Why attitudes to poverty matter

Short blog on an event held at the Scottish Government on Monday 16th October 2017.

By Alan Mackie, University of Edinburgh (with Hayley Bennett, Kayleigh Garthwaite, Ruth Patrick, Abigail Scott Paul, Poverty Alliance).

It’s the fifth annual Challenge Poverty Week and the biggest yet, with around 150 events going on across Scotland as well as online and through various social media. On Monday (16th October) we hosted and took part in an event in conjunction with the Poverty Alliance, the Social Policy Association and What Works Scotland that aimed to bring together academics, policy makers, practitioners and a range of others interested in understanding and challenging poverty.

The main theme from the day was undoubtedly that more needs to be done to challenge some of the myths and dogma that continue to shape the discourse around poverty in the UK. These include, for example;

  • …*real* poverty does not exist in the UK
  • …poverty is the fault of the individual
  • …those in poverty just need to work a bit harder
  • …nothing can be done about poverty, it will always exist, and;
  • …if only social security was tightened those in poverty would ‘try harder’

For anyone working in the area of poverty you probably don’t need to be told about these, or how frustrated you are that these continue to hold sway over popular understandings of the issue here in the UK.

If there was one take-home message from the event it was that the reach of stigma plays an extremely important part in how poverty is framed, but that it also has a deeply pernicious impact upon those struggling in poverty. Hazel Ratcliffe, an activist with the Poverty Alliance, gave a frank and honest talk on her own experiences of poverty – and talked about how the negative stereotyping of single mums contributed to her feeling judged and as a result her well-being suffered as she became isolated. Hiding her poverty and feeling ashamed this only worsened her situation.

This theme ran through all the presentations, from Carla McCormack of the Poverty Alliance and academic research from Ruth Patrick (Dole Animators), Kayleigh Garthwaite (Foodbank Use) and Alan Mackie (Young People) as all highlighted the importance of wider public attitudes on the issue of poverty stigmatisation on people’s sense of worth. Not only is this affecting people’s health (mental and physical) but is also impacting on their ability to participate in the norms of social life, things that we all take for granted, perhaps. Things such as a lack of affordable and flexible childcare, a lack of decent jobs, travel expenses, a lack of flexibility in work patterns and mental health issues amongst many other things are forgotten in the rush to blame individuals for their own predicament. That is why campaigns such as the Poverty Alliance’s Stick Yer Labels are so invaluable – to tackle the myths around ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’ that are so damaging to those already struggling.

So what can be done? Abigail Scott Paul from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) gave a presentation on creating a strategic communication alongside the Frameworks Institute, to try and interrupt popular misconceptions of poverty. But to do this we need to create a different way of framing the issue, one that will take us in new directions as strategies up until now have obviously not been sufficient. As many others noted, it seems that providing facts and figures are not enough on their own. The JRF hope to publish some tools next year – so we look forward to the outcome of this work (as well as their conference in Scotland in January, details TBA here). And Hayley Bennett from the University of Edinburgh and What Works Scotland discussed some of her research looking at how services are delivered to those in poverty. The key message from Hayley’s presentation was that it is crucial more is done to encourage services to talk to one another in order that they can be more responsive to people accessing their service. This was something that Ruth and Kayleigh built upon – that more is required to ‘shame proof’ social security delivery and to change cultures in employment support provision.

Much more can be done to tackle the blight that is poverty. We can do it, if the will is there. And we all have a part to play in this – because poverty affects us all. As the Poverty Alliance states ‘we need the right policies and sufficient resources to properly address the problem of poverty, we also need to challenge the many popular myths and stereotypes about poverty’. There is much to be done – perhaps getting involved with Challenge Poverty Week is a starting place?

Many thanks to the Social Policy Association for funding the event. 

SPAWWSpoverty alliance