New report on why people on benefits are stigmatised


by Richard Exell    
8:51 am - November 23rd 2012

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A new report helps us understand why people who rely on benefits are increasingly stigmatised and makes important recommendations about what can be done about it.

This is important: the experience of the last government suggests that it is very difficult to reduce poverty without a commitment to redistribution – raising taxes and benefits. But redistribution is unlikely to appeal to politicians when welfare spending is already unpopular and public attitudes are steadily becoming harsher.

Benefits Stigma in Britain, a new report from Turn2Us, is based on work with claimants and non-claimants, looking at the idea that claiming benefits is embarrassing or shameful.

Stigma
The survey found that:

  • “Personal stigma” – a person’s own view that claiming benefits is shameful – is uncommon, reported by fewer than a third;
  • But “social stigma” – people’s opinion of how much there’s a general view that claiming is shameful – was more common, with just under half seeing this;
  • And “institutional stigma” – belief that people are not treated with respect when they claim benefits – was overwhelming, with 5 people in every 6 disagreeing with the suggestion that claimants are treated with respect.

The authors – Declan Gaffney and Kate Bell, who wrote our Making a Contribution report and Ben Baumberg (a highly respected sociologist at the University of Kent) – have asked what causes claimants to be stigmatised. In brief, their argument is that

claimants are primarily stigmatised when they are seen as undeserving or failing to reciprocate a gift

There are two circumstances where claimants are not stigmatised:

  • When they are deserving – especially if they are felt to be in genuine need and not the authors of their own misfortune – and
  • When their benefits are entitlements – either on the basis of prior contributions or citizenship, as with Child Benefit (till recently).

Benefits fraud

Unfortunately, people see claimants as less deserving than they once did and the public tends to over-estimate the level of benefit fraud. The British Social Attitudes Survey found that 37 per cent of the public think ‘most people on the dole are “fiddling”’. As I have noted before, just 0.8 per cent of benefit spending is overpaid due to fraud. And as Declan has pointed out to me in the past, this contributes very favourably with the level of fraud in claims for private insurance: the Association of British Insurers says that

The value of savings for honest customers from detected frauds represented 5.7% of all claims in 2011 … 7% of all motor claims in 2011 were fraudulent

In recent years the popular story about benefit fraud has focused on people claiming to be disabled when really they could work. Many newspapers have focused on the number of people being found Fit for Work under the dreaded Work Capability Assessment. Yesterday, Malcolm Harrington’s review of the WCA revealed that, 12 – 18 months after being found fit, three quarters still didn’t have jobs – which rather suggests that they did have a problem after all.

But repeating the facts hasn’t had an enormous effect on the public debate. Part of the problem is the way social security issues are reported, and the report includes a positive reference to the NUJ’s code of ethics (alongside a suggestion for new NUJ guidelines on benefits, addressing the issue of stigma.) But even more important, I suspect, is the finding that

countries with benefit systems based on contribution or on citizenship, rather than on a means tested basis, are less likely to see high levels of benefits stigma.

This is an important lesson for the future of welfare reform, but it is very much for the longer-term. In the short and medium term, I wish politicians from all parties would listen to a message some of us have been trying to get over for years:

We recommend that those trying to reduce benefits stigma do not attempt to do this by demonising ‘undeserving’ claimants, a strategy that has been tried and failed in the past. A conversation that moves away from the individual characteristics of benefit claimants and on to one that looks at the broader issues behind benefit receipt, including economic factors and the significant employment penalties experienced by disabled people, is likely to be more productive, if the aim is to reduce the stigma of claiming benefits. When politicians do talk about claimants they should emphasise typical rather than atypical cases. Most benefit claimants have paid contributions in the past, and will take part in paid work in the future, or contribute in other ways such as caring.

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About the author
Richard is an regular contributor. He is the TUC’s Senior Policy Officer covering social security, tax credits and labour market issues.
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Reader comments


Stigmatised for not working and instead taking money that I pay with my taxes every month? You don’t say.

Andreas Moser hits the nail on the head.

It has always seemed to me there is a saner way to get people off of disability benefits than assessments. Encourage them to work. I know quite a few people with disabilities and most of them would like to work. This isn’t easy when schemes like remploy are shut down. I know some one with a number of recurring problems including schizophrenia, epilepsy and depression. This person wants to work and has attempted too. Due to these problems this person can be pretty unreliable at times. This lead to them losing various jobs and then being in a worse position than they started as they were now considered fit to work. Eventually they returned to DLA. This same person now volunteers at a care home doing entertainment and generally helping out. Although this role is beneficial to the residents if he misses a day due to illness its not going to cause disruption. This person has refused a paid job due to his situation with benefits and the difficulty it would cause him losing the job and being declared fit to work. Wouldn’t it be better for the government if they are serious about getting people back to work to put money into creating jobs which can be done by people with disabilities with the necessary flexibility and adaptions made? Perhaps an expansion on access to work with a wider remit? A bank system where those who cannot work long hours can fill in for others. If done right it with focus on individual needs it would hopefully improve the finances of the individual, reduce their dependence on the state and i increase self-esteem and reduce stigma. However if Its done badly I coul imagine it being a big stick.

4. Chaise Guevara

Andreas Moser doesn’t read the article but responds anyway.

Freemen salutes this worthy attitude to debate.

The anti-benefits side is really making itself look good here…

5. Man on Clapham Omnibus

2. Freeman

Please elaborate. Surely the ability to work depends on the availability of work. Would you stigmatise the people that have just lost their jobs from Comet for example. Also would you stigmatise those who are in the building industry for whom work maybe currently scarce.

Perhaps you might like to comment on the trade off between unemployment and inflation as well as frictional unemployment.Maybe you might like to consider the phase
‘if its not hurting then it isn’t working’ in reference to this.

It would be good to hear an economists stance on this .

Ironically, most people on benefits have swallowed the propaganda themselves and believe that while they personally are entitled to benefits other claimants are fraudsters.

This means that even experience of being on benefit themselves does not translate to concern for others come voting time.

Of course, Labour contributed to this as much as the Tories having left ESA and ATOS behind them, like a Boston Steamer.

There’s plenty of stick around but not much carrot. The government should be plowing money into grants for employers to take on staff with disabilities – and ditto for ex-offenders. But since all three parties are competing for the prize of being the most punitive (see Labour’s campaign to continue the disenfranchisement of prisoners) I wouldn’t expect them to leave off kicking people while they are down any time soon.

” The government should be plowing money into grants for employers to take on staff with disabilities – and ditto for ex-offenders.”

This would lead to accusations of unfairness, blah blah.

The focus has to be on reducing unemployment: when labour is short, these problems fade away.

We also need to look at how benefits and taxes are paid. In theory, no one working full-time should need benefits (leaving aside child support, which the children will pay for in later life). If employees need x to survive, why isn’t the NMW in line?

Some people who receive benifits deserve a bit of scorn. Just go down to the job centre and see who’s signing on. I was myself recently. And have only found bits of work through an agency and gone back to sign on again for a bit when that stopped for a week.
In poor areas, the ”underclass” is very obvious, and people become unable to hold down a job.
It would be the getting up every morning and going down to a minimum wage crap job that they can’t hack.

I think the main problem is that jobs for the unskilled are too unattractive, and people learn that they can scrape by on benifits.

But this is one of those subjects that are difficult to discuss, because people will be looking at it in different ways. There’s the Polly Toynbee Guardian way … which is perfectly legitimate. Or the way that I tend to do more, and that’s just to look at the street around where I’m living.

The people who are coming at this from the Polly Toynbee angle can get quite cross with people who use too much anecdotal evidence of (for example) what it looks like in their local job/dole centre and in the run down streets where they live.

It does seem a bit crazy that some estates in Hackney and Tottenham that were affected by last years riots had really high unemployment rates, when hundreds of thousands of foriegners had managed to find work in London.

1,2,

Yea, let’s get rid of the useless eaters!

10. DisgustedOfTunbridgeWells

Andreas Moser doesn’t understand insurance schemes or apparently the various types of unemployment.

Andreas Moser is an idiot.

Labour is the only party that wants to relieve poverty, by kicking foreigners out of British jobs. The Shadow Immigration Minister Chris Bryant took on the Tories in the Commons, telling them “If one goes on holiday to Poland, France or Italy, it is nice to be greeted in the hotel by a receptionist who is from Poland, France or Italy. The same does not often happen in the United Kingdom. Is it not time that the British hospitality and tourism industries did more to enable young British people to get jobs in British hotels?”

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm121122/debtext/121122-0001.htm#12112237001226

Unfortunately that so-called “equalities” minister (a Tory) just mumbled a load of rubbish about how jobs should just go to the best qualified people (see her reply on that link) even if they do come from a different country. The sooner we kick these people out and put Bryant in charge of policing our borders the better.

Labour is the only party that wants to relieve poverty, by kicking foreigners out of British jobs.

You seem to see that as a positive thing but it just goes to show how far Labour and it’s supporters have moved to the right.

There was someone with your views interviewed in The Hour this week.

This OP uses three paragraphs under the sub title _Stigma_. Four paragraphs, with lengthy quotes, come under the sub title _Benefits fraud_.

Sub titles are important. They tell readers what to expect next.

Benefits fraud happens and the people who steal most are systematic criminals. As a topic, _Benefits fraud_ deserves one paragraph to discuss cheating.

If I were unable to pay my own bills, mortgage etc because I was out of work I would feel ashamed. Providing for me and mine is my responsibility, and I take it seriously. I could survive with no income for a number of months because I saved for it, you know, with my money.

I think a more sensible way to think about poverty in the UK is in terms of too much tax rather than not enough benefits (social security including pensions are 25% or thereabouts of govt spending per the last budget).

Why do we set a minimum wage, tax people on it, find we have to top it up with ever more benefits to supplement income (which we have just reduced with tax and NI) and then employ civil servants to move the resources around?

It makes no sense. It would be far more rational to up the personal allowance to a higher amount (say 15k) then tax on earnings above that at a flat rate (also discouraging avoidance).

Less welfare spending, more self sufficient people.

14

You forgot to mention tax credits.

AM @1, Freeman @2:

Everything looks like a nail when the only tool someone has in their rhetorical box is a hammer.

17. Derek Hattons Tailor

The point of stigmatizing anything is not personal attack, it is social change. By which I mean if you want to discourage “undesirable” behaviour (e.g smoking or eating all the pies) you use social pressure, which individuals may experience as stigmatization, as one means of acheiving it. Often this is in tandem with economic pressure such as raising taxes on cigarettes or putting VAT on pasties. I do find it puzzling that when the left do this it is called “nudging” and those who practice it have money thrown at them to prove that it works. When the right it, it’s called stigmatizing and it’s an absolute wrong. The only real difference is who gets to be in the in/out groups.

@14: “Why do we set a minimum wage, tax people on it, find we have to top it up with ever more benefits to supplement income (which we have just reduced with tax and NI) and then employ civil servants to move the resources around?

It makes no sense…”

Well, in some ways it does. This is the idea behind the so-called Nordic welfare state: everyone is entitled to benefits, everyone has to pay taxes. So this is why even those on minimum wage have to pay taxes, and even those who se income enables them to live conveniently are entitled to universal benefits and services such as child subsidies and health care.

This is not without problems of course, not in the least because of the cost. But it’s an ideological thing: if you want everyone of the population to love the welfare state, you need to make everyone dependent on it, and not make a system which benefits only a minority.

@ 12. Shatterface

People with my views get interviewed regularly on a range of programmes. They’re called Shadow Ministers.

Many comments here proving that the stigma is working – the govt and the right-wing press have done their jobs well.

In an ideal world there would be jobs for everyone, well-enough paid to provide people with ample savings for the future, and there would be no ill health. Right-wingers are so quick to talk about the ‘real world’ and yet they live in a fantasy land where they believe the above accurately describes Britain in 2012.

In the real world you are all so fond of, right-wing commenters, there are an average of 5 people chasing every job vacancy. Exactly how does it help to put ‘social pressure’ on unemployed people when the odds are that they will remain so through no fault of their own?

If you want to stigmatise someone, stigmatise employers for offering breadline pay, MPs who stubbornly refuse to raise the minimum wage, the Coalition government’s shameful dismantling of the NHS and all that will mean for healthcare in this country, Vince Cable for championing laws enabling businesses to sack people more easily, the MPs who decided to close Remploy. Etc.

Don’t be so quick to point the finger at a benefit claimant and say they caused their own situation when the same could happen to you tomorrow. Unless you have been fortunate enough to squirrel away hundreds of thousands of pounds, savings don’t last that long when you have nothing else coming in.

Thank you, Violet.

I would also add, blame politicians who don’t understand that simply “freeing” the private sector to create jobs isn’t enough. Government does have a role to play.

I was really pleased that Labour gave warm reception to Michael Heseltine’s report, which insisted Britain does need an industrial strategy, not just a free for all. Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives pretty much dismissed his findings, even though he’s supposedly one of them (but a world apart from today’s Tories).

22. Chaise Guevara

@ 17 Derek

“I do find it puzzling that when the left do this it is called “nudging” and those who practice it have money thrown at them to prove that it works. When the right it, it’s called stigmatizing and it’s an absolute wrong. The only real difference is who gets to be in the in/out groups.”

Obviously there’ll be some bias in play, but it’s also a case of how badly and unfairly people are affected. There’s a certain amount of stigma around obesity and smoking, but despite all the clamour I’d say it’s not that bad. My worst experience as a smoker has been with a) clubs and events that won’t let you leave the building and come back, effectively preventing you from smoking throughout, or who charge you extra for the privilege, and b) landlords and agencies who put a lazy blanket ban on smoking in their properties, forcing people to go down several flights of stairs each time they want a fag. The former is kind of an unforeseen side-effect of the ban, and the latter is nothing to do with the government. Whereas people on benefits are smeared as lazy do-nothings and tarred as cheats regardless of whether or not that’s true.

23. Derek Hattons Tailor

Violet – My point was that socially stigmatizing certain groups was taken up with relish by many elements on the left when it suited their agenda. Stigmatisation is a subjective psychological state, it is felt by smokers and fat people, not tobacco or food companies.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been a smoker but when I was it felt like visceral hatred sometimes, really being treated like dirt for doing something completely legal, and by people who were doing it basically because the government told them to.
Those same people are loudly complaining about stigmatisation of benefit claimants many of whom are fat/smokers. Why is it ok to stigmatise their habits but not their (lack of) an economic contribution ?Neither is right (government should not have “social policies” for this very reason), I’m just pointing out the hypocrisy of complaining about something you practice yourself.
As to the lack of jobs, that is a fair point, but it also lends weight to the argument that Blair/Brown could and should have done something about welfare when the economy was in better shape, rather than sacking Frank Field, introducing tax credits and then encouraging mass migration to fill the gaps.

24. Derek Hattons Tailor

@ 14 The counter argument is that some people simply would never be self sufficient. If you divided GDP evenly among the population: within weeks you would see wealth inequalities, within months, stratification, within years the emergence of a pareto like wealth distribution and an elite who effectively owned nearly all the wealth. The ability to make economic progress is not evenly distributed, therefore you need some kind of redistribution to ensure the survival of all. Quite what “survival” means in this context, who should pay for it and how much, is the meat and drink of politics

24

I suppose you have evidence to support your theory.

26. Derek Hattons Tailor

@25 er capitalism is the name of the theory ?

@charlieman – but the OP offers reasonable evidence that the problem of fraud has been massively overstated (while not denying it exists). Given that I assume some of this fraud is fairly large scale, it would seem that even fewer than 0.8 of *individuals* claiming benefits are fraudsters.

Many sick and disabled people do work or have worked. But there comes a point when working is no longer an option. They have aged or their disease has progressed.

It very much suits this government to stigmatise the sick and disabled, as i suspect they wish to privatise the welfare state.

I find it’s more younger people who complain most about so called benefit scroungers. Perhaps they are more likely to be manipulated by the media. They are also healthier and cannot envisage ever having a serious illness.

26

Capitalism has created the conditions you mention @24 so it might be a good idea to change the system rather than attempting to redistribute, as you observe, redistribution appears to be a waste of time.

Since politicians of all parties deliberatly stigmatise benefits in order to push their free market agendas, no amount of calling on them to desist is going to work. Destroying the welfare state is their aim, and returning to a universal principle of entitlement based on citizenship or contribution the last thing on their minds. Similarly, nothing the NUJ can do will help either. Whatever their code of ethics might say, their corporate and politically prejudiced employers (and their own middle class sense of belonging to the privileged elite) will demand a biased reporting of benefit stories anyway.

@27. Sarah AB: “but the OP offers reasonable evidence that the problem of fraud has been massively overstated (while not denying it exists).”

I should have been clearer, Sarah. I was trying to make the point that the OP accidentally overemphasises benefit fraud by poor editing. It is sufficient to say that 0.8% of benefits payments are fraudulently claimed without giving it a subtitle.

@4. Chaise Guevara and 5. Man on Clapham Omnibus

I only comment from my personal experience. I have come across more people than I can count who are pillaging the benefits system. It is not that they are committing fraud, but let me give you some examples that I have come across. Transport industry worker earning 25k a year. Married, spouse able to work. One dependent. Living in the very outer suburbs of London. Is this man really entitled to benefits? Of course not. Yet he is receiving 500 a month in various benefits. Is this legal and above board? Of course it is, but why on earth is he receiving money from the state. Not to mention he is not even a citizen of England.

Second example, even more extreme. Father working, 30k a year as a foreman. Wife stays home and has children (not an exageration, in the last 5 years, there hasn’t been a year she has not been pregnant). House is free because of big family. Its a rather nice semi detached in south London with 5 bedrooms, worth around 1m. He says this to me – “We came to England because of the social security system” I asked what he meant. He says “well its a softer touch”. Really? What they are doing is legal, but they are receiving over 70k a year in total benefits.

These are just two examples of the things I come across every day. So yes it makes you jaded, but it is not just a few cases. Its all the time. This country is turning people into dependents. It is financially better not to work.

We have a system where half of disability claimants are not even asked to prove they are unwell, benefits are being paid to millionaires, and we are effectively paying for people to have children they can’t afford. We spend 81.58bn on benefits every year, yet we have 2.6m unable/not working. Over 30k a year each! The benefits system in this country takes the p*ss. That is why it is stigmatised, and whilst yes I believe there to be a jobs problem (which is a whole other issue), these matters cannot be looked at in isolation. We need to tackle benefits, we need to tackle job creation. Don’t expect either the Conservatives or Labour to fix the problems though. They are far too interested in political points scoring than actually taking the decisions.

33. Chaise Guevara

@ 32 Freeman

I concur that there will be plenty of individual situations where people plainly get more than they should, mainly due to the difficulty of providing broad rules to be applied to the whole population. This might or might not be fixable with better rules.

I’m not sure what you mean about half of disability claimants not being asked to prove that they’re unwell. Do we flip a coin to decide whether to check someone’s claim or not? Or are some conditions unassessed?

What I’m wondering is whether this actually means “people with permanent, irreversible condition not asked to demonstrate existence of said condition every year”.

@33. Chaise Guevara

The stat comes from new applicants when people submit their applications for disability allowance. Half either need not show they are disabled, or are not asked.

Obviously, if you are a paraplegic, it would be ridiculous to ask them to re-submit each year, but as I understand it (as with a lot of benefits) you simply update when circumstances change. I really don’t think it would be too difficult to have an assessment schedule which were divided into broad groups. Things like paraplegia, severe brain damage, deformities, etc falling into one category where you update if change of circumstance. Then have a group where assessment is every 5 years for slightly less impacting cases, such as many forms of cancer, or chronic skeletal problems. Then every year for the minor issues. Accident related injuries, etc. There are a number of ‘zombie’ cases of benefits where people are simply keeping quiet about conditions that they really don’t suffer from anymore, but these are not worth considering really because I really don’t think it is a very large amount.

What is more of a problem is the underlying issuing of benefits. I think the benefits system goes hand in hand with the employment situation, and its likely a mistake where it is finacially better to live on benefits than to work. As I said though. The employment situation needs to be better, and we need to focus on creating jobs for people, not paying them to be idle.

I have just seen a story that the French government is upset with Ancellor Mittal for closing a lot of their steel plants in Franch because to the French situation. We should be attracting them here. There are a lot of steel trained people in areas such as Yorkshire that could do with a large steel corp coming in.

Andreas Moser @ 1

Do you know why and when we invented the welfare State? Do you understand the conditions unemployed people suffered pre Welfare State that prompted the Beverage report? The poverty and suffering? These people were not too lazy to work, ten years before hand, these were the same people who had endured the trenches and the nightmare of the great war. These people were not lazy. the economic situation meant that millions of decent people couldn’t find work.

If only there was a warning from history regarding how mass stigmatisation during economic downturns ends up?

Some of the halfwits on this board are too fucking ignorant to understand, but being German you might want to look at this with a bit more caution. If you despise the poor and the tax you pay to keep them out of concentration camps, you can always go back to Germany and take your despicable ideology with you. Fucking moron.

36. Derek Hattons Tailor

The thing that winds me up about people who go on about “my taxes” is that they often don’t even pay enough tax to support themselves, let alone anyone else. Until/Unless you earn median income (£26Kish) in other words half the population, you don’t pay enough tax to cover your own education, healthcare, pension etc., let alone anyone else’s. Even then, you are contributing a very small amount to anyone else’s costs. And unless you are genuinely rich, if you never have kids, and thus replace yourself as a productive adult, you are arguably always a net cost to the state in your own lifetime.

“I only comment from my personal experience.”

The personal experiences of someone willing to go on record as a credible source are worth something. The personal experiences of an anonymous commenter are worth the square root of fuck all, particularly when they sound exactly like they’re copied out of a BNP propaganda leaflet.

“French government is upset with Ancellor Mittal for closing a lot of their steel plants in Franch because to the French situation”

Arcelor is seeking to close plants for making new steel in France while leaving open its plants for recycling old steel, reflecting the change in world steel supply and demand (broadly, European steel requirements can now be met from recycling, because demand has shifted to China. There’s no point in shipping ore from Australia to France, processing it in France, and then shipping it to China, now that China is capable of processing its own steel). So no, it’s got nothing to do with the “French situation”.


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