The stigma surrounding Social Security, and how we can challenge it

Our clients face a diversity of challenges when engaging with the social security system, but one issue that almost all have experienced, is that of stigma. In this blog, a number of our clients share the conversations that we’ve been having about stigma in our client workshops – in particular, what forms stigma can take and why it must be challenged.

Darren – Z2K’s workshops on stigma

The Zoom workshops that Z2K holds for people like myself who have received support from Z2K, provide a useful forum for us to express our opinions, share different experiences and provide Z2K with alternative viewpoints. Nothing generates a better understanding of an issue than seeing and hearing about it ‘face-to-face’.

The Zoom format is very useful for clients who may find in-person workshops more intimidating or inaccessible because of their disability. Normally, six to eight clients attend and I have found these workshops extremely thought provoking. And for people who for any reason have little social contact, they are a gift.

From my own perspective the last three workshops where we have been discussing stigma relating to the social security system have generated huge discussion and diverse opinions which was very thought provoking.

Franklyn– some of the stigma we as a group have experienced

I received ESA for over a decade, was homeless for a period of time and experienced the indifference and cold attitudes to those going through a very difficult and challenging time, and have since been forced to apply for Universal Credit.

As a group, some of the stigma that we have experienced include; being stigmatised as vulnerable when it is your situation that is vulnerable especially because the system does not treat people right; the attitude that taxpayers are propping up people on social security, the negative images and characters the media pedals which encourage stereotypes and negative assumptions about people on social security; the stigmatising language used when talking about social security, the moral judgements relating to character that people make about people receiving social security, and the stigma received from the DWP themselves and in particular assessors.

Carl – why it’s important this stigma is challenged

People should not have to feel embarrassed about getting help they are entitled to. It is important we challenge the stigma around social security because negative stereotypes hold people back from getting support when they need it the most. Disparaging labels and derogatory tropes cause unnecessary distress to people who rely on social security when they face difficult or unexpected circumstances. Anyone who needs support should not feel isolated or ashamed to ask for help. Challenging social security stigma can help to make sure that people with mental or physical health conditions and those who experience unemployment are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Next steps

While we identified the media and Government in particular as having big roles to play in reversing this stigma, we also discussed the role that we as individuals and organisations like Z2K can play.

A key point raised in these workshops, was the stigma many people receiving Social Security hold against themselves. Members of the group talked about how they have internalised the prejudice that exists, meaning they might feel worried about how friends or family would react if they knew they received Social Security. And this can also manifest in people not applying to receive support when they need and are entitled to it. The negative narrative surrounding Social Security needs to be challenged both internally, and externally.

A key way to do this is through empowering the voices of people with experience. The more that we tell our own stories in a way that is appropriate, the more that those incorrect and stigmatising narratives about us are counteracted. Our own stories will also help provide a more nuanced and rounded understanding of what it means to receive Social Security – too often, the stories in the media represent people and issues as two dimensional.

And finally, another important tool is language. The way we talk about Social Security is really important – and charities have a big role to play in ensuring they’re not using language that upholds stigmatising stereotypes and unhelpful misconceptions about our Social Security system and those who receive support from it.  

Stigma is intrinsic to many of the issues that charities are campaigning against and must be further intertwined with the influencing work that we do. Going forwards, Z2K will be incorporating these learnings and feedback into our work – one of the key calls of our #PeopleBeforeProcess campaign is for all disabled people and those with health conditions to be treated with dignity and respect. We will continue to work with our clients to challenge this stigma, while calling for greater efforts from Government and the media etc. who bear significant responsibility for it.

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