Thursday, 28 March 2013

Stigma, the poor and inequality

I have written this quick post as a response to a recent article by Peter Taylor-Gooby, entitled: ‘why do people stigmatise the poor at a timeof rapidly increasing inequality, and what can be done about it?.

The key question is why, when both poverty and wealth are intensifying, has there been a backlash against the poor, and not the rich?  This, as PTG rightly says, is a ‘puzzle’; it was not the case in the 1980s, when sympathy with the poor peaked at the end of the 1980s following recession and mass unemployment. 

What we have seen then is the end of a key idea in social science.  The idea that sympathy with the poor correlates with the economic cycle: low in the boom, high in the bust.  Now it is more low in the boom, even lower in the bust.

PTG outlines numerous arguments about why this might be.  The overall gist is something he calls the ‘moralisation’ of social divisions.  In other words, the middle-class (or ‘mass middle’) not only see themselves as richer than the poor, but morally superior. 

I generally agree with this theory and in my own paper (here) I argue that this kind of moralisation has been dominant in political accounts of welfare reform since New Labour.  The key question then is where this moralisation comes from.  The argument in my paper is that politicians have a prime responsibility for driving it.

However, what you might call ‘public opinion sceptics’ argue the opposite: that politicians follow public sentiment rather than shape it.  I don’t think this is the case with welfare.  As the graphs in PTG’s paper show, public support for benefits fell dramatically with the election of New Labour.  I believe this asserts the importance of what politicians say and do in relation to what the public think.

PTG puts forward three alternatives of how policy could challenge the existing nature of public opinion on welfare: reciprocity (contributory benefits), solidarity (universality) and ‘predistribution’.  The first two are generally old news (although I think there is something to be said for emphasising a stronger contributory principle), whilst ‘predistribution’ seems a relatively seductive idea.  Equality without the expense.

As of yet, we are still relatively clueless as to what the central message of Labour’s manifesto will be.  So far they have toyed with both contribution and predistribution; yet both are relatively ambitious and will involve substantial policy change.  It would thus be easiest for Labour to adopt a ‘Tory-lite’ approach to welfare in 2015. Yet this would be based on the mistaken belief that the politicians follow the public.  And all this will do is play into the hands of the enemies of the welfare state, all of whom are only too happy to set the welfare agenda on their own terms.

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