – women who perform the actual task of gestating and birthing new human beings – there has always been a need to inflate the importance of semen, lest men should be sidelined completely. Whereas for women reproduction is a continuous process, for men it is more disjointed and conceptual. Hence it is important to have something to rely on. In sperm we trust.  

Otherwise can a man ever be sure – really, really sure – that a baby is his? For biological mothers, maternity is never in question. For biological fathers, paternity needs to be established. There are various ways of achieving this: heterosexual marriage, compulsory monogamy, the policing of women’s sexual choices, the withholding of material resources from women in return for sexual exclusivity, the threat of an appearance on Jeremy Kyle.

And then there are the various myths regarding how magical and special your own sperm is. It had to be you, didn’t it? He shoots, he scores. How else would the phrase “Who’s the Daddy?” have come into its current usage? The “skill” of impregnation is linked to manliness. If you’re a real man, the implication is, then you’ve nothing to fear.

The “superman” theme proposed by Witjens harks back to the various ways in which men have sought to position themselves and their sperm right at the centre of human reproduction, believing, for instance, that it already contained human beings in miniature, or that women merely provided the passive matter that would bring their active principle to life.

The biology I learned at school still played on the narrative of the hardy, valiant sperm battling against all odds to reach the passive, if somewhat capricious, egg. Sex education met gender indoctrination; it even seemed to be implied that the egg, in closing off entry to all other sperm once the “victor” had penetrated her boundaries, was being a bit of a tease (she’d already set off down the fallopian tube, what did she expect?). Pregnancy itself, we were led to believe, could never match the creativity, risk and drama of that one initial shag.

To respond to such myth-making with “but it’s only sperm and actually it could be anyone’s” seems positively mean. Women are supposed to worship it. Our effluvia – vaginal discharge, menstrual blood, breast milk – might be seen as disgusting, but when it comes to a man’s cum, it’s considered rude not to want to swallow it. People who respond with outrage when a woman suckles her baby in a crowded café think nothing of the idea that a real woman should want to gulp down semen with gusto. Patriarchal semiotics tell us that what comes out of men is life-giving and hygienic; women, on the other hand – popping out babies and sustenance – merely leak. It takes a brave woman to say, “hang on, is semen really all that?”

In the UK at least, it would seem that it isn’t. According to Witjens, getting one’s sperm approved for the UK Sperm Bank is exceptionally difficult because of how strong the product needs to be to survive the freezing and thawing process: “If 100 guys enquire, ten will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys.” Meaning most men don’t actually measure up to “superman” standards (without even considering what this approach says to men with a low sperm count, of whom it is suggested that the manhood test has been well and truly failed).

Her advertising strategy may be one that works. But it would be nice if, in a society that increasingly favours a politics of acquisition over one of care, we could be a little less focused on the potency of the mighty seed, looking instead at this particular form of donation as part of a broader process of creating and caring for others. Perhaps appeals to male vanity just work better than appeals to altruism. Even so, it’s a pity that it has to be so.

The aftermath of sperm donation can be complicated. Once one gets beyond the cash and the ego trips, the process can lead to real children with a real need to know the identity of the donor. Whereas in the past social convention allowed men to define ownership of children on their terms, nowadays globalisation and reproductive technology have led to a splintering of roles. Is it care or biology that makes a parent? What is it that shapes an identity and makes a person?

For most of us, the humane position is that nurture – the act of being there – must trump any biological contribution. To think otherwise is unfair on those who devote years of their lives to the raising of children. But for many donor-conceived adults, the donor is still needed to complete the picture of who one really is. And he will not be a superman. He will be a person who gave something small that nevertheless contributed to the creation of something miraculous: a life. And shouldn’t that be enough?

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