Shame on us: why stigmatising welfare claimants won’t work

Nick Bailey, board member of the Poverty Alliance and Senior Lecturer at the University of Glasgow, looks at not only why stigmatising people on benefits is wrong, but that it doesn’t work when it comes to getting people into employment. 

It is clear by now that the Coalition Government has a policy of relentlessly stigmatising and demonising people on welfare benefits. Their misrepresentation of data and evidence is done so consistently because it is done with a purpose in mind – to support their efforts to cut the welfare system and to transform the UK permanently into a more individualistic society (see for example Peter Taylor-Gooby’s excellent book, The double crisis of the welfare state and what we can do about it).

Demonising the poor supports the Government’s efforts in two ways. First, it is intended to affect those on welfare by increasing the stigma associated with claiming benefits. The Government view is that the poor are content to remain on benefits because they are ‘shameless’ so a great dose of extra shame is the cure. Second, it is intended to affect those not on welfare by re-shaping how they view the poor. The ‘majority’ are being told that deep cuts to welfare are acceptable – necessary even – because the people who lose do not deserve support. The result is a steady decline in support for those on welfare benefits.

Shame is being used as a tool of policy. But it is a tool which we know won’t work and it won’t work for three reasons.

First, shaming people produces the opposite reaction to the one the Government wants because shame itself is damaging for individuals. It leads people to give the appearance of coping while withdrawing from social activities and connections to reduce the risks of being judged for their poverty. People feel disempowered and less able to take control of their lives. They are more likely to fall victim to depression and despair. This has been documented in an excellent study by Robert Walker and colleagues recently.

Second, it is simply wrong to claim that people in poverty lack shame. The Poverty Alliance’s recent video shows this. And it has been confirmed by new evidence from the Poverty and Social Exclusion UK survey (Figure 1). The more deprived an individual is, the more likely they are to say they have felt embarrassed due to lack of money or that they have been made to feel small due to lack of money. At the highest levels of deprivation, almost everyone says they have felt these kinds of shame. For the great majority, people are not poor because they lack shame so heaping more shame on them will only increase the harms associated with poverty.

Figure 1: Proportion of people who have experienced shame by level of deprivation


Blog graph

Source: PSE-UK data – Bailey et al (2013). ‘Deprivation score’ is a count of the number of necessities which each adult lacked – see for more details.

Third, and perhaps most damning, the Government’s own research has shown that shaming people is counterproductive. It has been conducting an experiment in a number of JobCentrePlus offices over the last year. In these offices, it has dropped the normal approach to interviews with claimants which focussed heavily on compliance with benefit conditions (e.g. “have claimants done three job search activities in the last two weeks?”). Instead staff were told to focus on supporting unemployed people, encouraging them and helping them be more resilient, and setting achievable goals. There has been a serious evaluation effort and the results are, to quote the Cabinet Office report, “impressive”: “job seekers in the treatment group are 15-20% more likely … to be off benefits 13 weeks after signing on”. Support, not shame, is what enables people to take control of their lives and increases their chances of finding a route out of poverty.

This makes the Poverty Alliance’s Stick Your Labels campaign all the more valuable. This campaign seeks to challenges myths about poverty. It has had great success in ensuring that the political language used to discuss welfare in Scotland has remained distinctly different to that in London.

We still need to tackle material disadvantage, but political and media representations of the poor and of those on welfare also matter. Relentless stigmatisation does real damage – socially and politically.

If we go along with this or we fail to challenge it, shame on us.


Bailey, N., Besemer, K., Bramley, G., and Livingston, M. (2013)  How neighbourhood context shapes poverty: some results from the Poverty and Social Exclusion UK Survey 2012. Paper presented at the European Network for Housing Research, Tarragona, Spain, 19-22 July.

Originally published in the Herald, 03/07/13

One comment

  1. Pingback: Social Exclusion:The Term | Rashid's Blog

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