Poverty charity calls for changes to reduce benefit stigma



A nationwide survey by national poverty charity Turn2us has revealed that almost half (48%) of the UK population who have had their employment affected by the coronavirus are more likely to make a benefits claim if they think claimants will be treated with dignity and respect.

Findings show that half of workers who agree that claimants are treated with dignity and respect are planning to make a benefit claim; compared to just one in three workers (36%) of those who do not.

The research, carried out to assess people’s behaviours and attitudes in response to the coronavirus pandemic, also highlights that one in four (27%) of the general public thinks benefit claimants should be ashamed – up from 11% in 2012. Furthermore, four out of 10 people (44%) believe that benefit claimants are not treated with dignity and respect.

These findings support previous academic research from 2012, which showed that institutional stigma is a barrier to claiming during times of need. More than a quarter of people who choose to delay or not claim benefits, but that are entitled to, do so because of shame or stigma.

A personal belief that claimants should be ashamed is highest among people planning to claim due to coronavirus. One in six people (18%) who plan to make a claim personally believe that claimants should feel ashamed. This is compared to one in nine people (11%) who are not planning to make a claim. This suggests an internalised sense of shame.

Findings also reveal how support for increased government spending for unemployed people is at its highest level for over 20 years, with one in four people supporting greater government support for the unemployed. These figures reveal a contradiction in current public attitudes, with record levels of support for greater welfare spending on the unemployed at the same time as rising levels of shame and stigma around benefits.  

The charity is asking for a number of social and institutional changes to help create a social security system that is fit for purpose and reduces shame and stigma. This includes:

  • The co-design of the social security system with people who use it; and the charity partners that work within the poverty and social justice sector; in order to help to create a more user-friendly system, which embodies compassion and dignity; and is both accessible and transparent.
  • Changing the way we talk about benefits so we can create a sense of pride over it, much like we do with our NHS. Our social security system should be seen as an investment into people’s ability to thrive in our society, focusing on how it has supported people to live a better life.

Thomas Lawson, Chief Executive at Turn2us says: “The ‘scrounger’ narrative that surrounds our social security system doesn’t belong in a modern society. Our government, the charity sector, and people who have experienced using the system, must work together to undertake reforms and create a welfare net that is fit for purpose and gives us something that makes us proud.

“The reality is that benefit fraud is very rare and the majority of claimants are simply pensioners, working people on low incomes struggling with rent, and families accessing child benefit or tax credits.  Considering those on low incomes as ‘skivers’ creates a hostile environment which ultimately stops people from accessing the help for which they are eligible - and need - in order to be able to afford food and shelter. Ultimately, the coronavirus pandemic has revealed that more of us are vulnerable than we may have previously thought, and we should be celebrating a welfare state that protects us; not shaming those of us who don’t have savings, property or an inheritance to fall back on.”

Lord John Sharkey, life peer and Turn2us trustee, comments: “We know from our experience of working with people who have claimed, or are currently claiming benefits - combined with our historical research - that shame and stigma is a key factor in preventing or delaying a person from claiming.

“By not accessing the benefits they are entitled to, a person’s financial situation is likely to be further compounded and risks pushing them deeper into poverty. It can also have a detrimental effect on mental health, with almost half of our Benefit Calculator users reporting an increase in anxiety over the last six months.

“The idea of being too proud to claim benefits is a stereotype best left in the past. Whether it is personal, institutional or social stigma, we can all do our part to change the discourse and build a social security system whereby people feel they can claim the benefits that they are entitled to. No one in the 21st century should have to struggle to put food on the table for themselves or their families; and we must encourage people to access the help they need; when they need it.”

Karen Issac, a Turn2us grant beneficiary from Canterbury said: “Universal Credit makes me feel like I have failed somehow, like I am a second-class citizen. I know it shouldn’t, but it does - especially my generation that were brought up to not borrow, and work for anything you wanted.

“I don’t know of anyone in my family or friends on any benefits. But I think other people I have met/ spoken to feel exactly the same whatever their age.”