15 May 2015

Can we tackle poverty by changing how we talk about it?

Dr Hayley Bennett, Research Associate at What Works Scotland, discusses the Poverty Alliance’s campaign to address the stigma of poverty.

Poverty Alliance Blog 1.jpgIn 2010/2011 the Poverty Alliance launched their first ‘Stick Your Labels’ campaign to challenge the stigma of poverty.

Earlier this week I (along with representatives from a range of organisations and politicians from across the political spectrum) attended the launch of the 2015 campaign at the Scottish Parliament.

Why is stigma so important? 

The language, perceptions, and assumptions of poverty can create and perpetuate stigmas (negative connotations of the attributes, behaviour, and activities of a group of people or an individual). In a detailed discussion of stigma and social security in the 1980s Professor Paul Spicker highlights a quote from Pinker who claims that stigma “is the commonest form of violence used in democratic societies." (1971, 175 quoted in Spicker, 2011, 6). Many other social policy academics identify and criticise the ways that government policies and public discourses stigmatise people experiencing poverty. This includes the very informative Poverty and Social Exclusion website which states that the benefit system is ‘riddled with stigma.’ Kate Bell, from the Child Poverty Action Group, states that “benefit recipients in the UK have come to be seen as less deserving and less entitled, and therefore less likely to be able to escape stigma” (2012, 10). Finally, Dr Imogen Tyler at Lancaster University is launching a new project later this year exploring inequalities and stigma and the function of stigma in modern society.

Despite the often very narrow portrayal of benefit recipients in the mainstream media, there are many aspects to poverty and many different kinds of people who will require support from the welfare state at different times of their lives (see the recent work of Professor John Hills for more information on the myth of welfare state users). Stigmatising people who experience poverty, groups who access social security, or individuals who are employed in low paid or poor quality work is contrary to the evidence on welfare state usage. Stigmatising fellow citizens may individualise particular problems and reduce the state’s responsibility to provide care or support. Individualising issues such as poverty and deprivation also limits policy debates by distracting from other important factors that contribute to inequality such as labour market issues, spatial economic disadvantages, and flaws in public policy making.

Will challenging perceptions change policy-making?

Whilst my own research interests tend to focus on addressing poverty through the design of better employment support options and strengthening welfare state provisions, I completely agree with the aims of the Stick your Labels campaign. Highlighting the problem of stigma and reducing the negative language and ideas about people in particular situations can affect the production of anti-poverty policies and the delivery of services. Challenging how we talk about poverty and portray those that experience poverty in the media, research, and our own day to day lives is an important part of creating the right spaces, policies, and systems for citizens who need support.

Challenging perceptions of who experiences poverty (and why) can, however, be an uphill battle. The high profile portrayal of benefit recipients on TV and in national newspapers is often severely limited in focus. ‘Poverty Porn’ shows such as Benefits Street or The Scheme can reproduce the pervasive myths that poverty is self-induced by the feckless, lazy, or idle. Debunking these perceptions and critically highlighting the flaws of these shows is not too difficult- as Macdonald, Shildrick and Furlong or the Dole Animators demonstrate. However, it is much more difficult to give alternative narratives of poverty an equal amount of media coverage. Thus, the day to day realities of developing services and discussing future anti-poverty policies may be difficult and fraught with competing perceptions.

At the launch of the campaign Peter Kelly, the Director of the Poverty Alliance, stressed that there are many different ways to challenge stigma. This year he is asking that we focus on organisations and challenge stigma locally and in spaces where we can exert influence. For the Poverty Alliance this involves encouraging political leaders and Chief Executives of large organisations to sign up to newly revised anti stigma statements.
Poverty Alliance Blog 2.png
Image taken from Poverty Alliance website
I’m not a CEO but for me there are number of actions that I can adopt. First, day to day I can consciously select the language I use and encourage colleagues and students to do the same. I’m also an employee of a large organisation and work collaboratively with a number of other organisations in Scotland so I’ll highlight this campaign to senior employees too. Second, in What Works Scotland we focus on improving evidence use in policy making and service planning. Poverty discussions are an essential place to use evidence to challenge dominant perceptions about particular groups, situations, or neighbourhoods. Finally, I can also share accurate data on social security and experiences of poverty more widely, work with colleagues from the Social Policy Association to highlight welfare myths, and continue to publicise the In Defence of Welfare publications. Perhaps such (somewhat little) actions by many people will bring about the change that the Poverty Alliance and others involved in anti-poverty work are aiming to achieve.

Can we tackle poverty by challenging stigma and changing perceptions of poverty? It is definitely worth a try.


The launch of the Poverty Alliance ‘Stick your labels’ 2015 campaign took place on Tuesday 13th May 2015 at the Scottish Parliament. Further details available here.

If you’re interested in further reading on this issue, along with the links in the main text, I would also recommend the work of:
  1. Dr Sharon Wright, Glasgow University, regarding citizenship and activation
  2.  Professor Robert Walker, and other recent discussions regarding issues of Poverty and Shame.

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