The surprising truth about benefits stigma in Britain

This article was originally posted on the LSE Politics & Policy blog - it’s a co-written post by me, Kate Bell and Declan Gaffney, based on our new report on the stigma of claiming benefits that  came out last week.

If you don’t pay much attention to these issues – hell, even if you do – you probably think that the public has entirely lost its support for benefits claimants. That the perception is that most claimants are scroungers or even fraudulent. That we are embarrassed by the benefits system, and think that all benefits should be cut. And that people think claiming benefits is something you should be ashamed of.

But if you thought this, then you would be wrong. Most people do not think that that most claimants are fraudulent, false or scroungers – indeed, even most Conservative voters don’t think this. Last time anyone checked (in 2003), a majority of people said they were proud of Britain’s social security system. Even in 2011, a majority are in favour of more spending on benefits disabled people, carers, low earners and retired people, as one of us shows here. And really very few people agree that claiming benefits is something you should be ashamed of: only 10-12% people agree (for each one of five benefits), while 78-80% disagree.

The reality of stigma

Yet this doesn’t mean that attitudes haven’t hardened nor that benefits stigma in Britain doesn’t exist – instead it shows that it takes a different form to what we might think. We detail all of this and more in our new report for Turn2us, Benefits Stigma in Britain, based on a new IpsosMORI survey, a re-analysis of existing data, some focus groups, and an analysis of all newspaper articles on benefits since 1995. (The various findings below are taken from the report unless otherwise specified).

From these analyses, we find that benefits stigma is less about the shame you yourself attach to claiming; instead it’s primarily about what we think others might think, and the way we’d be treated if we actually went to claim. And while part of this is about feelings of entitlement (which we return to below), at heart this is about whether people see us as ‘deserving’ or not – whether you would be seen as truly needy, as morally acceptable, and whether your claim seems your own fault or out of your hands.

And it’s here that the problems lie. While most people don’t think the majority of out-of-work claimants are outright fraudulent, our survey found that the average view was that one-in-four claimants were cheating the system – an order of magnitude higher than the officially, painstakingly checked figure. And it’s this feeling that claimants are deserving that seems to have been falling in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The roots of stigma

So where is this perception of undeservingness coming from?  One answer could be that it’s driven by personal experience – but actually, it’s very difficult for us to know how deserving the people we meet are. We included (what we think is) a novel question to test this out among those claiming disability-related benefits.  Only one in five of them said that their disability is usually ‘obvious to anyone when they see me in the street’, while nearly twice as many said that people usually ‘only know if I tell them’. Disability is more often hidden than easily visible.

Yet the Sun’s ‘Beat the Cheat’ campaign earlier this year asked for whisteblowers to contact them if they see their neighbour “who claim[s] to be too sick for work but enjoy sports and nights out down the pub”. No wonder the overwhelming majority of calls to the benefit fraud hotline are wrong, instead accusing people who are fully entitled to their benefit.

So is it the media’s fault? We’ve written elsewhere on coverage of benefits has changed since 1995, and how the media disproportionately focus on fraud (something that research shows just doesn’t happen in Sweden and Denmark). Alongside our Turn2us report, we also produced a ‘mythbuster’ that tries to correct some of the most common claims about benefits that are simply untrue.

We also found that negative coverage and personal experience can form a toxic combination – the highest perceptions of fraud were among those who live in a neighbourhood with many benefits claimants AND read a paper that represents claimants negatively.  Given that deservingness is so difficult to literally ‘see’ in front of us, our view is that the newspapers we read influence how we see the deservingness of the people we meet.

Yet it’s too easy just to blame newspapers for this. In fact, the biggest driver of newspaper coverage was the policy process – ministerial speeches, the passage of legislation, think-tank reports and the like. Tony Blair sought to ‘make the welfare state popular again’ through talking tough on benefits, but this seemed entirely counterproductive, making us more likely to think that the people around us were not genuine claimants (see this). A better alternative might be to talk about the positive achievements of the welfare state, and the enduring popularity of the contributory principle (as two of us discuss here).

For any party that did break from the mould – and if they did this in a way that chimes with the support for the benefits system that remains, as we started with – then they may even find a groundswell of support for it too.

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About Ben Baumberg

I am currently a Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where I regularly write articles and short blog posts. I have a wide range of (too many...) research interests, at the moment focusing on disability, the workplace, inequality, deservingness and the future of the benefits system, and the relationship between evidence and policy. You can find out more about me at http://www.benbaumberg.com
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6 Responses to The surprising truth about benefits stigma in Britain

  1. Fascinating stuff, Ben. I’ve only just downloaded the report, so my comments here are offered without a careful reading (which will be undertaken shortly!).

    I’m surprised at the finding that benefits stigma is “less about the shame you yourself attach to claiming; instead it’s primarily about what we think others might think,” given the ample evidence suggesting that the socialization of stigma typically results in significant self-stigmatization among the out-group. I believe Graham Scambler refers to this as the distinction between enacted and felt stigma. I am not contesting the result — obviously! — but just noting my surprise given how powerful the assignation of deviance is, especially inasmuch as it is attached to existing social and political gradients.

    The other point that leaps to mind is your question about where such stigma comes from. Two possibilities: the first is the evolutionary theory of stigma, and the second is the history of pension and benefits stigma. I’m wary of evolutionary explanations, but only insofar as they tend to encourage a kind of unreflective reductionism (i.e., that evolutionary considerations explain everything about human behavior, a kind of GUT). But I do think the basic question is critical: given how prosocial human animals generally are, why is the profoundly alienating and painful experience of stigma so unbelievably common in human societies?

    The idea, then, is that stigma as a social mechanism adopted in part as a method of handling the perceived harms and risks of social life. Anyway, it’s interesting, although it’s IMO not the whole story.

    The history of benefits stigma is more in my wheelhouse, so to speak, since it is one of the things I study (particularly in context of pain), and I think it’s important to understand that while concerns about deception and feigning illness are at least a thousand years old, they take on a new and more urgent character in the modern era, and especially in the nineteenth century. Not coincidentally, this c. sees the beginning of the organized, modern pension schemes all over the West, and when combined with the profound Victorian anxieties about truth, superficiality, authenticity, and identity, I think one can start to see some reasons for the rise in concerns about benefits/pension malingering.

    Much more to say here — maybe I’ll say it sometime!

  2. Ben Baumberg says:

    Thanks for the comment Daniel, and sorry for the slow reply. Going through your (really thought-provoking) points in turn:

    - Benefits stigma is unusual in some ways in that it turns on this issue of deservingness, and this has interesting internal/external dimensions to it. So from the inside, I generally think that I personally am a deserving claimant, but the stigma often comes from other people thinking I am NOT a deserving claimant. So the personal stigma around benefits is lower than I’d guess it would be for other issues, even if the stigma as a whole is equally real.

    - Evolutionary explanations are vaguely useful here. I think Kate and Declan vetoed the following quote from Bang Peterson et al 2012, but I liked it: “To risk oversimplification, just as we have evolved specializations that cause us to fear snakes and spiders, we evolved specializations that make us angry at the lazy but compassionate toward the needy.” On the other hand, I’m not sure this takes us very far – how do we differentiate between the lazy and the needy? How does this change in different historical periods? What are the respective roles of personal experience, the media and politicians in this? And this is what we start to explore in the report, although I’d like to spend another couple of decades studying it to be honest…

    - And as we’ve discussed before – I’m really looking forward to reading more about your own work on this!

  3. An American says:

    Mr. Baumberg, I am a commenter from the United States, where we have no such system as exists in the United Kingdom. You seem an intelligent man and I am guessing you are familiar with the ongoing debate across the pond regarding “Obamacare” as established by our president. As an American, aged sixteen, soon to be entering college as a matriculated student, and not at all optimistic about my employment prospects after graduation, and not at all part of the “one percent” class that seems to “own” this country, I can assure you I have heard a great deal of argument against social benefits on my side of the world too. Especially with regards to adults’ dismissal of the concerns of American youth — they naturally assume that unemployment of “Millennials” is due to them/us not trying hard enough, or getting poor grades, or choosing an “intellectual” major that has no practical bearing in the job market (it’s called “liberal arts” over here; I’m not sure if it’s the same in the U.K.). There is furthermore a deep-seated racial stigma about poverty and benefits-collecting still very much alive in America; I don’t know the racial demographics of the U.K., but over here in the States (especially since the president is of non-white background), there is a stigma surrounding “welfare” associated with blacks and people of Hispanic background. It is not just politicians who promote this notion: in many ordinary Americans’ minds the racial stigma exists too. I’m hearing Pink Floyd echoing exactly the sentiment of many Americans on this issue: “Us… and them.”

    I am also not optimistic about my employment prospects or even prospects for contribution to society because of one thing you brought up, and that’s “how we think people will see us.” I am a survivor of child abuse who has bipolar disorder and PTSD as a result, and still unfortunately lives with my erratic, dysfunctional family, who has a widespread history of that most unspeakable and fearsome taboo of “disabilities”: the dreaded mental illness. You are well aware also, I’m sure, of the ongoing debate over private weapons ownership brought about in the aftermath of two mass shootings over here, one in a Colorado movie theater and the other at an elementary school in Connecticut. All these factors have contributed greatly to the increase in stigma over mental health conditions, with people (who may or may not already be “paranoid”!) fearing a national “database” of the mentally ill similar to the record-keeping system of “life unworthy of life” that once horrified us about Nazi Germany. Private insurance under my parents will only last for another ten years until age twenty-six, after which I will either be forced to go on “welfare” or be kept on under “special circumstances.” Either way, it’s humiliating, first if I am lumped in with the label of “welfare” recipient and second if it goes on record at the insurance agency that I am “crazy.” That adds a double stigma, the first involving welfare and the second involving “lunacy” or “feeble mindedness.” There is far less stigma for cancer or even H.I.V. in America than there is of not knowing whether the person next to you might be another Adam Lanza or James Holmes. The fear of the “mentally ill” being ticking time bombs, in itself seems to have caused a mass hysteria in its own right. Perhaps, then, everyone has become “crazy” due to the trauma and stress of major tragedies and dire economic circumstances. But that doesn’t take away the pain and shame of people’s reactions upon suspecting or discovering that one is “insane.” As a result I have sought to attend college over the Internet so that I don’t have to go out of my house and face the public. I am too ashamed of the scarlet letter of madness I am forced to bear.

    I was not aware that there was such a stigma in Britain as there has perhaps always been in the United States. I would venture also that there is a stigma against “insanity” the world over as well. The activism of popular celebrities — Glenn Close over here, and Stephen Fry in your neighborhood — doesn’t seem to have done much, from where I sit, to diminish the stigma. The “everyday people” seem to think that “everyone in Hollywood/media is ‘crazy’ in some way.” I hope things turn around economically in Britain as well as over here, and psychologically as well, that people come to realize, as Churchill’s “friendly rival” Roosevelt famously said, that there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Just a perspective for you from someone across the pond.

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      Thanks so, so much for your post – for sharing your experiences of how other people’s reactions make you feel day-to-day.

      There’s not really anything I can add to everything you put so vividly, but if you are ever interesting in exploring studying these issues online with like-minded and generally amazing people, then there’s a couple of disability studies centres in the UK (<a href="http://www.lancs.ac.uk/cedr/events/"Lancaster and Leeds), and probably also places I don’t know about in the US too.

      Otherwise, I guess the onward struggle for all of us is to try and change this as best we can… Good luck with your studies, and I hope the world changes enough that you feel differently about going out with freedom before long. And despite everything, there are lots of good people out there that don’t judge you and don’t believe everything they read or hear either…

  4. Pingback: A softening of attitudes? | Inequalities

  5. Ben Baumberg says:

    Christian Albrekt Larsen has also written a really interesting post in Autumn 2013 on the LSE blog, which you can find here.

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