The missing dimension of poverty: stigma

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

Photograph: Getty Images

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.