Poverty, language and stigma: Talking down to poverty

The way we talk about big issues that affect us has a deep effect on stigma, particularly when our language reinforces negative stereotypes and embeds these issues as something inherent in the people they affect. In the context of poverty, this can have a debilitating effect, leading people to avoid seeking support, or worse to ‘buy in’ to the rhetoric and believe themselves to be somehow worth less than others who are not experiencing poverty.

Challenging this can be difficult – a 2008 report form the Joseph Rowntree Foundation[1] looked deeply at how the media portrays poverty and how this both shaped and was informed by public opinion. It found comment to be marginal, and where present, rarely challenging the underlying causes.

When the People in Place team here at Corra Foundation discussed the issue, we identified that much of the stigma around poverty in the UK focuses on fault. Words and phrases used to describe and discuss poverty suggest not only a lack of worth and personal responsibility, but actively reinforce these beliefs.

This is compounded when we think about the sources of stigma itself, which are three-fold: personal, public and societal. Tabloid phrases: ‘feckless’, ‘scrounger’ and ‘skiver’, are used to identify whole sections of the community. We talk about ‘benefits’[2] and ‘sanctions’[3] to describe a system that was set up to focus on welfare, not twist thought towards an undeserving poor ‘scrounging off the state’.

Our own experience working in communities has suggested how powerful words can be, and also how they can be used to change perceptions and support positive actions. In supporting the creation of places and spaces where people feel confident and comfortable to support one another we have discovered that what you call something really matters.

“For the second year I supported a School Uniform Clothing Bank, however I personally felt uncomfortable with the word “bank”. I thought to myself would I like to be told the area I am living in is poverty stricken or that I am living in poverty? When times are tough in my household I know without someone sticking a label on it to remind me.

“Swapping the word ‘bank’ for ‘project’ changed the whole feel of the initiative, people readily donated and there was a more positive feel on collection day in comparison to the year before where many people were in visible distress.” Community Co-ordinator, People in Place team

We have other examples of changing ‘food bank’ to ‘food share’, or talking about ‘preloved’ clothes rather than donated or second hand. In the communities we work alongside, these seemingly small changes can mean that people feel more able to work together to address hard issues with dignity and allow people to feel part of community rather than apart from it.

[1] https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/media-poverty-and-public-opinion-uk

[2] Benefit: NOUN 1. An advantage or profit gained from something https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/benefit 04/10/18

[3] Sanctions: NOUN 1. A threatened penalty for disobeying a law or rule

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/sanction 04/10/18

You can find out more about Corra Foundation’s People in Place programme here

 

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