‘How do we translate lived experience into policy?

Dr Ruth Patrick, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Liverpool

Dr Kayleigh Garthwaite, Birmingham Fellow, University of Birmingham

One thing we are not short of in efforts to challenge poverty in Scotland (or indeed across the UK) is evidence. There is a rich and detailed evidence base on the lived experiences of poverty and the entrenched stigma that is so often tied to efforts to get by below the poverty line. Academics, third sector organisations, and front-line workers have all shown the extent of the mismatch between policy narratives and political presentations of poverty and everyday realities on the ground. Time and again, research has illustrated the myth of ‘inactive’ welfare dependants who choose ‘welfare’ over ‘work’, and yet these dominant stereotypical (and stigmatisting) views retain their currency and undoubtable power. Research has also shown the extent to which a pervasive stigma of welfare can have very real and damaging consequences for those who it effects.

But although the lived experiences of poverty have been well-documented, there is more work to be done in better communicating lived experiences, and thinking through how this can then shape policy and debate going forward. This is very clearly shown when we think about foodbank use and multi-millionaire MP Jacob Rees-Mogg’s recent comments, who described foodbanks as “rather uplifting” and insisted they show “what a good compassionate country we are”. This shows a complete lack of appreciation for the many complex and distressing reasons why people are using foodbanks, such as the lengthy 6-week delay when transferring to Universal Credit, benefit sanctions, low-paid, insecure employment. There is also the stigma, shame and embarrassment that many people feel at having to walk through the foodbank doors. There is nothing “uplifting” in not being able to feed your children.

In our own research, we have emphasised how individuals often internalise the stigma attached to welfare receipt, sometimes even appropriating negative labels to self-describe as ‘scroungers’ or as a ‘bum’. Stigma can make efforts to find paid work harder still, and add to the burden that struggling to get by on benefits and in poverty involves. The stigma of claiming benefits or of using a foodbank can deter people from seeking the help they need. This can then have a knock-on effect on their health, particularly when thinking about mental health.

As researchers, we have a responsibility to think about how we can try and challenge the stigma of benefits receipt, and do more to ensure that policy debates more accurately reflect lived experiences on the ground. However, recently, we have started to wonder – whether – in focusing on only one group of ‘welfare’ claimants (those on out-of-work benefits), research such as ours has acted to reinforce ideas that ‘welfare’ is primarily received by only one segment of society. Of course, in fact – as the founder of social policy Richard Titmuss reminds us – we are all ‘welfare dependants’ – particularly if we take welfare to include occupational and fiscal forms of support as well as social welfare. Further, as well as challenging ideas of ‘undeserving’ welfare claimants, there is perhaps more that needs to be done to engage with the behaviours and practices of policymakers and elites, looking up rather than downstream as suggested recently by Stephen Crossley (https://plutopress.wordpress.com/2017/08/03/chips-and-cheese-and-a-massive-fucking-tv-stephen-crossley-on-representations-of-britains-impoverished/.

If we are to really challenge poverty, we need to make sure our research properly engages with the structures and processes that create and reproduce poverty. Understanding the lived experiences of people affected by poverty is critical but – on its own – it is not enough.