Let’s Talk About Poverty Stigma

Let’s Talk About Poverty Stigma

Amanda Hill-Dixon

At the Wales Centre for Public Policy and as part of the International Public Policy Observatory we are launching a programme of work to support public services and policy makers in Wales to understand poverty stigma and how it affects their communities, and crucially, identify what they can do to ensure their services reduce rather than (re)produce poverty stigma.

We are working with policy makers and practitioners, academics and researchers, and experts by experience, to bring the full range of expertise to bear on this question, recognising that poverty stigma is a social and experiential phenomena which will not be resolved without the insights of those with lived experience of this injustice.

We are holding a series of workshops on poverty stigma in the coming months. If you’re interested in finding out more about this work, please contact Charlotte.Morgan@wcpp.org.uk.

Poverty cuts deep

The impacts of poverty go far beyond the financial and material dimensions of people’s lives and can affect their mental wellbeing and health. Indeed, there is strong evidence internationally and from within Wales that poverty and poor mental health are causally related and there is a bidirectional relationship:

Globally, those with the lowest incomes are 1.5-3 times more likely than the rich to experience depression and anxiety.

In Wales, the poorest children are four times as likely to have serious mental health difficulties than those from the wealthiest areas.

There are a whole range of mechanisms which link poverty and poor mental health and wellbeing. As shown in the second quote above, and in this research, one of the mechanisms which emerged through our lived experience research was the role of stigma in linking poverty and poor mental wellbeing. There are various definitions of stigma but one of the most famous is sociologist Erving Goffman’s classic conceptualisation of stigma in 1963 as ‘the situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance’.

Leading UK poverty scholar Ruth Lister has since linked this to poverty arguing that people experience poverty ‘not just as an insecure economic condition, but also as a shameful and corrosive social relation’.

More recent psychological research has unpacked this relationship and has found that poverty stigma is associated with four aspects of poor mental health: poor self-esteem, social isolation, shame and embarrassment, and mental ill health (such as depression).

Poverty stigma is important because it is a form of suffering in and of itself. It also limits people’s willingness to seek or accept support, or to participate in their communities, both of which are crucial for individual and community wellbeing.

But it is also important to ask, as Imogen Tyler argues, ‘where is stigma produced, by whom and for what purpose?’. In doing so, Tyler reveals that it is not just political and media narratives and social attitudes that generate stigma, but also often the apparatus of the state – public services – which aim to help people, which can generate experiences of stigma in the way they are designed and delivered.

The language and narratives used by public services are one of the ways this happens. For example, one of the members of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s ‘Exploring Poverty and Stigma Design Team’ who also works at a housing association, highlights the combative and dehumanising language sometimes used by public services – which sometimes describe services as at the ‘frontline’ or to ‘units’ instead of homes. The Design Team found that such language often emphasises a divide between people in poverty and people employed by services working to end it and can reinforce stigma.

Given the wealth of evidence on poverty stigma, its impacts and where it comes from, it is welcome that the draft Welsh Government Child Poverty Strategy for Wales (2023) explicitly recognises the need to tackle poverty stigma as one of its five objectives. However, what is less clear is what role public services and local authorities in Wales can play in tackling poverty stigma.

Arguably, the key to tackling poverty stigma is to tackle poverty head on, to take a ‘cash first’ approach by giving people more money through social security, a possible ‘basic income’ and ensuring that incomes are maximised. However, the limited financial resources and powers of the Welsh Government, and even more so of Welsh local governments, mean that new investments in large scale cash transfer programmes are largely out of reach, though there are debates under way about the possible devolution of social security from the UK to the Welsh Government.

In the current context of limited resources and powers, a focus on the psycho-social dimensions of poverty – such as poverty stigma – is likely to be an effective way of reducing the harms of poverty and supporting people out of poverty.