The Poverty Alliance hosted a session yesterday prompted by Mary O’Hara’s book, The shame game: overturning the toxic poverty narrative. It’s a powerful and very readable book, notably strengthened by her personal reflections. I’d part company with her argument, however, right at the end, where she suggests that the central task is to challenge and overturn the ‘toxic narrative’. Nor do I share the confidence of Nat Kendall-Taylor, the second speaker at the session, that the task is to find better ways of communicating, because we’re better at it than we used to be.
My own work on stigma was done nearly forty years ago – it was the subject of my doctoral thesis, and my first book. The stigma of poverty is deeply entrenched in our society, and in many others. The moral condemnation of the poor didn’t begin with austerity, or Thatcher, or Reagan; modern politicians have simply mobilised and endorsed prejudices that have been there, literally, for centuries. The stigma of poverty is also reinforced by a broad set of overlapping stigmas – such as the rejection of dependency, disability, mental illness and class. In the course of my work, I came to think that this was not so much a matter of discourse, as a reflection of something much deeper. It’s hard to explain the association of poverty with immorality and dirt in purely rational terms. If anyone out there is interested, my book, Stigma and social welfare, is freely available on my open access page.
It follows that I don’t think that challenging the narrative – a strategy which has been tried repeatedly since at least the 1930s – is likely to be effective in eradicating age-old prejudices. If we look at what is effective instead, I’d argue that the policies which have worked best have not been directly concerned with poverty at all. For example, we’ve largely taken health care out of the picture; we don’t criticise the poor recipients of health care for their dependency. The same is true of the beneficiaries of primary education, libraries, buses and sanitation. State Pensions and Child Benefit are very effective at helping people who are poor, but they’re understood in different terms. The least stigmatising policies have been aimed, not at the poorest, but at the welfare of everyone.