Carla McCormack and Rachel Thomson from the Poverty Alliance’s policy team look at the stigma of poverty and what it can mean to speak out
In last night’s television debate ahead of the General Election, a nurse admitted that she had been forced to use a foodbank. This blog isn’t about nurses’ pay, or the election, but about the reaction that this statement provoked online and the impact this can have on people with direct experience of poverty.
The first area we want to address is the idea that someone on a nurse’s salary would not need to use a foodbank. There were many tweets online about why someone on this amount of money would need to go to a foodbank, and many accused the woman of lying. However, we already know that nurses are having to use foodbanks – we’ve seen evidence from the Royal College of Nursing on this. With the cost of living rising faster than people’s incomes (both for those in and out of work) people are likely to come to pressure points and this is when they find themselves having to rely on food banks. Housing costs, childcare and transport are taking up more and more of people’s incomes and one unforeseen circumstance could push many of us into needing help.
It is not up to us to make a moral judgement about how people spend their money. The nurse in question had recently tweeted about a bottle of rose wine. Many seized upon this as evidence of either lying or fiscal irresponsibility. The problem with this is that it ignores the realities of living in poverty or on a low income. It is the same argument that we see every time an episode of Benefits Street is on TV and people ask how someone could be in poverty and have a big TV. People move in and out of poverty, very few people remain in poverty throughout their entire lives. Items can also be gifts, bought on finance or with a credit card. It is also important to remember that people on low incomes deserve the same treats we all enjoy – there are very few of us who can say we have never bought a treat when the money could have been better spent elsewhere. There is often a clear double standard when we talk about how people experiencing poverty spend their money – for those who are well off a treat is deemed just that – a treat. However, when people on low incomes do the same they are often deemed irresponsible and to blame for their own situation.
Finally, we want to raise the fact that by attacking someone online for saying that they have had to go to a foodbank to feed themselves or their family, we reduce the likelihood of people experiencing poverty speaking out. People with lived experience are the experts but a stigma exists around poverty, and it is a brave and difficult decision to speak publicly about what it is like to live on a low income. We work to support activists to do this on a daily basis but the reaction from many people last night will no doubt cause some of our activists to think twice about doing so in future.
People relying on foodbanks for food is a sign of societal failure, not individual failure, so let’s stop blaming people for their poverty and start addressing the structural issues that cause it.
You can find out more about the myths of poverty by checking out our Stick Your Labels campaign.