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Can stigma help to eradicate poverty?

In this blog Dr China Mills, from JRF's Exploring Poverty and Stigma design team, explains how stigma is a force that entrenches poverty. But can it be used as a short-term strategy to change those who have power? As a tool in the abolition of poverty?

Written by:
Dr China Mills
Date published:
Reading time:
7 minutes

I applied to join the JRF-hosted Exploring Poverty and Stigma design team because I know how fatal stigma can be. In my work leading the Deaths by Welfare project at Healing Justice Ldn, I see every day the violent ways that successive governments, corporations, and parts of the media have actively stigmatised people claiming and trying to claim welfare, and how this stigma dehumanises and kills people.

As a team we are thinking about what it means to destigmatize poverty by centring lived experience of poverty as a form of resistance, as a means of knowledge production, and as the basis for greater solidarity. In this we look to the many survivor-led movements which, by disrupting long-held ideas of shame, have successfully mobilised people to generate change, with the Me Too movement and Disability Justice movement being prime examples. 

Stigma as coercive control

Our discussions have led us to reflect on how stigma acts as a form of coercive control (so beautifully explained by team members Nasrat and Imogen), that works to divide people experiencing poverty, trying to prevent solidarity and structural analysis. Stigma research more widely has started to shift to emphasise the importance of structural stigma - the social, political and economic production of stigma, and how it is designed into systems to constrain resources for certain groups and allow the transfer of wealth to the elite. One member of our team, who prefers to remain anonymous, shared her experience of working in a housing association: 

The same stigmatising narratives we see in the media are very much at play in housing, embedded in policies and reflected in day-to-day interactions. This is perhaps most obvious in the language used in the sector, with properties referred to as ‘units’, rather than ‘homes’, for example, and also in the unequal power imbalance between tenants and housing association staff.

This means we understand stigma as a powerful force in producing and entrenching poverty - powerful because we internalise it, we reproduce it in our communities, and it allows people with power who benefit from poverty to deny their accountability.

Stigma eradicating poverty?

Two questions that keep coming up in our design team discussions are whether stigma could be used as a force for eradicating poverty. Can something so pernicious and fatal be used for good? And does stigma mean something different depending on who is doing it and how much power they hold? The effectiveness and ethics of using stigma as a tool is hotly debated within Public Health (the area in which I teach). This debate is often framed around asking whether stigma is effective at getting people to change? And whether it is ethical to use stigma to change behaviours? Much of this research focuses on individual change and if applied to poverty-related stigma might lead us to ask whether it is effective and ethical to use stigma on people who manufacture and maintain poverty (rich individuals, corporations, and governments), for example by shaming corporations into paying tax?

Our central assumption is that if poverty and stigma can be designed into systems and policies, then they can also be designed out of them. This leads us in different directions from asking about effectiveness and ethics and opens up different kinds of questions. Questions such as: if our aim is a world without poverty, is stigma a tool we can use to make poverty obsolete? And when we imagine the world we want to live in - is stigma part of this world, and should it be used as a tool in creating it? 

Similar questions are often asked by writers and activists working on Transformative Justice - an approach for responding to violence and harm that doesn’t reproduce or create more violence and harm (Mia Mingus) because it transforms the conditions that produce violence in the first place. Transformative Justice is about roots and routes of harm, and about uprooting violent systems - and often focuses on prison abolition - creating the conditions needed to make incarceration and policing obsolete. 

I’m thinking a lot (very much in real-time so kindly bear with me), about how Transformative Justice might help us to understand and respond to poverty-related stigma by offering us ways of collectively creating a long-term vision - to dismantle the systems that make poverty and poverty-related stigma possible. In her book, We do this ‘til we free us: Abolitionist organizing and transforming justice (2021), Mariame Kaba pushes us to seek out actions and reforms that don’t make it harder in the long run to dismantle the systems we want to abolish. Kaba calls these ‘non-reformist reforms’ - reforms that allow us to create new things and that keep us on the path of abolition. 

Nasrat explained that she’d come to the conclusion:

... that no, stigma can’t be used for good. Stigma is a negative thing and a negative thing cannot produce a positive - it would still be harmful.

This analysis is echoed in the notes of our discussions, where it says, ‘stigma won’t eradicate stigma’. Another design team member, Steve Arnott says (well, actually raps) something similar:

Stigmatisation is detrimental to our nation. Let's decrease the power it holds to achieve eradication.

Nasrat and Steve’s analysis reminds me of how the core of Transformative Justice is relevant to poverty and stigma - by transforming the conditions that produce poverty so that it no longer exists, and by not responding to the violence of poverty stigma in ways that produce more stigma. If we want a world without stigma then there’s a strong chance that by using it as a policy tool then we reinforce its power. Transformative Justice also teaches us something else - we will never get justice through the systems that harm us. Our design team know intimately and painfully that stigma is central to the ways our current systems harm us. 

Healing from stigma

It's because of this harm that Steve Arnott writes in his recent blog about the need for healing from stigma, in part as a ‘way of enabling people with similar experiences to come together to take action and challenge what has been done to them'. This kind of healing resonates a lot with Healing Justice Ldn, where I work and where the Deaths by Welfare project is based, the recognition that we are what we practice (what we do), and that no practices are neutral. So if we practice stigma, especially in our communities but perhaps also even using it to change people with power, then what other things are we reinforcing? In the context of abolition and Transformative Justice, where our work sits, we want to be skillful at transforming harm and injury, not calcifying it. When I spoke to our Co-Founder, Farzana Khan, about stigma, she said:

Stigma on a social level doesn’t help us practice liberation and it implies appealing to the capacity of experiencing shame or morality of those oppressing.

 Instead Farzana asks:

How can we imagine a way to practice liberation that isn’t reliant on the mechanics of stigma?

and instead generates openings for transformation and repairs dignity. Farzana’s words remind me of the ‘Medicine Stories’ of Aurora Levins Morales, who says that: 

Shaming, shunning, and punishing are not tools of liberation.

because shedding privilege is essential to the joy of our collective liberation (p. 100). 

 

References: 

Duda, J and Kaba, M (2017) Towards the horizon of abolition. A conversation with Mariama Kaba. Available: https://thenextsystem.org/learn/stories/towards-horizon-abolition-conversation-mariame-kaba [Accessed: 4 April 2023]. 

Kaba, M (2021) We do this ‘til we free us: Abolitionist organizing and transforming justice. Haymarket books. 

Mingus, M (2019) Transformative Justice: A brief description. Available: Transformative Justice: A Brief Description | TransformHarm.org [Accessed: 4 April 2023].

Morales, A L (1998/2019) Medicine Stories: Essays for Radicals. Duke University Press.