The Stigma of Poverty

Greig Inglis, Research Fellow for the Scottish Collaboration for Public Health Research (SCPHRP).

The experience of poverty extends beyond material and economic disadvantage, and people living in poverty often describe encountering various forms of stigma, prejudice and discrimination. Poverty stigma is evident in the everyday language that we use to discuss poverty, public attitudes on the causes of poverty, and in media and political discourses over issues such as benefits. Poverty stigma creates divisions between “the poor” and the “non-poor” which serve to justify and maintain socioeconomic inequalities, and can also cause people living in poverty to feel socially excluded and ashamed[1]. Stigma is harmful to health[2], and in the case of poverty, may deter individuals from claiming all of the benefits that they are entitled to, thereby further limiting low incomes.[3]

Given the potential negative consequences of poverty stigma, there is a clear impetus to challenge prejudice and discrimination directed towards those living on low incomes. When devising strategies and campaigns to reduce poverty stigma however, it is important to recognise that stigma takes several forms and operates at various institutional, social and personal levels.

At the institutional level, stigma can be seen in laws, policies and institutional practices that discriminate against, or shame individuals living in poverty. Institutional stigma is evident in how social security policies are designed and delivered. A key principle underlying welfare reforms for example, is the notion that welfare policies often encourage a culture of dependency and worklessness amongst claimants[4]. The delivery of welfare policies can also be shaming and in one recent survey, 57% of the benefits claimants interviewed disagreed that people are generally treated with respect when claiming benefits3. Institutional stigma is also seen in how poverty is framed and discussed though the media, as demonstrated by the negative stereotypes of benefits claimants that are commonly perpetuated through newspapers[5].

Social stigma includes public attitudes toward poverty and welfare, and are typically measured through national surveys. Data from the British Attitudes Survey for example show that individualistic explanations of poverty have become more prevalent over time in the United Kingdom. For example, the percentage of individuals who thought that people live in need due to “laziness or lack of willpower” had risen from 15% in 1994 to 23% in 2010.  Moreover, the proportion of individuals who thought that people live in need due to “injustice in society” had fallen from 29% in 1994 to 21% in 2010[6].

Public attitudes towards welfare are complicated and vary considerably across different forms of benefits, although one area where negative attitudes are particularly common is unemployment. Data from 2013 for example, show that approximately half (56%) of people in the UK agree that most people in their area could find a job if they wanted one, whilst a third (33%) agree that “most people on the dole are fiddling.” These examples demonstrate how common some aspects of social poverty stigma are in the UK.

Personal stigma occurs when individuals internalise the various forms of stigma and discrimination that they experience or perceive from others. On this point, a recent review of qualitative research shows how people living on low incomes may draw on social and political discourses of poverty and come to think of themselves as inadequate or having failed in some way. Individuals may come to internalise negative attitudes surrounding welfare for example, or become self-critical when they are unable to meet certain social expectations[7]. This can leave people feeling guilty, ashamed or humiliated, which has a corrosive effect on their self-esteem[8].

Recognising the various forms that stigma takes draws attention to the importance of developing anti-stigma campaigns that challenge prejudice and discrimination across the various institutional, social and personal levels. Interventions that focus exclusively on one form of stigma within a particular context may produce positive results in the short term, but that these gains are unlikely to be maintained if the wider structural and social contexts remain unchanged[9]. There will be many lessons to be learned in this regard from other national campaigns, such as See Me. This campaign aims to tackle mental illness stigma and discrimination at different levels and through a number of different activities, ranging from arts-based awareness raising to directly challenging negative media portrayals of mental ill health[10].

There is also a need for campaigners and researchers to better understand how institutional, social and personal forms of stigma are related to and affect one another. Whilst it’s readily apparent how action at the institutional level can have widespread impacts on lower forms of public and personal stigma, researchers have recently noted that action at the personal and public levels can also be effective in bringing about changes at higher institutional levels[11]. Therefore, interventions that seek to change public attitudes toward poverty for example may also have the potential to change the broader social and structural sources of stigma. There are implications here for how researchers should monitor evaluate the impacts of anti-stigma campaigns, which may have wider impacts beyond the initial scope of an intervention.

It is also important to recognise that power is central to stigma, and that stigma can only occur when individuals have sufficient economic, social and political resources to effectively label, stereotype and discriminate against others9. This view also has implications for how we should go about attempting to reduce stigma. Specifically, it suggests that interventions should seek to challenge the stigmatising views and practices of powerful groups, or that they should target the power imbalances in society that allow some groups to translate stigmatising attitudes and behaviours into discrimination and unfair outcomes among stigmatized groups9. In this sense, stigma interventions can be seen as part of a wider effort to reduce inequalities more generally.



[1] Lister, R. (2015). ‘To count for nothing’: poverty beyond the statistics. Journal of British Academy, 3, 139-165.
[2] Hatzenbuehler, M.L., Phelan, J.C., & Link, B.G. (2014). Stigma as a fundamental cause of population health inequalities. American Journal of Public Health, 103, 813-821.
[3] Baumberg, B. (2016). The stigma of claiming benefits: a quantitative study. Journal of Social Policy, 45, 181-199.
[4] Walker, R., & Chase, E. (2016). Adding to the shame of poverty: the public, politicians and the media. Poverty, 148, 9-13.
[5] Baumberg, B., Bell, K., & Gaffney, D. (2012). Benefits stigma in Britain. Canterbury: Turn2us
[6] Public Attitudes to Poverty, Inequality and Welfare in Scotland and Britain. Scottish Government. Available at:
[7] Pemberton, S., Sutton, E., & Fahmy, E. (2013). A review of the qualitative evidence relation to the experience of poverty and exclusion. Poverty and Social Exclusion. Available at:
[8]Walker, R. (2014). The Shame of Poverty. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[9] Link, B.G., & Phelan, J.C. (2001). Conceptualising stigma. Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 363-385.
[10] Robertson, J. (2015). See Me: The campaign to end mental health stigma. Scottish Anti Poverty Review. Changing Public Attitudes to Poverty. Available at:
[11] Cook, J.E., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Meyer, I.H., Busch, J.T.A. (2014). Intervening within and across levels: a multilevel approach to stigma and public health. Social Science and Medicine, 103, 101-109.



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