So this summer I was lucky enough to work on a project looking at benefit stigma in Britain and the final report of this is out today – cue much excitement from my little house in Cape Town 🙂
Whilst not obviously linked to my PhD (well, kind of not really at all!) anyone who knows me will know that I have a keen interest in these debates both on and intellectual level, (I am a social policy student after all) and a personal level, having had friends and family members impacted by issues to do with disability in recent years. Indeed, anyone who has had the (unfortunate) experience to have been in earshot of me when this topic is being discussed will be well aware of how passionately I feel about the issue. In fact, I think it was being subjected to several of these late night ‘discussions’ in LSE public houses which led my friend Ben asking me if I wanted to be part of the project, and of course I jumped at the chance.
The report set out to investigate the stigma attached to claiming benefits in Britain today using a mixed methods approach which included a survey (conducted in May2012), focus groups with a range of claimants and non-claimants, analysis of pre-existing survey data, and an analysis of articles about benefits in national newspapers from 1995 to 2011.
Now obviously I think everyone should read the report, or at least the Executive Summary, but I know how busy people are so here are the condensed key findings:
- The public vastly overestimated the numbers of people ‘claiming falsely’ or ‘committing fraud’.
- 1 in 5 people believe a majority of claims are false, while 14% believe a majority of claims are fraudulent. The Government’s own statistics indicate an actual fraud rate of around 1%.
- The public now see claimants as less deserving than they did 20 years ago, with noticeable shifts in opinion in the late 1990s and early 2000s
- Evidence was found to support the idea that negative media coverage is linked to stigma – with people who read more stigmatising newspapers perceiving higher levels of fraud and greater personal stigma
- Both a national survey and use of focus groups demonstrated that stigma is impacting on both take up of tax credits and benefits. Many are making a choice whether to ‘heat or eat’ because of a deep-seated sense of shame at the prospect of claiming
- Non-take up of benefits has risen concurrently with stigma.
Why does this matter?
Well it matters for lots of reasons, but here of a few.
Firstly, the political and public landscape is constantly being bombarded with figures and stories about benefits, fraud and stigma – particularly around disability benefits. Not only is this often unhelpful and misleading, but it can also be damaging. This means that actual, rigorous and transparent evidence is crucial. I have lost count of the number of times I have spotted statistics or a story in the press which, having then followed it up, has left me infuriated through its misrepresentation. (For a masterclass in how to unpick benefit statistics read this post by Ben from last year) Indeed one of the key findings outlined above is just how vastly people over estimate the numbers of people ‘claiming falsely’ or ‘committing fraud’. The only way to start to tackle this issue is by highlighting these discrepancies and to begin talking about why they occur and what can be done about them.
Which leads me on to point number two. We should not expect the public to be expert statisticians, nor should we expect them to have the time to spend hours trying to work out what all of these statistics and stories actually mean. The media and politicians also have a key role in shaping public discussion and as such need to act (and talk) responsibly. This includes providing full details of data that they are using, and not just picking on sensational, atypical statistics and cases which will grab headlines, something which the Guardian has picked upon today. Whilst some might say this is wishful thinking the report recommends that the UK Statistics Authority consider two sets of changes to the Code of Practice for Statistics, not least making public providers of official and ad hoc statistics accept responsibility for predictable and repeated media misinterpretations and acting to correct these.
Thirdly, it shows that there are more productive ways of talking about benefits. Believe it or not even a left-wing, guardian-reading liberal type like me doesn’t like to see money ‘wasted’ through spending where it isn’t needed. But I don’t think stigmatising entire sectors of the population is helpful. It is unlikely to impact on the minority of people who are claiming falsely but, as the report highlights, can and does have a huge impact on those who are on benefits, not out of choice, but because they happen to be in a position in life where they need some help. As the report points out, we need to move away from focusing on the individual characteristics of people and making judgements on their moral standing, to look at some the broader issues behind benefit receipt – such as the significant employment penalties experienced by disabled people.
Finally, it matters because ultimately benefits matter. For many people they matter a lot. They are there for a reason and no-one should be made to feel ashamed to claim something to which they are entitled. People have a human right to live dignified lives and sometimes I think that, in amongst all the headlines, figures and statistics, the human element of this discussion can get lost. People on benefits are people too and deserve to be treated with the same respect as those of us fortunate enough to be healthy and with enough income to support ourselves.
Anyway, enough verbal diarrhoea for a Tuesday evening. I shall leave the final word to the late Peter Townsend who was a Professor at the LSE (I was lucky enough to have been taught by him when I was doing my masters). In 1962 he wrote a book called The Last Refuge looking at residential care for the elderly in Britain. What he found shocked many and he ends the book with the following quote which, whilst has always remained true, I think is finding a new resonance in the current political climate:
‘At a time when we stand perhaps on the threshold of a new era in social policy we are in danger of being stigmatized by future generations as grudging, indifferent and parsimonious to those among us who are unable, because of chronic illness, disability, poverty, loss of family or inadequacy of housing, to stand up to the rigours of competitive society….It may be worth reflecting, if indeed a little sadly, that possibly the ultimate test of the quality of a free, democratic and prosperous society is to be found in the standards of freedom, democracy and prosperity enjoyed by its weakest members.’ Peter Townsend, 1962.