Social Security Experience Panels: benefit take-up – report

This report covers findings from research with Social Security Experience Panels members about their experiences of accessing the benefit system.

This document is part of a collection

Experiences of Stigma

We asked participants where they had experienced social pressure and stigma about the benefits system. In response, participants talked about how stigma came from a number of different places. These included:

  • The media (television, newspapers, social media)
  • Government and politicians
  • Neighbours and local communities
  • Friends and family

The Media

Many participants immediately described the damaging impact of the media on public attitudes towards the benefits system. They described how the television programmes and newspapers had created myths that all people that claim benefits are 'scroungers.' 

"It's a whole political ideology of the media. Look at these scroungers who have tellies and dogs. People who watch that then become obsessed with 'they've got something, we've not.'"

It was felt that television programmes focussed on telling negative stories about a minority who were deliberately trying to overuse or deceive the welfare system. 

"They make programmes about families on an incredible amount of benefits. I've never coming across that."

"When they make these programmes around benefit fraud, it gives the perception that everyone on benefits is fraudulent.  When in actual fact this is only a small minority of people. You need to have programmes that are more positive about benefits, showing of the help that this gives to people not always focussing on the negatives."

Participants said that the programmes not only encourage negative social attitudes towards vulnerable people, but they also discouraged those who were eligible for the support from applying. 

"The programmes are so negative that people then think that they don't want to look like that family or person."

Several expressed frustration about how programmes about JobCentre staff and DWP workers would not present an accurate picture of the way they treated clients. They felt like television could sometimes present staff members are being more respectful and helpful than they are in real life. 

"I saw a show on Universal Credit recently. The people at the desks in the JobCentre were unreal. Everyone was so contrived, everybody would want to go to that job centre, and it's there to pit people against one another."

Government and politicians

There were also views about how government and political figures had contributed to negative public attitudes about benefits claimants. They described how politicians could often further perceptions about benefits claimants 'scrounging' off the state. Several talked about the damage done by political campaigns that focussed on the welfare state.

"There are politicians out there who are demonising disabled people."

"There was a Minister and he had this fabulous mantra of this secretive man next door who's stealing your money."

"When our local councillors and MPs have among each other at election time, a lot of that information they present they aren't even aware how harmful it is."

Some participants also spoke about communication from the Department for Work and Pensions. They described how communication about benefit applications had made them feel stigmatised for claiming what they were entitled to.

"Letter after letter from DWP saying you don't deserve this. The words are aggressive, the departments attitude is aggressive, they don't have dignity. The language is so important."

Others talked about how they had been treated unfairly by assessors. They talked about feeling suspected or being viewed in a judgmental way. 

"I lost my job due to my health issues I didn't want to tell people. I lived off of savings for 6 months as I kept thinking I will get better and get back to work.  When I did apply for benefits I was met with suspicion as to why it took me so long to apply. I was treated disgracefully."

"It's bad enough having the press on your back, so when the assessors act all judgemental it just wears you down."

Neighbours and local communities 

Some said that they had experienced stigma amongst people they knew in their neighbourhoods and local communities. 

A number of participants spoke specifically about attitudes and stigma in rural locations. They felt that stigma in more remote locations could be felt more by claimants as rumours could circulate quickly. Several commented that certain areas could gather a reputation for having a high proportion of residents who are accessing benefits. 

"In a rural setting more people are watching you. In a city you could just pass through. It's all closer in rural places."  

"There are some areas that are thought as areas where people on benefits live. People can be hostile to those areas."

Others spoke about the discrimination that existed towards disabled people in communities. Some discussed how wrongful fraud accusations in local neighbourhoods were a problem. Others discussed how strangers in their local area could say unpleasant things to them on the street. 

"Unless you live where everyone knows and understands you, you need to be careful about what you say because there is always going to be someone who snitches on you." 

"I was walking along the road and a couple of guys followed me and shouted 'scrounger.' You get people screaming all kinds of things at you. I've had people say 'people like you should be dead,' amongst other things."  

Friends and family 

Participants also spoke about how stigma about accessing benefits could come from people that they knew. Some talked about keeping their claim secret from their friends because of the judgement they would get. 

"I wouldn't tell anyone I was on benefits, and that's ridiculous. I think people would be judging me."

"I don't tell anyone. Oh god no. My best friends knows, but my other circle of friends, they know nothing."



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