It’s an uncomfortable truth that many of us working in the social sector share exactly the same prejudices about poor people as everybody else. Recognising this is the first step to tackling any stigma
I was recently asked to write a piece on the stigma of social housing. (TLDR: I maintain that the ‘stigma’ is not really with social housing but rather attitudes to income. It’s driven by two factors – the ‘othering’ of the poor and an obsession with home ownership as a route to success.)
I doubt I’ll be thanked for saying it, but the social sector, by which I mean health, housing, social care, justice, and education, often reinforces prejudices against poor people. Just because your work involves social good doesn’t mean you aren’t part of the problem.
First of all, poor-bashing is nothing new. It exists in most capitalist societies worldwide. “You’re poor: you didn’t try hard enough.”
Work from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown us that attitudes towards those on low incomes are often more negative than attitudes toward the ‘rich’. In a study 69% of participants agreed that ‘there is enough opportunity for virtually everyone to get on in life if they really want to. It comes down to the individual and how much you are motivated.’
In fact, research shows that this prejudice is often unconscious. Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske showed volunteers photographs of people belonging to different social groups – people in suits, people poorly dressed, people living on the street. When the volunteers looked at the pictures of homeless people, two-thirds were prepared to admit that their immediate reaction was one of disgust. But not only did the brain activity show feelings of disgust – it activated a part of the brain that distinguishes between people and inanimate objects. Basically – it was showing that many of us think of social outsiders as being less than human.
I’m sure many of you reading this are thinking – I don’t think like that – and that might be true. However, a lot of the people you work with, those framing social policy, those on your board, those writing your procedures, those preparing your next comms campaign – will think like that. “They just made bad choices.”
It’s the recognition of this, and of taking overt action to lessen our worst biases and prejudices – that will reduce the ‘othering’ of the poor.
Othering is a social process, rooted in relationships of power, through which ‘the poor’ are treated as different from and inferior to the rest of society. Seeing people as fundamentally different from ourselves makes it easier to blame people for their own and society’s problems – so that they themselves become the problem.
This is often reflected in how people are treated by welfare institutions, including health and housing, where deficit-based thinking sucks the life out of communities. When your entire worldview looks at people as a series of problems to be fixed you’re actually contributing to the stigma.
As well-intentioned professionals, we are often completely oblivious to how our words and actions signal difference.
- I’ve heard people working and living in social housing being told – by other people working in housing – to get out and move on as ‘they can do better than that.’
- A high profile social purpose institution recently turned a friend of mine down for a job role – on the basis of a minor conviction from their youth and their open admittance of mental health issues.
- A colleague recently told me how a medical professionals demeanor immediately altered when they opened their mouth and sounded educated. The colleague had been working from home and was dressed casually rather than suited and booted.
- A housing association resident told me how they’d been invited to be part of a garden makeover competition as “we want all the people with untidy gardens to be more like you.”
Let’s all stop pretending that those working in the social sector are saint-like left-leaning Guardian readers with unlimited reserves of compassion and empathy.
The mainstream media absolutely is at fault – but so are we.
There is no single silver bullet here. We can’t fix the stigma until the UK stops hating poor people.
We can stop thinking of people as problems to be solved.
We can move away from focusing on what’s wrong and seeking to solve things for communities rather than with them.
We can move away from trying to engage people on our terms and instead sit down as genuine equals.
We can move away from talking about empowering people to actually ceding power.
Starting today we can all stop making assumptions and begin to promote a shared belief in the equal dignity of ALL people regardless of their income or tenure.