Benefit system riddled with ‘stigma’

Misleading news coverage is preventing thousands of people from claiming vital social security benefits, according to Kent University researchers. They found one in four eligible people had either delayed or failed to make a benefits claim because of the perceived stigma attached to doing so.

Key findings

  • Benefit stigma in Britain is primarily driven by the perception that claimants are ‘undeserving’.
  • The general public vastly overestimates the proportion of claimants who make false claims or commit fraud.
  • People now see claimants as less deserving than they did 20 years ago.
  • National newspapers contain both positive and negative representations of claimants, but the content of press stories is skewed towards negative representations.
  • The language and content of ‘negative’ media coverage have changed substantially over time. Although fraud remains very important in negative coverage, articles are much more likely now to refer to lack of reciprocity and effort on the part of claimants than they were previously.
  • No evidence was found of a ‘dependency culture’ in which those living in areas where more people claim benefits experience less stigma.
  • International evidence suggests that countries with benefit systems based on contribution or on citizenship, rather than on a means-tested basis, are less likely to see high levels of benefits stigma.
  • Stigma plays a role in explaining non-take-up of benefits and tax credits, with around one in four survey respondents giving at least one stigma-related reason for delaying a claim or not making a claim at all.

The authors point to evidence that tax credits have succeeded to some extent in changing attitudes to claiming state support – suggesting levels of stigma can be changed. They conclude their report with recommendations on how to reduce stigma through the design of the benefits system, benefits delivery, the media, and public messages about benefits.

Source: Ben Baumberg, Kate Bell and Declan Gaffney (with Rachel Deacon, Clancy Hood and Daniel Sage), Benefits Stigma in Britain, Turn2us
LinksReport | Turn2us press release | Kent University press release | Guardian report