Why We Stigmatize The Poor And How To Fight It

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.

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

Moving Beyond Command And Control

The natural reaction of the rule maker when people start breaking the rules is not to redesign them, or seek to understand why, but to issue yet more rules.

Political language. . .is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind

George Orwell

2020 on reflection, was a great year for hierarchy.

In the early stages of the pandemic the ability shown by organisations to mobilise emergency health care, communicate messages, shift people to remote work, was a testament to the power of decisive command systems.

Following that we saw a new era of community innovation begin, reminding us of the power of social connection. People began supporting and caring for one another locally, with community led groups popping up to address immediate needs in ways many organisations simply couldn’t. ‘Let communities adopt a common sense approach’ was the defining narrative.

That seems a long time ago.

How have we have moved so quickly from celebrating the power and ingenuity of communities to blaming those same communities for recklessness and not following rules?

Some of the very same people (I’m talking social entrepreneurs and activists) who rightly attack the disempowering effects of command and control in organisations have begun to support, and even applaud, the politicians and the media in what has essentially become a behaviour of victim blaming.

An element of hierarchical control is necessary in an emergency. It’s what gets things done and keeps us safe. There are people who are naturally good at creating systems, protocols and rules rather than building relationships based on trust. These people are necessary for a functioning society, as without them we wouldn’t enjoy the health, safety, food, construction and consumer standards that we have.

However, what we have begun to see is people , not just politicians, who like rule making a little bit too much.

And the natural reaction of the rule maker when people start breaking the rules is not to redesign them, or seek to understand why, but to issue yet more rules.

We know from the basics of design thinking that if the rules don’t match up with people’s experience and desires they create another way. Humans are endlessly resourceful and can always find a loophole.

Why do people break the rules?

Firstly, there are those who do not know what the rules are or who haven’t paid attention. These are the kind of people who get caught doing 35mph in a 30 zone. Importantly, when guidance changes over time and in different areas they are likely to get more confused and break the rules without even knowing.

Then there are those that don’t think the rules are important. This group are unlikely to experience a negative impact for breaking the rules. They aren’t necessarily selfish, it’s just if you don’t have personal experience of something, you minimise its importance. If I was 20 and still thought I’d live forever, I’d probably have been partying in Ibiza over the summer too.

The third group, and I’d suggest these are a tiny minority, are the active rule breakers. The kind of people who won’t wear a mask to a make a demonstrable social point. Have a tiny bit of sympathy though, they are merely trying to exert some personal control in a world where they feel they have none.

The vast majority of us are in the first camp. We might have broken the occasional rule but it’s because we are confused, we forgot or we’ve interpreted them to suit our personal circumstances.

Design thinking is all about understanding how people actually behave rather than how they say they do. It’s this that all the Government(s) in the UK seem to have been completely blindsided by.

And this is the weak point of command and control systems – they can never be user focussed and understand life at street level. At no point since March has there been any input from the public. At no point has there been a democratic conversation about what COVID means for our communities and what a proportionate local response should be.

I think one of the big challenges of 2021/22 will be renewing faith in grassroots innovation after a prolonged period of control and risk management. Some of us will resist loosening our grip.

As Simon Penny said on Twitter the necessary task for 2021 is to take forward the belief in the power of communities to look out for each other and get stuff done. Only by delegating resources and decision making to them will we kickstart the economy again and solve problems at a local level.

We need to thank the people who put the rules in place that kept us safe and healthy. But as soon as the pandemic is over we need them to step back. Rules tend to stick around for a long time after they have ceased being useful. Control systems are never easy to dismantle and their proponents never give up power easily.

Thwarting other people’s control is bad for us and society – as ultimately, it limits our own control.

  • Communities are decisive, creative, aware, caring and trusting. They’ll make mistakes but they’ll get along OK in the end.
  • Communities are self motivated, often reckless and need a high degree of control. Left to their own devices they can become a danger to themselves.

Which is it?

In 2021 we all need to get off the fence and state which one we truly believe in, and make that world a reality.


Image by sin won jang from Pixabay

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