Families living in poverty, those who rely on food banks have internalised the overt, covert and inadvertent negative discourse that keeps the poverty conversation focused on individual blame, while ignoring the systemic causes of the problem.
‘Two incomes not enough for Christchurch family seeking food parcels’ is a headline that speaks volumes and is indicative of a trend that shows that more and more working families are struggling to make ends meet. This trend was identified in research as early as 2006.
Various charities have been highlighting this issue for a number of years but it’s a trend that sees no sign of abating. Working families are struggling to survive in our low wage economy (thanks Bill English). While working families have been finding it really tough, those on benefits have been on the back foot since the 1990’s. At that time benefits were cut and set at a rate that ensured that beneficiaries would not have access to an adequate diet. (Some experts suggest that these benefit cuts led to increased social problems). Despite supposed benefit increases in 2016, beneficiaries are no better off and Labour’s 2018 budget does not go far enough to make much difference for those most in need. Some 500,000 people are left out of full participation in society and it does not appear that situation is going to change in any hurry.
While more and more working families are struggling and beneficiaries carry on coping with their lot in constant survival mode, there seems to be more emphasis on differentiating between the deserving and the undeserving poor. The judgements and assumptions come thick and fast about how easy beneficiaries have it in comparison to the working poor. For example:
This implies that the benefit is adequate, it’s not. It also implies that those on benefits don’t want to work, they do. That said, there’s enough evidence showing that even ‘hard work’ does not guarantee people a decent standard of living.
The article ‘Two incomes not enough for Christchurch family seeking food parcels’ provides another example of judgement that can lead others to make generalisations about those needing food:
Those kind of statements help perpetuate stereotypes and myths about not only people who use food banks, but also about beneficiaries in general and a quick perusal of the comments section in those articles (if you can stomach it) confirms that.
These judgements or statements that justify the worthiness of recipients add to the overall stereotypes that those in need experience on a daily basis. The sad thing is that you don’t have to search very hard to find example after example of the helping professions inadvertently perpetuating these uniformed beliefs and stereotypes. It has reached the point that even those most in need resort to similar stereotyping and shame provoking discourse about others deemed less worthy than themselves (for example see this piece of research where food bank recipients were apt to judge other recipients as less deserving).
These type of judgements are internalised and research shows how this type of commentary leads to significant stigma and shame. Not only does that stigma and shame ensure that people in need are reluctant to seek help but it also leads to significant isolation, poor mental health, suicide and disengagement from society. On top of that, many of those experiencing poverty are the same populations that are subject to multiple oppressions in the Aotearoa New Zealand context ( see Giles, 2016).
I think it is time that the helping professions; the food banks, the ‘do gooders’ and the people who claim they’re making some difference in the lives of others, simply stop and think before they speak. They need to ask themselves whether or not what they’re saying is contributing to the current dominant, anti-beneficiary, blame provoking discourse that plagues conversations around poverty.
Those commentators need to stop differentiating between the deserving and undeserving poor. Stop making stupid statements that poor people simply need to learn more skills (budgeting, cooking, shopping, gardening) to get by. Stop telling the public that their service makes sure those getting the help actually need it. (This simply buys into the myth that those fronting up to the charities are not really in need). And finally stop individualising what is a systemic problem. I imagine if the ‘helping’ professions took a little more care about the conversations they’re putting out there, it may go some way toward minimising the impact of the negative stereotypes that dominate discourses about poverty.