ben baumbergEver since the first benefits systems came into being, they have been accompanied by debates about benefits stigma. Yet there is surprisingly little research on just how prevalent such stigma is. Reporting on the results of an original survey in the UK, Ben Baumberg Geiger suggests that whilst measuring the extent of stigma is not easy, the survey results strongly suggest that benefits stigma is currently widespread.

The role of stigma in the benefits system has been long-debated. Some have argued that benefit claims should be stigmatised to make sure that work is incentivised. Others have countered that (as Robert Pinker put it) ‘the imposition of stigma is the commonest form of violence used in democratic societies’. These debates have become increasingly prominent in recent years, with the suggestion that benefits in Britain have been increasingly stigmatised under the Coalition and Conservative governments, with harmful impacts on those who claim benefits (e.g. the work of Ruth Patrick and Kayleigh Garthwaite).

Yet unusually for longstanding policy controversies, there is little research on the extent of benefits stigma – whether it is strongly-felt by nearly everyone in Britain, or a genuine but rare phenomenon. The results of a specially-commissioned nationally representative survey on benefits stigma in Britain help to fill this gap.

A first cut at the prevalence of benefits stigma

The first way we measured stigma was to ask if respondents felt that ‘people should feel ashamed to claim’ a given benefit. Perhaps surprisingly, only about 10-12 per cent of people agreed that people should be ashamed to claim each type of benefit (for single parents, unemployment, incapacity, housing benefit and tax credits), and only 20 per cent of people agreed with at least one of these. Among claimants, only about 9 per cent agreed that people should feel ashamed to claim the benefit that they themselves claimed – although this still suggests that hundreds of thousands of claimants nationally are feeling ashamed.

However, this is only one type of stigma, which I term ‘personal stigma’. Another type of stigma is respondents’ belief that other people believe that benefit claiming is shameful – something I term ‘stigmatisation’ (following Elaine Chase and Robert Walker among others). This was more common, with 16-19 per cent of respondents agreeing that other people stigmatised each benefit, and 27 per cent agreeing that other people stigmatised at least one benefit. Over one-third (34 per cent) believe either that they should feel ashamed for claiming at least one type of benefit, or that other people think that they should be ashamed.

Why this is not the full picture

This suggests that a substantial minority of Britons stigmatise benefits claims – but there are reasons to think that even this is an underestimate. While qualitative research is not ideally suited to estimating how widespread something is, existing high-quality research does seem to suggest that most claimants feel some sort of stigma. One factor may be that our survey asks about feeling ‘ashamed’, which is a strong term. Indeed, as many people say they ‘neither agree nor disagree’ with the stigma questions as say they agree with them, which may imply that a lower level of stigma (e.g. perhaps ‘embarrassment’) is about twice as common as described above.

Furthermore, even if claims by ‘deserving’ claimants may not be stigmatised, those by ‘undeserving’ claimants seem to be heavily stigmatised according to our linked qualitative work and the wider qualitative literature. The results above may therefore best be interpreted as showing that only a minority of people inherently stigmatise benefits claims. However, the lived experience of benefit claimants may be quite different if a scrounger-primed public are quick to judge casual acquaintances and strangers as undeserving, as some have suggested.

There is also a third type of stigma, about the process of claiming benefits, which I term ‘claims stigma’. While this question was asked differently, it is striking than an outright majority of respondents (58 per cent) disagree that ‘people are generally treated with respect when they claim benefits’. This fits older evidence from the British Social Attitudes survey, where around half of people agreed in 2000 that ‘people receiving social security are made to feel like second class citizens’, and qualitative evidence suggests that this is often the most strongly-felt stigma of all.

Finally, it might also be that ‘the admission of stigma is itself stigmatising’ (as Peter Taylor-Gooby has put it), so people who feel stigma don’t report it. In our survey, we asked people which factors would make them less likely to claim benefits if they thought they needed them. We included several shame-related responses – e.g. ‘thinking benefits are for other people, not people like me’, ‘how family, friends or neighbours would react’ or ‘having to provide personal information (about income or having a partner)’ – but without once using the word ‘shame’. We found 27 per cent of respondents gave a shame-related reason for delaying claiming, and this often included people who did not admit to stigma in the initial questions.

In total, 49 per cent of respondents reported some form of benefits stigma – either thinking people should feel ashamed for claiming, believing others would think this, or giving a stigma-related reason for delaying claiming. And a further 30 per cent disagree that claimants are treated with respect when applying for benefits. Measuring the extent of benefits stigma is not easy. Yet despite the potential for underestimating stigma, our study strongly suggests that benefits stigma is currently widespread – if not universal – in Britain in one form or another.

Notes: This analysis, published in the Journal of Social Policy (ungated here), develops an initial project report, co-authored with Kate Bell and Declan Gaffney for the charity Elizabeth Finn Care/turn2us. The survey is a face-to-face quota sample with a boost sample of benefits claimants, weighted to be representative of the general population, and is probably more representative than an internet poll but less so than the British Social Attitudes survey. You can read more about the methods in the full paper, and you can access the data and replicate the analyses from my website.

You may also be interested in a separate blog post over at my collaborative blog Inequalities, I talk about another part of the same paper that looks at whether there are neighbourhoods where benefit claims aren’t stigmatised.

About the Author

ben baumbergBen Baumberg Geiger is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Kent, and Co-Director of the Kent Q-Step Centre.

Featured Image credit: Anthony Easton/ CC BY 2.0


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