Poverty stigma: a glue that holds poverty in place

Think tank: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

Author(s): Imogen Tyler; Sarah Campbell

June 8, 2024

This report from UK think tank the Joseph Rowntree Foundation offers a redefinition of poverty stigma and its role in making poverty socially acceptable.

The UK is one of the wealthiest nations in the world, but ‘since the 1980s there has been an unprecedented rise in poverty’ in Britain, ‘which has never been reversed’ and ‘current levels of poverty are around 50% higher than in the 1970s’ (JRF, 2024a). These poverty statistics are shocking, shameful. Yet we know that poverty in the UK is a political choice. Poverty is an outcome of policies that have been deliberately designed.

Alongside critically examining the political decisions and policies that have led us to the current crisis, we need to understand why such high and deep levels of poverty are deemed socially and politically acceptable. This includes scrutinizing the ways in which the stigmatisation of people living in poverty, and the associated stigmatisation of benefits and welfare systems that ostensibly exist to support people in hard times, helps make poverty palatable.

JRF’s current focus on poverty stigma (Campbell, 2023) has grown out of decades-long programmes of participation and advocacy work with organisations that are led by, and/or centre the voices and experiences of people and communities with lived experiences of poverty. In this work, themes of stigma and shame are repeatedly highlighted across all poverty areas.

In short, listening to what people with current lived experience of poverty prioritise in terms of action, underscores the extent to which the stigma associated with poverty, and the lack of dignity, self-worth and feelings of shame it can give rise to, can be as devastating and debilitating as material want. “Stigma entrenches people in poverty in ways that are underestimated and poorly understood. It is dangerous and, at its worst, can kill.” Stigma Free Futures Design team member. “I’ve realised how serious and damaging stigma is. We need to do something to change it and give people the tools to challenge it.” Steve, Stigma Free Futures Design team.

This emphasis on stigma is also reflected in social science research where the shame of poverty, and the pain of this shame, is highlighted as one of the most detrimental and disabling impacts of living in poverty (Lister, 2004; Walker, 2014; Bray et al. 2019; Tyler, 2020).In 2022, JRF invested in a Stigma Free Futures Design team with the aim of: deepening JRF’s and wider public understanding of poverty stigma, including the role stigma plays in normalising and exacerbating poverty designing actions to address and mitigate the causes and effects of poverty stigma.

This report shares the learning from Phase 1 of our work (2022-23), which aimed to develop a deeper understanding of what we mean when we talk about poverty stigma. In what follows we offer a redefinition of poverty stigma and its role in making poverty socially acceptable. This understanding of poverty stigma builds on our work together as a team, on decades of participation and advocacy work including social policy co-design work, and on academic research evidence.