Why We Stigmatize The Poor And How To Fight It

George Orwell once said England was the most class-ridden country under the sun. “It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and the silly”. 

Throughout The Road to Wigan Pier, which was first published in 1937, the conditions of the poor are described in vivid detail. The most pointed language is reserved for those of the opinion that the poor bring those conditions on to themselves through wilful acts of choice.

Over 80 years later, those opinions are still prevalent. Everyday in the UK, people are judged negatively because their economic worth is less than others, to the extent that some are even actively discriminated against simply because they rent their home from a social landlord.

So begins a new report on Stigma and Social Housing in England, by Amanze Ejiogu & Mercy Denedo. Although stigmatization of social housing has long been a subject of conversation amongst landlords and tenants, actual research has been scant.

The word stigma derives from the Greek word stizein – a tattoo that was placed on slaves to identify their position at the bottom of the social structure and to indicate that they were of less value to society. Today stigma is understood to mean a social construction whereby a distinguishing mark of social disgrace is attached to others in order to identify and to devalue them.

The key words here are ‘social construction’: stigma doesn’t occur naturally. Stigma functions as a form of power which is why we need to treat it seriously. When it is left unchallenged it can lead to the exploitation, control or exclusion of others. More positively, stigma is not a one way street -it can be understood, tackled, and reversed.

Stigma has real world impact. Programmes set up with the best of intentions can inadvertently label people. My best friend at junior school received free school meals and literally had to stand in another queue in a very public demonstration of whose father had the best job. This had the inadvertent side effect of the ‘free meal kids’ tending to eat together, sitting on the ‘poor table’.

The reality is that most people have a view on the poor. Is their relative poverty tied to individual failure to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? Did they really try hard enough? Or is it really the product of forces beyond someone’s control?

Poverty is not only an economic or social condition that can determine real world outcomes – it affects individual psyche, self-esteem, self-confidence. Poverty is insulting to people’s dignity. The poor know they’re poor. So to reduce stigmatisation we may all have a role to play.

I’ve written before about how I feel fail we have failed to correctly diagnose the causes of stigma. The report confirms my view that social housing stigma is much more complex than is usually assumed because it intersects with other stigmas such as poverty stigma, crime stigma, mental health and disabilities, and race and immigration stigma.

As the report says the stigmatization material produced by the media through TV and news further conflates social housing with poverty, anti-social behaviour and dysfunctional value systems and is consumed by all facets of society. This has had a significant influence on the stigmatization of social housing and its tenants by the public at large. 

Importantly the authors point out that this stigmatization material is able to thrive because of the lack of a strong counter narrative. I’d agree. We’ve seen in recent years what happens when a movement begins to create a strong counter narrative. Social movements like #metoo #blacklivesmatter and #timetotalk are not without faults , but have undeniably changed how we talk about gender, race and mental health discrimination.

I recently interviewed a job candidate who talked openly about their mental health journey and clearly assumed that we would not make a judgement about them. I’d say that even five years ago that would not have happened.

It’s not perfect by any means, but if we can change the narrative around mental health we can do the same with income inequality. I’d rightly face public censure and possible sacking if I used a racist or sexist term. But if I referred to a group of people as chavs, or if I suggested people didn’t try hard enough, or joked that poor people’s homes smelt badly – would I be? Truly?

We must recognise that the social sector itself is sometimes guilty of stigmatization. For instance, we still talk about vulnerable customers and clients. The term ‘vulnerable’ implies that they cannot be expected to assume the same responsibilities as other, ‘normal’, people.

The way we talk to and talk about people has a material impact. It leads to bad decisions – by putting disparate groups of people together in one convenient box. It labels people and changes our behaviour towards them – reinforcing distinctions between the deserving and undeserving.

In last week’s post I reacted rather defensively to accusations that I, and my organisation, had sometimes been complicit in stigma. Alison Inman , a long time sparring partner and a fierce debater, private messaged me. Reading it back from her perspective I amended some of the text. She was right – it’s vital that we challenge each other and continue to do so. Even if it hurts feelings sometimes.

Reversing stigma means having uncomfortable conversations that risk offending all parties. Are we up for it?

We have to be, because if we don’t challenge this narrative of rich and poor, worthy and unworthy, of thriving or vulnerable communities, of winners and losers, we’ll not only fail to fight stigma, we’ll be complicit in its continuation.

This is an adapted version of a post that first appeared in Inside Housing

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Published by

Paul Taylor

I’m a facilitator, innovator and designer. I work with organisations to identify problems and solve them in ways that combine creativity with practical implementation. I established Bromford Lab as a new way for the organisation to embrace challenge and adopt a ‘fast fail’ approach to open innovation. Nearly everything the Lab works on is openly accessible at www.bromfordlab.com. I'm a regular contributor to forums , think-tanks , and research reports and a speaker or advisor at conferences and events.

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