The Stigma of Poverty and Unemployment


By: Abbie Eaton, BSc Criminology and Sociology student

We live in a society where we are socialised to determine success based on our job positions and our financial income. Those who are unable to conform to these ideas of success either through the conventional means or at all are subjected to shame and stigma. The institutional representation of the unemployed, those claiming benefits and people accessing foodbanks are often negative (Garthwaite, 2016, p.137) which increases the stigma around such matters. Under such representations stigma can be used as a method of power (Tyler and Slater, 2018). The ideas and concepts of sociologists such as Tyler are useful for examining and understanding how stigma is utilised as a method of power against those who are unemployed.

Stigmatising the Unemployed and Impoverished

So, what do we mean by stigma? Stigma is a term used to describe the degradation of people, areas, and circumstances; it is often as a result of social interactions (Tyler, 2020, p.9). The stigma around poverty and unemployment can often be seen particularly within media portrayals and most damagingly government attitudes. There is often a negative portrayal of those who are unemployed and living in poverty by the media and at times the neo-liberal attitudes of the government (Tyler and Slater, 2018).

Individuals who are living in poverty are often subjected to blame from the government (O’Connell and Hamilton, 2017, p.95) and ideas of laziness and lack of motivation are argued to be the main reasons for individuals who are struggling to find employment (Garthwaite, 2016, p.98). The government have argued that a ‘benefits culture’ has been created due to people relying on benefits and other forms of financial support and has insinuated that those in need of support and undeserving of help (Tyler, 2020, p.193).

Media representations of people living in poverty and those who are unemployed have also perpetuated stigma and stereotypes. The lives of people living in poverty have been made into a form of entertainment for television which often provides a distorted view and encourages an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ point of view (Garthwaite, 2016, p.138). More often than not media portrayals of those living in poverty, represent poorer communities and individuals as lazy and criminal (Garthwaite, 2016, p.137). In essence, those who are affected by poverty face constant observation and ridicule by society over their spending habits and lifestyle choices. Tyler notes that television shows depicting the lives of individuals living in poverty were specifically aimed to encourage judgement among viewers and provided means for further stigma to be encouraged (Tyler, 2020, p.196).

While it may form a sense of entertainment for some, the stigma created within the media can be debilitating for the individuals affected. Stigma can play a significant role in how we view ourselves (Tyler, 2020, p.9). We are socialised and expected to work, it provides a sense of value and therefore for many people failure to do work poses feelings of inferiority (Blau et al. 2013). The stigma and shame created also means that people are less likely to try and access help when they really need it for fear of embarrassment and judgement (Garthwaite, 2016, p.146). This media and government portrayal of those who are unemployed and facing poverty have created an outlet to gain evidence and support for policies created to place limits on the support individuals facing poverty can get. 

Photo by Kat Smith: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-holding-her-head-551588/

How is Stigma Productive?

Stigma is productive, it can enable structures of power to function (Tyler and Slater, 2018). Stigma operates as a way to legitimise government plans which reproduce inequalities (Tyler and Slater, 2018; Tyler, 2013, p.212). The stigma cultivated around poverty and unemployment has been beneficial for government policies reducing financial support for those requiring support (Tyler, 2020, p.194). For example, the utilisation of the power of stigma was particularly apparent with the Welfare Reform Act in 2014, with the promotion of ideas such as a ‘benefits culture’ both from the government and media which lead to support from the public (Tyler, 2020, 193-194). Tyler argues that during the lead up to the Welfare Reform Act in 2014, the culture of welfare and those in poverty was used as a form of propaganda presenting individuals as dependent and furthering the ideas of a welfare emergency Tyler, 2020, p.194. The example of the Welfare Reform Act in 2014 highlights how the stigma surrounding poverty and unemployment has been utilised to gain political ground in spending less money within welfare.

Additionally, Tyler highlights that stigma is a useful tool to manage the behaviours of society (Tyler and Slater, 2018). The stigma accumulated around unemployment and poverty serves as motivation for others. The belief that those who are unemployed are lazy or unmotivated and the idea that working people are considered to be diligent, instils a sense of otherness from those who are unemployed (Tyler, 2020, p.196; Garthwaite, 2016, p.98). The stigma around unemployment and poverty serves as a constant reminder of the repercussions of failing to conform to employment and therefore acts as a form of motivation for others to strive within their working environment. It is essentially a form of social control to encourage individuals to conform to the work expectations set out within society.

Ultimately the stigma surrounding unemployment and poverty is seen as a tool to be utilised in order to achieve an agenda for those in power, meanwhile, those struggling are left with feelings of shame and judgement from wider society.

References:

  • Blau, G. Petrucci, T. and McClendon, J. (2013) ‘Correlates of Life Satisfaction and Unemployment Stigma and the Impact Length of Unemployment on a Unique Unemployed Sample’, Career Development International, 18(3), pp.257-280. Doi: 10.1108/CDI-10-2012-0095.
  • Garthwaite, K. (2016) Hunger Pains: Life Inside Foodbank Britain. Bristol: Policy Press.
  • O’Connell, R. and Hamilton, L. (2017) ‘Hunger and Food Poverty’ in Cooper, V. and Whyte, D. (eds.) The Violence of Austerity. London: Pluto Press, pp. 94-100.
  • Tyler, I. (2013) Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain. London: Zed Books.
  • Tyler, I. (2020) Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality. London: Zed Books.
  • Tyler, I. and Slater, T. (2018) ‘Rethinking the Sociology of Stigma’, The Sociological Review, 66(4), pp.721-743. Doi: 10.1177/0038026118777425.

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