Living With and Fighting the “Benefit Mum” Stereotype: How Do Mothers Experience and Resist Benefits Stigma?

This blog is based on an article in Social Policy and Society by Nancy EvansClick here to read the article.

Mothers reliant on state support have long been the subject of moral judgements about their deservingness. In 21st Century Britain, after over a decade of austerity and unprecedented welfare reform, exploring how mothers experience and resist the stigma associated with benefits receipt remains highly pertinent. In what follows, I report on findings from a qualitative research project which evidences the present-day persistence and insidiousness of gendered moral judgements about deservingness of benefits, alongside and in spite of, notable forms of stigma resistance.

Debates around deservingness to benefits are gendered, due to the gendered relationship between caring labour, welfare and paid work. The divisive language of the deserving and undeserving poor underpinning the 19th Century workhouse system has undergone a fierce revival in the neoliberal era and mobilised with particular zeal during the last decade of austerity, working to legitimise unprecedented retrenchment and reform of the social security system.

Today, deservingness is largely tied to engagement in paid employment, while unpaid forms of reproductive and caring labour are devalued and stigmatised. This ideology is reinforced by reforms such as the ‘2-child limit’, Benefit Cap and increasing work-related conditionality for groups previously exempt, such as lone parents and those with young children. Mothers are evidenced to disproportionately bear the brunt of poverty, austerity and welfare reform, yet such reforms are made to appear fair by stigmatising portrayals of ‘benefit mums’ in mainstream media and political discourse. In this context, considering how mothers experience and manage stigma is important. 

The findings reveal benefits stigma to be a common feature within the lives of the mothers interviewed, centred around the popular stigmatising figure of the ‘benefit mum’. Importantly though, the research suggests that in the face of relentless stigmatisation in the media, political narratives, welfare policies and public attitudes, resistance strategies help mothers to reject blaming narratives and foster a sense of solidarity to counter the divisiveness of stigma. Nonetheless, the findings underline the pervasiveness of stigma in seeping into individual self-perceptions and prompting self-blame, despite also being aware of the structural production of stigma from above. 

Experiences and perceptions of stigma were prevalent among the ten mothers interviewed. This commonly revolved around the notion of a lack of deservingness to benefits, due to unpaid reproductive and caring labour not being considered a valuable form of ‘work’, with many expressing an acute awareness of the stigma of not being in paid employment. One participant, a mother of four who struggles with long-term mental health problems, discussed the judgement she faces from her husband’s parents, and their perception of her as a ‘lazy’ and ‘bad mother’. This judgement of laziness epitomises the devaluation of caring labour, and reflects the contemporary construction of the idle, irresponsible welfare mother. 

This accusation of ‘bad motherhood’ was a crucial aspect of the stigma many of the mothers faced. The popular trope of having children to avoid paid work and maximise benefit entitlement was something that most were acutely aware of, casting doubt on the love and devotion they have for their children and seeing reproduction and childrearing as a motive for, and outcome of, a so-called dependency culture. One mother described the pain of being directly accused of this, while another discussed the continual fear that, as a mum of four claiming benefits, other people may view her in this way. Popular ‘reality’ TV programmes like Benefits Street were highlighted as igniting these kinds of stereotypes in the minds of the general public. 

In conjunction with accusations around lack of deservingness and inadequate motherhood, gendered benefits stigma was shown to manifest in moral judgements of what they ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ do. Such stigma was amplified among the lone mothers interviewed, where moral condemnation intersected with the additional struggle of raising children without the support of a partner. One mother described being told she shouldn’t send her daughter to dance lessons because she claims benefits, echoing longstanding judgements about the spending habits of the poor. Paradoxically, other accounts revealed the stigma of not being able to buy things for their children, illustrating the contradiction that low-income mothers find themselves in, where they face judgement no matter what they do. 

Nonetheless, the findings showed that stigma isn’t just straightforwardly imposed, but is met with various attempts to resist individualising, blaming narratives. Firstly, many of the mothers asserted the social value and hard work of caring for children, thus rejecting the dominant, taken-for-granted assumption that it lacks value and is something that women ‘just do’, rather than being a legitimate form of work for the capitalist economy. In doing so they asserted their deservingness of benefits, thus rejecting stigma. They also countered assumptions of bad motherhood through talking with pride about their ability as mothers. Another core aspect of resistance came in the form of acknowledging the structural barriers they faced, such as mental and physical health problems, disability, having small children and, which some felt went unacknowledged by those judging and stigmatising them. Further to this, the mothers’ accounts revealed an acute awareness of austerity and welfare reform in shaping their struggles, and the pivotal role of the media, notably poverty porn television, in crafting and reproducing stigma. Such awareness demonstrated a rejection of dominant narratives of personal blame.  

In spite of and running parallel with such resistance strategies was the tendency of stigma to be internalised because of its pervasiveness and power in getting under the skin of those on the receiving end of it. For example, despite awareness of the structural causes of having to use a food bank or not being able to afford the latest clothing for their children, such instances led to feelings of personal blame and inadequacy as mothers, and having to endure considerable self-sacrifice, humiliation and self-blame when they are unable to afford necessities for their children. Stigma was powerfully described by one mother as chipping away at her from multiple angles and leaving her feeling depleted.

The findings therefore illustrate the ubiquity and insidiousness of stigma and its enduring presence in the lives of mothers claiming benefits as a uniquely gendered form of shame and judgement. Rather than being straightforwardly imposed from above, or wholly rejected by those on the receiving end, the research shows the complexity, nuance and contradictions at play in the dynamics of stigma and resistance. Stigma is shown to rely on historical myths of the undeserving poor, and manifest in mothers’ lives through judgements that devalue their caring labour and position them as bad mothers, which, despite clear attempts to reject and resist such stigma through individual resistance strategies, still has the power to impact self-esteem and lead to self-blame. Even still, the research offers some hope for the future, as it reveals a clear awareness among the mothers of the broader structural forces to blame for the stigma and inequality they face, and interestingly, the findings did not reveal a strong tendency of blaming or judging other mothers, indicating a sense of solidarity and collective understanding. This highlights the need for further research and social action to channel this resistance into more collective, solidaristic, community-led forms of struggle against the divisive power of stigma. 

About the author

Nancy Evans is a recent PhD graduate from the University of Liverpool.


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