Piecing Together the Jigsaw Blog 2: The demoralisation and stigma of poverty

Ben Wray

The Common Weal and Edinburgh University project‘Piecing Together the Jigsaw’ kicks off Wednesday 21 September with a policy lab based on the question ‘how does poverty affect children and young people?’ To inform the discussion two blogs have been published by education expert Terry Wrigley: the first looked at the real experience of growing up in poverty, and this blog below looks at the role of demoralisation and stigma in poverty

QUALITATIVE studies show a multi-faceted impact of poverty on a person’s experience of life. 


Life on a low income . . . is a “stressful and debilitating experience” especially for those on social assistance who “face a struggle against encroaching debt and social isolation where even the most resilient and resourceful are hard pressed to survive”. Generally, the picture painted by qualitative studies is one of: constant restrictions; doing without; running out of money at the end of the week; limited choice; no room for spontaneity; damaged family relationships.  

Conditions become even more critical when families who have got into debt are threatened by the debt collector’s thugs.


The struggle against poverty can also eat away your time. A lack of transport to work, having nowhere to dry your clothes, working strange hours or juggling two or more part-time jobs, even shifting money between credit card and bank accounts to avoid excess charges, are a waste of time—valuable time that could be spent with children and friends.


The stigmatization of poor neighborhoods impacts on entire populations, leading to avoidance of particular housing estates. Parents avoid placing their children in schools associated with the wrong neighborhoods. Areas deemed poor or deviant are often subjected to oppressive policing.

Though concentrations of poverty and deprivation exist, and generalized stress and low self-esteem may also limit social ties, “there is no evidence to suggest that there are ‘underclass areas’ where social interaction is breaking down.”

The poor generally have strong community ties, reciprocity and social organization, and are closely connected to their own locality, however poor it may be. Indeed, these networks are a key part of coping with poverty.

Defeats and Demoralisation

People become convinced, often with good reason, that they have few prospects for the future—their own and their children’s:

Every day is the same to me. I get up. I get the kids ready. The furthest I go is the shops and I don’t see anything else for me. In five years’ time, I’d say I’ll still be doing that .

If your attempts to dig yourself out are repeatedly thwarted, you tend to lose a sense that this is possible. This is why so much of the emphasis on people lacking aspiration is cant.


Coping involves well-honed skills of “resource augmentation, expenditure minimisation and stress management”.

Many of the poor are very good managers of their poverty. They are resourceful and use their money and time with great expediency. They are precise about planning household accounts and ruthless about expenditure, savagely cutting back to keep out of debt.

Stigma and Marginalization

People living in poverty are othered in various ways. They are treated with contempt, regarded as invisible, and treated differently, both by other people and the media:

The worst thing about living in poverty is the way it gives others permission to treat you—as if you don’t matter. (Statement by group of low income parents to the APPGP, Galloway, 2002, p. 13)

The process of denigration has been exacerbated by constructs such as the underclass (Charles Murray) and derogatory labels such as “neds” and “chavs”. Owen Jones, in Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, shows how this process relates to attempts by Conservative politicians in Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s government in the UK to shift the blame for rocketing unemployment to the victims of deindustrialization and government policies. Entire areas were devastated by the closure of coal mines, steel mills, and shipyards, but those left behind were stigmatized as criminally lazy.

Soon it became respectable to jeer at the poor as a “feckless, feral underclass . . . brainless blobs of lard who spend their days on leatherette sofas in front of plasma TVs”.

Consumer Society

Poverty is experienced differently according to the culture we live in, an experience exacerbated when the dominant culture places so much emphasis on buying and owning things. When people are defined by their appearance, wearing the wrong things becomes a source of shame—a disgrace acutely felt by adolescents. As Zygmunt Bauman expresses it, “The poor of a consumer society are socially defined, and self-defined, first and foremost as blemished, defective, faulty and deficient—in other words, inadequate—consumers”.