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New Kent research highlights benefits stigma

Misleading news coverage, driven mostly by the policy process, is preventing thousands of people in need from claiming vital welfare benefits, according to a new report by University researchers on behalf of the charity Turn2us.

The report, titled Benefits Stigma in Britain, reveals that one in four eligible people had either delayed claiming or refused to do so completely due to the perceived stigma attached to applying for state support.

The research was carried out by Dr Ben Baumberg, lecturer in social policy within the University’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, together with the policy experts Kate Bell and Declan Gaffney.

The research, which included an analysis of media coverage since 1995, shows that disproportionate coverage of fraud and misleading news stories are linked to rising stigma, with people who read more stigmatising newspapers perceiving higher levels of deception and demonstrating more reluctance to claim, even when they are experiencing abject need.

Dr Baumberg said: ‘The study also highlights a discernible shift in public attitudes, with claimants seen as less deserving than they were 20 years ago, when the fraud and scrounger rhetoric really started to take hold in media discourse. Looking at trends over time, non-take-up of benefits has risen concurrently with stigma.

'When questioned, we found that the public vastly overestimate the numbers of people “claiming falsely or committing fraud”, with one in five believing a majority of claims to be outright fraudulent. This is perhaps unsurprising when up to 39% of newspaper coverage of benefits referenced fraud.

'Tellingly, the government’s own estimate for fraud, combined with customer error, is 3.4% for unemployment claims and 1.2% of disability claims.’

Rob Tolan, Head of Policy at Turn2us, said: ‘At a human level, stigma is resulting in thousands of elderly, sick and disabled people skipping meals or keeping the heating off, lest they be tarred with the “scrounger” brush. One lady we helped, who was left disabled by a brain tumour, ate porridge five nights a week, rather than ask for help.

‘Moreover, hardening attitudes have translated into to an increase in violence towards claimants. This latest report follows a survey in 2011, which showed that nearly half of disabled people had experienced a worsening of attitudes towards them and a warning by the six major disability charities in February about ‘an increase in resentment and abuse directed at disabled people, as they find themselves being labelled scroungers.’

The research found that only 15% of people think that they would be treated with respect when making a claim for benefits.

However, the research establishes that while the media may be driving the increased negativity towards claimants, the source for these stories in the majority of cases is the policy process: statements from government and opposition parties, parliamentary committees and organisations. Close analysis of such statements revealed that in many instances, content was misleading, added Dr Baumberg.

‘Journalists, and especially politicians, need to be aware of the impact that their words have and the report contains a number of recommendations, which we will take to policy-makers for their consideration,’ he said.


Story published at 11:51am 20 November 2012

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