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Poverty stigma: causes vs symptoms

I think I've worked out what it is that I dislike about people saying that poverty isn’t just, or even mainly, about material lack. Even when it’s the people in poverty themselves who focus on the emotional experience of stigma and a feeling of lack of worth or value. What concerns me is that it gives richer people an excuse to focus on that rather than the material issue.

The negative emotional experience of being in poverty is just a symptom. It is one of the impacts that poverty has on people. Poverty causes stress, which has harms physical and mental health. And it slows down the brain, like a programme running in the background on a computer. It can even reduce a person’s IQ by 13-14 points, taking someone from the middle of the distribution (100) to the edge of normal (85), or from the edge of normal to borderline deficient (70). You can see why this would have a big impact on someone. What is worse, by distracting people from day-to-day or job tasks, poverty can make someone more vulnerable to benefit sanctions or job loss, by reducing their performance in complying with conditionality or at work. And then we punish these people for such impacts by making them even poorer!

If someone's sick you need to know what their symptoms are. This helps you to make a diagnosis. But you don’t stop at the treatments. You don’t assume that you can treat the symptoms and have the underlying condition go away. In fact, sometimes treating the symptoms without treating the cause can cause more harm; for example, giving someone painkillers may result in them over-using a damaged limb, and causing more damage to it. Giving adequate pain relief is important – but we must not then allow abuse of the affected limb, and we must still treat the cause of pain.

So when we ask people about the symptoms of poverty, we must not forget that these are just symptoms. They matter, because they are distressing, and so we should treat them. But we must never treat the symptoms and then go on to inflict even more poverty, or allow people to continue living in poverty and experiencing the other harms such as the impact on the brain and IQ, or the direct harm of not having enough to eat or to stay warm.

I think you probably can’t get rid of the shame of poverty without getting rid of poverty itself. Because the shame comes from not having any money. It comes from shopping in the cheapest supermarkets from the cheapest products and ‘to clear’ items out of necessity, not choice. It comes from wearing charity-shop clothing and never having in-fashion or branded clothes from necessity, not choice. It comes from going to school in ordinary clothes, because your uniform is in the wash and you can’t afford a spare. It comes from being the only person with an overgrown garden amidst a row of nicely mown lawns. It comes from neighbours walking past you in the queue for the Jobcentre and the foodbank and the local pantry.

It comes from being checked in to the Jobcentre by a security guard. It comes from having to submit your every jobseeking-move for 35 hours a week to a person with authority – and managerial advice – to sanction you at every opportunity. It comes from the embarrassment of your card being declined at the check-out. It comes from having to go to the Post Office to top-up your prepayment meter.

It comes from the constant exhausting calculation of what you can buy today in order to have enough money to last to the end of the week. It comes from the knowledge that your earning potential is only going to decline as you age and the only thing you have of value – your capacity to work hard and fast for long hours – disappears. It comes from the knowledge that you have no ultimate housing security, because you can get kicked out of social housing if your life becomes too troubled and starts to annoy your neighbours.

Only some of these issues can be addressed. The government could improve the jobs market so that there are no jobs where the only skill is the willingness to be exploited and worked into the grave. The government could intervene so that there is a career journey for everyone, and long-lasting poverty is a thing of the past. The government could build enough social housing and give anyone who is assigned a property the right to remain in social housing for the rest of their life – with no possibility of being kicked out for becoming too poor, too troubled, or even too rich.

Society could get rid of the stigma of poverty, that sees poor people as lesser. But I don’t think it can get rid of the shame of poverty, because it is always going to be embarrassing to have your card declined at the checkout, or to have to queue up for free or discounted food, or be unable to provide your child with clean school uniform. We can encourage people to find self-worth in something other than their source or amount of income, but humans are human, and I think we will always find certain aspects of poverty to be shaming.

I also don’t think that getting rid of stigma would get rid of poverty. That would be like saying that giving someone painkillers will heal their broken leg. It may help in the meantime, but it doesn’t address the underlying issue, and it even risks further harm due to the failure to take proper care of the actual injury.

Imagine that a right-wing politician – who believes in deregulation, withdrawing the spending of the government, individualism, and inequality – is convinced that poverty is not an individual’s fault and that there is no reason to look down on such people. Imagine that they are convinced that the problem is not a lack of work ethic, but an insufficiency of jobs and houses and all the things that people need in order to thrive. What will that politician do? They will do what they believe increases the quantity and quality of jobs and houses and so on in the market: they will pull back the state and deregulate industry. This, they believe, will end poverty, and is the best – even the only – way to ensure opportunity for everyone.

The problem is that this politician is wrong. This politician’s prescription will make poverty worse. This politician has got the diagnosis wrong. He or she thinks that the problem is insufficient free market, when the problem is insufficient government. I don’t know how this politician reconciles his or her observations of the UK, US and Scandinavian countries to come down on the side that says it is free markets and small government – as in the UK and US, with their high poverty rates – and not government involvement and high welfare spending – as in Scandinavia, with their low poverty rates and high social cohesion and general welfare – that is the answer. But that is the conclusion that right-wing politicians have come to, and it doesn’t require them to stigmatise people in poverty.

A right-wing politician who no longer thinks that poverty is an individual fault due to ignorance or laziness will no longer have those reasons for keeping benefits at destitution level and then punishing people further for the slightest mistake or failure to meet punitive standards. But he will have other reasons for keeping benefits low, which include the functioning of the free market and the withdrawal of the government from a role in sustaining society. Indeed, one wonders which one came first: the belief in individual failure, or the belief in the wonders of the free market? Because maybe, the belief in individual failure is the right-wing way of offering a sop to one’s conscience when the free market demonstrably does not achieve what it is expected to. It is much easier to blame individual poor people for the failure to get out of poverty than it is to change your beliefs about how the economy works, particularly if changing that belief would likely lead to higher taxes on you and your friends, and higher constraints and your and your friends’ businesses.

I don’t think, then, that we can get rid of poverty by getting rid of stigma around poverty or even by focusing on what people in poverty say about the emotional impact of poverty. What we need is to look at the causes of poverty, and address those. And one of the biggest causes is an economic worldview that says that government withdrawal and the promotion of deregulated markets is what leads to success – despite over 40 years showing that it isn’t.

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