“All I want for Christmas” - the blame and shame of poverty

22 December 2015

Christmas is almost upon us. A time for festive dinners, gift giving and spending time with family and loved ones. Although the ubiquitous ads and commercials would have you believe otherwise, this is but a dream for many. And forecasts of the effects of imminent welfare cuts suggest that an elaborate Christmas spread might become a distant reality for many more in the years to come.

Levels of poverty have increased in the last five years and are expected to increase further in light of proposed welfare cuts. Already the bedroom tax is requiring parents to cut back on food expenses and letting their children go hungry. The focus is to get people off welfare and into work, but having a job does not guarantee a life without poverty either. Despite Osborne’s recent U-turn on tax credits, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) indicates that 2.6 million working families stand to lose an average of £1,600 following the introduction of the universal credit system. The New Policy Institute finds that more than one million Londoners belong to the working poor, largely as a result of low pay and limited working hours.

Keeping child poverty on the politicians’ table

Children are hardest hit. They always are.

3.7 million children – or 28% of all children in the UK - were living in poverty last year alone. This represents an increase of 0.5 million children since 2010 after years of dramatic reductions in child poverty rates. Despite this increase, or rather because of it, the Welfare Reform and Work Bill removes the income-based poverty targets in the Child Poverty Act 2010 following the rationale that income-based measures do not adequately capture poverty.

Many organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group are lobbying hard to keep the income-based child poverty targets on the table, and rightly so. Families need cash to care for their children. This holds true around the world. It provides for basic needs such as food and shelter, which is as relevant in the UK as much as it is in countries in Africa and Asia. 4 million children and adults currently find themselves improperly fed and up to 2.5 million children live in houses that are damp.

But cash goes much further than securing basic and material needs. Robert Walker and colleagues at Oxford University highlight that living in poverty is a shameful experience (pdf). The provision of cash can help to alleviate that shame. Research from across the globe shows that a regular benefit reduces stress, improves relationships and creates confidence. Parents in Ghana, Rwanda and South Africa for example were found to feel more confident in their roles as caregivers following the receipt of financial support.

It is not rocket science: being able to buy gifts and decorate one’s house for Christmas makes parents feel they are able to provide for their children and makes children feel part of a festive tradition.

Shifting responsibilities

Not only is the current government denying many families such a Christmas, it is also adamant to make them feel that it is their own fault. In his speech in June, Cameron listed family breakdown, debt, addiction, lack of skills and the welfare ‘merry-go-round’ as the root causes of poverty, essentially absolving himself and his government of responsibility for those living in poverty but instead placing all blame with families themselves. The focus on worklessness of parents and educational attainment of children in the newly proposed child poverty targets is a case in point. Indeed it is true that poverty is about more than just money, and that education, awareness and attitudes are important factors in determining whether a child is doing well regardless of whether cash is available or not. Parenting is a key component in determining children’s outcomes, but there is no evidence of clear-cut causal link between poverty and parenting. And research in Ethiopia and Vietnam shows that responsibility for child wellbeing cannot solely be placed with the parents; lack of employment opportunities, social services and welfare acting as a safety net are equally important in securing children’s wellbeing.

Blaming and shaming

But it isn’t just the government’s rhetoric about welfare that shames those living poverty, it is also us. The Rowntree Foundation found that perceptions of those living in poverty are extremely negative, stereotyping them as lacking warmth and competence and ascribing their situation to personal failings. Research from South Africa shows that double standards are at play; poor women receiving a child grant to support the care for their children felt that while they were deserving of the grant, other women in a similar situation also receiving the grant were perceived of as being lazy and at fault for the their precarious situation. This kind of ‘othering’ is particularly pertinent in reference to parenting. Notwithstanding parents’ struggles to provide for their children to the best extent possible, general public perception in Germany for example considers parents living in poverty to be poor parents (pdf).

So imagine this: a Christmas minus the tree, no turkey and without gifts, but with omnipresent and continuous messaging that finding yourself in that situation is your own fault. The negative effects of such shaming are so profound that they have damaging physical and psychological health consequences, impair cognitive abilities and finally reduce educational and professional attainment, thereby locking people into a downward spiral. If we would really like to see everyone in our society prosper and flourish, all of us need to move beyond the blame and shame game and give people the trust and confidence in their abilities that they deserve. That’s all I want for Christmas.

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