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How we can flush out poverty stigma from our systems and services

Our Grassroots Poverty Action Group (GPAG) has been meeting throughout 2021 to inform our UK Poverty report. One of the key issues members have shared is stigma, and how stereotypes and prejudice unjustly shape essential services and systems. Here they talk about how this holds them back in their daily lives, and present some ideas that could help.

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You enter a new housing estate and see the front doors are painted two different colours. You reflect for a moment about why this might be the case. Were residents asked to choose the colour they preferred? Perhaps the developers deliberately chose two colours so all the houses didn’t look exactly the same. This estate is where one of us lives and the colour of the doors reflects the ownership of the property, housing association or privately owned. It makes those of us who can’t purchase our own homes feel inadequate.

This example of felt stigma was one of many we have shared in our regular meetings when we have discussed talk about feeling embarrassed and ashamed due to living in poverty. We’ve talked about our children being singled out because we couldn’t afford to send in money for cooking ingredients or for a charitable donation on a non-uniform day. We’ve seen parcels being left on doorsteps during lockdown making it obvious who is receiving help from the local food bank and the looks received when you hand over a voucher to purchase school uniform. We’ve noted the comments made by friends when we have worn a smart item of clothing even though it was purchased many years ago. One of us recently shared a story of a housing officer visiting his home and commenting on why he had stockpiled food he had purchased cheaply and suggested he might sell his book and CD collection to raise funds.

We experience these stigmatising acts far too often through our encounters with professionals and members of the public. Widespread use of social media has provided yet another vehicle to pass judgement on the lives of people living in poverty, which may be very different to their own. From our perspective what underlies these stigmatising attitudes and practices is a lack of understanding of what it means to live in poverty, how easy it can be to get swept into poverty, and how difficult it can be to get out. Stigma is another aspect of poverty that pulls us down and holds us back.

Additional pressure and prejudice

We analyse and deliberate over every decision – you have to when there’s not enough money to cover everything you need. Should I stock up on something whilst it’s on offer, or might I need those extra pounds to top up the meter next week? Perusing the shelves of your local convenience store for bargains has quite a different feeling to it when you are relying on those reductions to add some variety to your diet. It’s easy for small decisions to become quite debilitating, with an anxiety around whether you are making the best decision for yourself and your family. You can feel guilty even when replacing an item you need that has broken or worn out. On top of this, there is an additional pressure that comes from other people who may pass judgement on your decisions, worsened by the stigma surrounding poverty. On a particularly tough day, a chocolate bar might be much more comforting than a healthier snack, but that option might mean someone passes judgement on how we spend the little cash we have. It can often feel like every decision is weighted with extra pressure and the potential to be judged as somehow ‘undeserved’. The burden of this can be extremely tiring and can affect people’s behaviour and mental health.

Sometimes this fear of negative perceptions and additional prejudice can discourage us from accessing services or applying for opportunities or benefits we know we are entitled to. For example, some children, or their parents, may be reluctant to make use of free school meals due to the stigma surrounding this initiative and the unwanted attention this can encourage in the lunch hall. For some of us, this has a detrimental impact on our sense of self-worth and self-esteem, particularly those of us from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds who may face additional pressures from their community due to cultural norms and expectations. The intersectional nature of people’s identity means some of us face more than one type of stigma at once with religious or cultural-based bigotry, racism, anti-migrant sentiments, Islamophobia, antisemitism, and anti-traveller being additional prejudices we are exposed to.

We need services built on compassion and respect

We want to see compassion and respect built into the design and delivery of services, and particularly those intended to alleviate poverty, so that they actively prevent stigma rather than reinforce it. Within the Grassroots Poverty Action Group we discussed some examples of what this looks like in practice:

  • Some schools have taken really positive steps to improve the experience of all students while preventing stigmatisation through not singling out children who need the support most. For example, one of our members spoke about the free breakfast club his children attended which provided everyone with a simple meal.
  • Some schools have introduced discreet mechanisms which allow children to take part in school activities without adding to the financial pressures families living in poverty face. Group members have shared stories of equipment being provided, school trips being subsidised, and donations not being requested for non-uniform days.
  • Cash-first approaches have been used to support people experiencing financial hardship. One member of our group lives in an area which provided cash payments instead of vouchers or parcels as an alternative to free school meals during lockdown periods. She described how this prevents stigma as it avoids highlighting the fact that you are in receipt of support to the cashier and others. Not only this, but it gives greater freedom to purchase the food most suitable for your family.

Many of the changes that need to happen can be very simple but have a massive impact in enabling those of us who access these services to maintain our dignity and self-esteem.

This blog was written by:

GPAG – Stephen Tamblin and Mike Tighe

JRF – Emma Wincup, Bronny Embleton and Joe Elliott

Read JRF's new report, UK Poverty 2022, which was produced in collaboration with the Grassroots Poverty Action Group.