The Experience of Poverty in an Unequal Society - Sarah Welford


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Sarah Welford, Policy and Parliamentary Officer from Poverty Alliance, talks about the experience of poverty in today's unequal society.

The Whose Economy? seminars, organised by Oxfam Scotland and the University of the West of Scotland, brought together experts to look at recent changes in the Scottish economy and their impact on Scotland's most vulnerable communities.

Held over winter and spring 2010-11 in Edinburgh, Inverness, Glasgow and Stirling, the series posed the question of what economy is being created in Scotland and, specifically, for whom?

To find out more and view other Whose Economy? papers, presentations and videos visit:

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  • I am speaking here today, not as an academic who has spent years studying poverty and analysing society but as someone who has spent the past six years working alongside people living in poverty in the UK and in Brussels. My perspective is one of knowing people and supporting people who have, in some cases lives of entrenched poverty and who live with this poverty on a daily basis for the foreseeable future. It is they who have taught me about the experience of poverty and thus have given me the chance to speak to you today from that perspective.
  • The topic of this series of seminars is ‘the new economy’ and I am particularly pleased to be invited to speak on a topic that encompasses the real crux of the matter, which all too often goes unmentioned in poverty debates like a large invisible elephant in the room. Social and environmental injustice hang as repercussions of the precarious situation we are in with regards to our dependency on an economy that is not only environmentally unsustainable and unrealistic but also detrimental to our very well being as a nation. We are, as a nation in the UK and as a continent in Europe obsessed with the notion of economic growth. We have become dependent on this idea as the only definition of progress. Our economy is dependent on an insatiable thirst for shopping, buying and wasting. This is using up resources on an unprecedented level and creating pollution for which the environment is suffering the consequences. Yet, like the economy is rarely mentioned in governmental poverty debates, the economy is also rarely mentioned in debates on the environment. Instead we concentrate on policies to sort out our rubbish and encouraging cycling. The real heart of the matter is barely touched upon. Our way of life is not sustainable and as I am about to argue is contributing towards the break up of society. The obsession with economy and its repercussions – top and bottom ‘ Progress’ in our society relies on a constant undermining of our confidence. We are bombarded daily with messages telling us that we are not good enough in some way – our skin, our hair, our clothes, our holidays…we are victims of a culture that breeds vanity, competition and a life that is way beyond our means leading to debt on a massive scale. To your average person, this leads to a general dissatisfaction with life and a nagging unfulfilment that begs to be filled with a new pair of shoes or new handbag. This obsession has led to longer, more stress filled hours and less time with family, friends and the community. All of this in order to fuel the ambition of never ending economic growth. However, for people at the bottom end of the scale there are far more detrimental issues at stake. The obsession with economic growth has led to a culture of blame, stigma and discrimination of those who are the most vulnerable in our society. The most physical impact of this is on those on the bottom rung. The less tangible but yet still visible impact is on the rest of society with increased divisions and a normalising of damaging attitudes and preconceptions.
  • The worst thing about living in poverty I used to work for an international organisation that works alongside people with experience of poverty from all different countries – north and south. Although people’s experiences differed somewhat depending on whether a state system existed and the type of system that was in place, the one thing that united them in their experience was the stigma that they experienced. The other aspect that united them was the thing that they all singled out as being the worst thing about living in poverty; not the struggling to make ends meet, although being highly stressful. Not the bad housing conditions and the health repercussions of that, despite all its difficulties. The absolute worst aspect was the way in which they were treated by their fellow citizens. The lack of respect; the blame and the judgement on their lives. This is what people find completely unbearable. This is what breaks people, what in the end makes people lose hope and give up.
  • Likewise, in any discussion on poverty, whether it be around health, education or any of the other multitude aspects of poverty, the experience of stigma is almost guaranteed to be raised. None more so than in any discussion around state benefits. A recent poll by Disability Alliance showed that a disturbing amount of disabled people said they would rather take their own lives then have to live without independence. One person stated ‘I would rather be mourned when dead then mourned whilst still alive’. It is the shame, humiliation and lack of dignity which encompasses and defines the experience of poverty.
  • The rationale behind stigma But what is the rationale behind these preconceptions that the general population have around poverty? Why is it so easy for people to quickly judge and blame? Some argue it is so that we can shift responsibility from ourselves to the individual. Perhaps to a certain extent… But I think that humans by nature are of good will and want to help others. However this does not fit in with the grand objective of economic growth. If people spent more time helping one another than shopping then this wouldn’t be advantageous for the economy. If people were not in constant competition with one another in having the latest gadgets and clothes this would not fulfil the country’s overall ambition. Another reason, I believe for the rationale is that we live in a society which firmly believes that we are all born free and equal – it is, after all in the universal declaration of human rights that this country signed up to over 60 years ago. Therefore, on that understanding, it is down to us all as individuals to make the most of the opportunities that are laid at our feet. Any failure lies with the individual because we have clearly not tried hard enough. It is the American dream syndrome. All of this, according to the current UK government is exacerbated by the welfare state that rewards people for being lazy and allows people to languish at home whilst the rest of the conscientious population are slogging it out at work. This has to be one of the biggest myths that envelopes this country and despite all efforts to eradicate it; the general population alongside the people who govern our country (no matter what Government) are hook line and sinker under its spell. Conveniently, this suits the economy for it to be so because that way it relieves it of any responsibility to do anything about it. It is this myth that lies at the heart of the stigma that enshrouds the experience of living in poverty and in many ways defines it. It is this myth that stands in the way of real progress being made on poverty issues.
  • The myth: The biggest injustice of all? Yet this idea that we are fed on a daily basis is the polar opposite to what I have observed in my 6 years of working alongside people living in poverty. Work shy, lacking in morals, scroungers. These are some of the terms that are bandied about with such fervour, such anger. There is real misplaced anger about what people perceive to be reality, but how many people really know the complexities of the lives that they are so quick to despise? And here is where the real injustice lies. In addition to being condemned to a life living on the breadline is the blame that people are faced with and the ensuing impact that this has on the human emotional psyche. And it is at this point that emotion gets the better of me and I get angry. Really angry because the people that I have had the luck to know and learn from are far away from this disparaging stereotype that our Governments and the media have conjured up. Hard working, excellent at money management – because they have to be, tenacious, strong and wilful. People living in poverty defy a system that seems as though it is out to break them and they defy the scorn that is thrust upon them. When I think of the people that I know, admiration is the word that comes to my mind. Admiration because I know that I and many others wouldn’t be able to cope anywhere near as well in their situation. Not only do they resist poverty in their own lives but many of these people are out campaigning and getting their voice heard so that others in similar situations do not have to live with the same issues. So much for lacking in morals. Where are the morals of a population and a government that scapegoats and blames the most vulnerable in our society?
  • Discrimination and Povertyism We live in a society where it is now unacceptable to attribute sweeping generalisations to people who are of a certain sex, colour, disability, religion or sexual orientation. Yet it is still completely normal to speak about benefit cheats, scroungers, neds, townies, scallies. However, could it not be argued that this is also a discriminatory language? Society stigmitises a whole group of people - those living on benefits because everyone is assumed to be taking advantage unnecessarily at a cost to the tax payer. This discrimination has led to a tightening up on conditionality for benefit recipients and policies based on a widespread assumption that everyone is frauding the system. If all benefit recipients were of another ethnic background this would be classed as racism, if they were all women it would be sexism. Yet it is normal to speak about people living on benefits in this way. It is accepted rather than frowned upon. But the repercussions are very serious.
  • The repercussions of Povertyism I have just spent the past few months supporting someone who has been put through the humiliating and hugely stressful experience of the work capability assessment. This person has a long term condition that is deteriorating and has been deemed unfit for work repeatedly by her regular doctor. Yet she was classified as fit for work by an independent assessor after a ten minute assessment. It was very difficult to understand what her rights were and to get access to someone who would be able to tell her. Amidst a myriad of letters and phone calls she at one point found herself having to get by on £102 a week between herself, her partner and her 13 year old daughter. Sleeping tablets had stopped working by then and the stress was taking its toll. She told me suicide had crossed her mind. Another tragic story I’d like to share in order to illustrate the serious repercussions of such attitudes comes from Belgium – one lady with two children had serious health problems but was too afraid of going to the doctor because she was scared that he would judge her as being an unfit parent and would take her children away. This lady passed away as a repercussion of the fear of accessing that service and in the end her children were taken into care. .
  • The deserving and undeserving poor Sharon Wright’s thesis on jobcentres highlights some revealing interactions between front line staff and jobcentre clients. She argues that the creation of policy is carried out as much by the people on the front line as the people who created the policy at an earlier stage. In her thesis she uncovers how policy implementation is interpreted and carried out differently with different people and how a process of moral categorisation happens which affects the way in which the client receives their service. Stigma and povertyism can often mean the difference between an individual accessing a service or not. On the one hand there can be fear on the side of the service user, on the other is a moral categorisation of a person which can act as a barrier to that person getting the service that they need. ‘ Policy implementation is, therefore, also affected by the perceptions and beliefs that staff themselves bring to their jobs’. This is clearly an important issue with regards to the stereotypes and misconceptions that exist around people claiming benefits. All of these things are happening now as a repercussion of the discrimination and stigmitisation of this group of people. Povertyism isn’t recognised or taken seriously because it is hidden away, disguised under the blanket generalisation of ‘benefit cheats’ but this does not mean that it is not happening
  • The experience of poverty is fundamentally brought about because of an unjust system that does not distribute on a fair basis but the experience manifests itself in relative measures. The experience lies in the knowledge that you are at the bottom and everyone knowing this. It is about not being able to provide your children with the same access to opportunities as their friends; it is about having to constantly say ‘no’ when everyone else is saying yes. It is about feelings, respect, self esteem and about how we treat one another which is why, above all else, it is a human rights issue. People should have access to an income that allows a dignified life. 60 years ago we realised this but we seem to have lost our way. The eradication of poverty is framed in a language that belies a preoccupation with economic growth. If you are not contributing to the economy, you are not of value and this is not only reflected in pay scales (Carers get paid poverty wages for a profession that looks after our elderly and infirm) but more sharply in the way that we treat people that have fallen on hard times and who need extra support.
  • So to conclude, I’d like to end on two points: 1) In order to better tackle poverty we need to address the basis of our economy which is unsustainable and detrimental. Continuing on this path is not leading to an increase in happiness or wellbeing and is resulting in a society that is valuing the wrong things, things that are detrimental to ourselves and to others. 2) To end on a more positive note in relation to public attitudes: Research carried out by the Fabian Society has proven that despite an initial limitation in knowledge and a harbouring of stereotypical ideas once people are made aware of the realities, their attitudes can quickly change and this is where a glimmer of hope lies. I strongly believe that if people really knew what life was like, if they knew some of these stories, they would not be able to support the kind of policies that are being implemented right now. Tackling stigma should be a priority in any anti poverty policy. In doing so, we can harness public support of more progressive anti poverty policies and at the same time bring back a bit of respect to the way that we treat our fellow citizens and thus regain some of our lost humanity as a society.
  • The Experience of Poverty in an Unequal Society - Sarah Welford

    1. 1. The Experience of Poverty in an Unequal Society: Why Tackling Stigma should be a priority in anti-poverty policy Sarah Welford Policy and Parliamentary Officer
    2. 2. Introduction <ul><li>The economy – the elephant in the room </li></ul><ul><li>Economic growth and its repercussions </li></ul>
    3. 3. The worst thing about living in poverty <ul><li>“ The worst thing of it is the contempt of your fellow citizens. I and many other families live in that contempt.” </li></ul><ul><li>Moraene Roberts, National Poverty Hearing, UK </li></ul><ul><li>“ The challenge for me is the isolation, the loneliness, the painful awareness that we are not able to join in society or play any part in it.” </li></ul><ul><li>Family Member, ATD Fourth World UK </li></ul>
    4. 4. Shame and humiliation <ul><li>“ We are not inferior, we are not deficient, but we are made to feel that way” </li></ul><ul><li>Voices from Caia Park: Communities </li></ul><ul><li>Against Poverty, Wales </li></ul><ul><li>“ I would rather be mourned when dead then mourned whilst still alive” Respondent of Disability Alliance Poll </li></ul>
    5. 5. The rationale behind stigma <ul><li>Shifting the responsibility of poverty to the individual. </li></ul><ul><li>The priority of the economy fuels an individualistic outlook </li></ul><ul><li>‘ All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’. Universal Declaration of Human Rights </li></ul><ul><li>The American dream syndrome </li></ul>
    6. 6. The myth: The biggest injustice of all? <ul><li>Work shy </li></ul><ul><li>Lacking in morals </li></ul><ul><li>Scroungers </li></ul><ul><li>Vs reality: </li></ul><ul><li>Hard working </li></ul><ul><li>Excellent money managers </li></ul><ul><li>Tenacious </li></ul><ul><li>Strong </li></ul><ul><li>Determined </li></ul>
    7. 7. Discrimination and Povertyism <ul><li>Sweeping generalisations </li></ul><ul><li>Accepted name calling: ‘neds, townies, scallies, cheats, scroungers’ </li></ul><ul><li>“ The worst thing about it is the fact that we have </li></ul><ul><li>created a culture where it is acceptable to speak this </li></ul><ul><li>way about a whole group of people, the majority of </li></ul><ul><li>whom are living very difficult lives” </li></ul><ul><li>Participant in Poverty Alliance Evidence </li></ul><ul><li>Participation Change project </li></ul>
    8. 8. The Repercussions of Povertyism <ul><li>Tightening up of conditionality of benefits and resulting stress and hardship. </li></ul><ul><li>Fear: Fear of accessing services that people are in most need of. </li></ul><ul><li>“ It’s a huge burden and you have to battle on </li></ul><ul><li>quietly. You cannot ask for help because you </li></ul><ul><li>fear that your children will be taken into care” </li></ul><ul><li>Participant in the Evidence Participation Change project </li></ul>
    9. 9. Repercussions of Povertyism <ul><li>Deserving and undeserving poor - the power of the front line service. </li></ul><ul><li>‘ Policy implementation is, therefore, also affected by the perceptions and beliefs that staff themselves bring to their jobs </li></ul>
    10. 10. The experience of poverty: relative measures <ul><li>At the bottom and everyone knowing that. </li></ul><ul><li>Not being able to provide children with same opportunities as their friends. </li></ul><ul><li>Constantly saying no when everyone is saying yes. </li></ul><ul><li>Feelings, respect, self esteem. </li></ul><ul><li>A human rights issue. </li></ul>
    11. 11. Conclusion <ul><li>A pressing need to address our preoccupation with economic growth. </li></ul><ul><li>Tackling stigma and getting stories told: the key to combating poverty </li></ul>
    12. 12. To view all the papers in the Whose Economy series click here To view all the videos and presentations from the seminars click here