What Can Welfare Stigma Do? Mobilising Stigma as a Site For Resistance

This blog is based on article in Social Policy and Society by Robert Bolton, Joe Whelan and Fiona Dukelaw. Click here to access the article.

What does welfare stigma do? In our state of art review article, we found stories of inner turmoil: stories about poor self-esteem and self-worth, feelings of inferiority and inadequacy, embarrassment, humiliation, and feelings of failure. In sum, we found stories of shame.

These feelings, which are also associated with anxiety, depression, loneliness, self-harm and suicidal ideation, are just a few of the consistently documented ‘psychic costs’ of welfare stigma. In a flourishing society, we would jump on these findings and try to do something to alleviate not only these symptoms but the origins of them. But what if these shame feelings are more than just the detrimental offshoot of particular welfare policies and a broader welfare imaginary, but have some sort of function? What if they do and can have a role to play in reformulating the welfare imaginary that underpins welfare policy? In thinking about these questions, we found that the literature raises multiple possibilities to these questions, which importantly, include positive potentialities for social change. The question which frames our article is thus, not ‘what does’, but ‘what can welfare stigma do?’

Our question does not imply that the psychic costs of welfare stigma are a good thing. The article notes that there is nothing inherent about feeling the various shame feelings and experiencing the deleterious social, economic and mental health effects individuals attribute to their receipt of welfare payments and/or their general engagement with the social welfare system. That these experiences are not inevitable is precisely what the question ‘what can welfare stigma do’ addresses. To illustrate what we mean, let’s ask the question from the point of view of power as raised in the article.

To put simply, to keep a society where low wages are maintained, where the structural causes of job losses, poverty and economic malaise are not the focus of attention, the dominant power structure depends on these and many other issues being kept and framed as individual crises requiring individual solutions. The phenomenological experience of stigma and shame precisely sustains this dynamic. Stigma and shame are often experienced through self-blame: self-blame for the underlying need for welfare payments. In other words, some of the literature in this area finds that individuals blame their economic situation and their job loss on themselves.

This is further aggravated by the shame they associate with being in receipt of welfare payments. The phenomenological experience of shame is also strongly associated with loneliness and isolation. Individuals are first of all afraid to express these vulnerable feelings. Second, they are afraid of showing and exposing the aspects of themselves and their life circumstances which give rise to these feelings in the first place, for example, of paying for meals to avoid family members thinking they are struggling with money.

In our view, this fit between the demands of the dominant power structure and the phenomenological dynamics of stigma and shame is no accident. While there are logics to these experiences that are grounded in the institutional operation of the welfare state, we see these experiences as evidence of cultural and political crafting with some going as far as to say that these experiences are part of a deliberate ‘policy strategy’. In sum, from the point of view of power, the answer to the question ‘what can welfare stigma do’, is “it can maintain this system”.

How can we imagine an alternative to this insidious dynamic? Our article shows and highlights that resistance practices do exist and come in various forms. What is interesting is that contrary to the assumption that stigma and shame straightforwardly forecloses solidarity with others and deflects from a structural analysis of the circumstances surrounding stigma and shame, the opposite is also true.

Our question ‘what can welfare stigma do’ then, can be asked from the viewpoint of mobilising solidaristic resistance to the dominant structure. Key to this resistance is the idea of acknowledging shame and vulnerabilities. We acknowledge that can read as simply an individual psychotherapeutic solution to social problems. Drawing upon interactionist and psychosocially orientated literature however, we highlight the irony that such processes can produce solidarity with others in similar circumstances and enable people to direct their blame toward the structures that generate these feelings in the first place.

What this all means is that the experience of stigma and shame can do socio-political work that is the precise opposite to what the dominant structure would otherwise intend. This point has both a theoretical and empirical basis. In terms of the latter, alongside activist work that could incorporate these points, it would be useful for future research agendas to explore the pathways to resistance to welfare stigma as well as how stigma and shame moderate and are moderated by these paths. Overall, we suggest an approach that conceives how welfare stigma can ‘do’ a different kind of socio-political work, one that is generative of a new welfare imaginary that recognises mutual vulnerability and solidarity and recalls some of the elements of collectivism that underpinned Beveridge’s project.


About the authors

Robert Bolton is a Postdoctoral Researcher at University College Cork.

Joe Whelan is Assistant Professor at Trinity College Dublin.

Fiona Dukelaw is Senior Lecturer at University College Cork.

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