Inclusion or Stigma? Low-income families and coping through brands Dr Kathy Hamilton
Central argument Coping strategies which seem functional and effective at the micro level may have unanticipated outcomes if considered within the wider societal context. It will be suggested that the coping strategies employed by low-income families to disguise poverty and portray a socially acceptable image can actually create further stigmatization.4. In what ways do those living on a low income use consumption to cope? 5. How can these coping strategies be interpreted with reference to published material on consumer exclusion?
Low-income ConsumersLow-income consumers are individuals whose financial resources or income results in them being unable to obtain the goods and services needed for an “adequate” and “socially acceptable” standard of living (Darley and Johnson 1985)
Consumer Culture• “a ‘normal life’ is the life of consumers, preoccupied with making their choices among the panoply of publicly displayed opportunities for pleasurable sensations and lively experiences.” (Bauman 2005, 38) • In a consumer culture, the marketplace acts as a framework for consumer action (Arnould and Thompson 2005). • Not only a consumer culture but a consumer civilisation
Stigma• “abnormal,” “blemished, defective, faulty and deficient,” “flawed” (Bauman 1998, 36-38).• “lazy, criminal and responsible for their circumstances” (Becker 1997, 1)• No morality, lazy, don’t want an education, bunch of “sickies” (Waxman 1977, 3)• Delinquency of young men in terms of criminal behaviour and the delinquency of young women in terms of the irresponsibility of lone parenthood (Levitas 1998)• “The phrase ‘welfare mother’ is one in which the adjective, ‘welfare’, modifies the noun in such a way that it turns its meaning upside down. It is different from ‘working mother’, ‘stay-at-home mother’, or ‘soccer mom’, all phrases that specify ways of doing motherhood … but do not fundamentally alter the meaning of the term ‘mother’” (McCormack 2005).
Model of Impoverished Consumer Behaviour Hill and Stephens 1997
Coping with Poverty: One Example Kempson, Bryson and Rowlingson (1994) examined the experiences of 74 low-income families 4 categories4. Keeping their heads above water5. Sinking6. Struggling to the surface7. Drowning
Method• 30 families (25 single parent families)• Average income: £150 per week – majority unemployed and financially dependent on welfare benefits – 6 low-paid jobs • In-depth interviews – 21 families only parents interviewed – 9 families: parents and children interviewed together • Hermeneutic approach to data analysis
Findings: Vignette 1• Sarah is 46 years old with six children (aged 25, 20, 16, 15, 13 and 11) and two grandchildren.• Lives in a neighbourhood where there are high crime levels• Her home has also been petrol bombed. • Her 16-year-old son is currently in a young offenders’ institution which Sarah attributes to his involvement with a ‘bad crowd.’• Entertainment activities for the family are limited• Sarah feels pressurized into buying brand name clothing for her children• cigarettes and beer are the main source of personal expenditure alongside occasional jewellery purchases, particularly gold rings, through the informal economy
Vignette 2• Susan is 23 years old with two daughters aged five and two. • Single parent who works part-time as a waitress.• Prefers brand name products: “I do go shopping for myself, I will spend money, I’ll not go cheap on myself.”• Children demand brand name products• Impulse shopper: “I’m a bit of an impulse buyer, if I see something and I like it I don’t care how expensive it is, I would buy it, even if it left me really short I would buy”• Strong family support network
Vignette 3• Denise (43) and Barry (40) have two teenage sons, aged 15 and 17. • Both are unemployed and believe that remaining on welfare benefits is the best financial option• Reoccurring topic of conversation is the struggle involved in meeting their sons’ clothing demands• Often results in turning to credit• Very aware of social comparisons
Experiences of Poverty in Consumer CultureEmma: I think it’s a lie that money doesn’t buy you happiness. Whenever you get paid or whenever you have money you feel better, you feel great going into town, you feel great if you have something in your purse, you know what I mean. Whereas if you’re sitting and you have nothing you’re saying to yourself ahh, you get depressed, I don’t care what anybody says, nobody’s going to bring you out of it (36, 2 children).Melissa: money makes so much difference. If I don’t have money I feel like crap, if I go down that road and I don’t have a pound or £2 or a fiver in my pocket I feel like crap, it’s hard but there is so much emphasis on it (31, 5 children).
Stigma Avoidance and Keeping Up Appearances“I know people do judge you, there are people who look downon you for what you wear and the way you talk, there arepeople who will look down on you for any reason. My friendsback home all have jobs and houses and cars. My mum has abig house, my brother who is four years younger than me hashis own house and car, and I feel like I’m stuck on the outside.” Janice, 23, 2 children A key driver of coping strategies is the avoidance of stigmatization and alleviation of threats to social identity.
Protecting children“Now that the baby is starting to grow I wonder am I going to be able to afford everything that he wants? Am I going to be a good enough mother?”“You have to understand that for a lot of my life I was going through a shitty time and I didn’t want to live so I just take it day by day and don’t try and see too far into the future. What I do want is that me and my baby are comfortable and he has all the things that he needs, even clothes, water, heating and I’d be happy with that.” (Amy)
Fitting in “She’s at that age now where I think it’s going to be really difficult and she needs new clothes every couple of months because she seems to be getting bigger and stretching. She knows all the brand names but only through her friends. Now that everybody is going back to school after the summer holidays I couldn’t get her ordinary shoes, it had to be Nike AirMax but that’s because she’s going to big school. If it had been at primary you could have got away with it but at 12 you couldn’t.” Eva
Mothers suppress their own needs and desires or place them on hold Julie: “My lifestyle is very very budgeted, very sacrificing. It can be quite stressful... it amazes me how I can find the money to pay for some of the bills that I have” (24, one child). Rebecca: “When the kids grow up, you know a good bit, [I’ll] go back to work, buy my own house and have my life back again” (23, two children).
Masking Poverty Within the FamilyFamily consumption is often structured around children “I eat kids’ food, I don’t eat adult’s food, I just eat what they’re eating.” “he [2 year-old son] gets a lot of my shopping money, he gets a lot of clothes. I can’t afford to buy clothes for me and him.” Kochuyt (2004) suggests that resource distribution can create affluence amidst poverty.
Visible and Invisible Consumption• Distinction between discretionary and non-discretionary• Spending on branded clothing and footwear is non-discretionary whereas with food spending, in terms of quantity and quality at least, there is some discretion. • Distinction to be made between visible and invisible goods. Spending on visible goods and services that enable children to ‘fit in’ with peers are non-discretionary for it is through them that poor consumers present themselves to the world, giving added meaning to conspicuous consumption. • On the other hand, there is some discretion in invisible spending, which applies to goods and services consumed in the privacy of the home.
Paradoxes of Coping with Poverty• The purchase and display of brand names is viewed as a way of avoiding stigma and could be considered as a disconfirmation of the stereotype (Miller and Major, 2000). • Chav discourse is best considered in relation to excessive consumption (Hayward and Yar, 2006). As Tyler (2008: 21) claimed, the chav ‘is primarily identified by means of his or her “bad”, “vulgar” and excessive consumer choices – cheap brands of cigarettes, cheap jewellery, branded sports tops, gold-hooped earrings, sovereign rings, Burberry baseball caps.’ • Paradoxically, the very consumption practices that provoke stigma are those which are strongly coveted by low-income consumers.
Empowerment and single motherhood• I’m a very independent person, I’ve been living on my own since I’ve been 16 so anything I’ve ever done, it has all been put up by me or put together by me. I would never have anybody turn around and say that I owe them anything (Amy)• I’ve had to really work for what I’ve got and at times get into hard amounts of debt and a lot of stuff that I have got is all through me, no-one else. My parents aren’t supportive at all. I’ve had to save for everything that I’ve got so I appreciate money a lot more… Sometimes I would go to bed and just think, oh my God, how did you get through all that, it amazes me how I can find the money to pay for some of the bills that I have (Julie)
Downward social comparisons“One day we were walking out there and she [5 year-old daughter] said to me, ‘Mummy aren’t we poor?’ and I was trying to explain to her that there are other children in different countries who are poor, trying to tell her what poor is, trying to tell her that we’re very lucky to have what we have so she’s not too bad at all” (Louise, single mother, 1 child)“If you get involved with other groups and other people who are all in the same position as you, you think my story is not half as bad as their story and you think what am I so down for?” (Catherine, single mother, 40, 3 children)
Paradoxes of Coping with Poverty• This interpretation of empowerment provides an optimistic image of coping within the challenging context of consumer culture to improve the standard of living for themselves and their family. They enjoy feelings of independence, defined for them as managing without the help of their children’s father, their parents or other family support. • Welfare policy in most developed countries advocates that single mothers should provide at least some of their own income. In this context, reliance on welfare benefits may indicate dependency, not the independence that these mothers believe they have achieved.
Implications• Poverty becomes a social construction and judgements about the moral and material positions of low-income consumers abound.• Such generalization overlooks the heterogeneity of low-income families• Despite the significant efforts made by some low-income consumers, it appears that coping strategies to avoid stigma do not always work – what role does marketing play in this paradox?
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