Stigma and Exclusion to Rights and Dignity: a Human Rights Approach to Poverty
James Beeton 13th November 2013

On 5 November 2013, Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, addressed an audience at the Oxford Law Faculty on the subject of poverty, stigma and potential rights-based solutions. This talk was co-hosted by the Oxford Human Rights Hub and the Martin School Human Rights for Future Generations Programme. James Beeton reflects on Ms Sepúlveda’s presentation.

Appropriate responses to poverty form one of today’s most hotly debated issues in the world of politics. In her presentation, Ms Sepúlveda set out her aim of challenging some of the standard rhetoric from Parliament and the media by examining how modern policies are in fact affecting the poor at home and abroad.

The key issue that Ms Sepúlveda sought to highlight was the stigma attached to poverty. The main barrier to reduction of poverty, she suggested, is the perception of poor people as lazy, irresponsible, dishonest and, fundamentally, undeserving of aid. Indeed, in many countries poverty is seen as a personal failing. This is in no small part the impact of a sensationalist media and political class eager to be seen as cracking down on ‘scroungers’ – a word which, as she demonstrated through a telling graph, has seen a massive increase in use by UK newspapers over the past five years.

The danger, she warns, is that our gradual normalisation to these perceptions of poverty means that their implications are no longer as striking as they should be. Recent policy approaches tend to focus on increasing the number and stringency of requirements for access to welfare benefits – and these can include high levels of documentation, disclosure of personal information, intrusive investigations and even subjection to surveillance measures.

The State arguments are rational albeit predictable, emphasising the need to make efficient use of resources, to avoid a culture of dependency and to eliminate disincentives to work. However, Ms Sepúlveda noted that such reasons, while attractive in principle, lack strong evidence in practice. Fears of abuse and the potential for fraud are also misplaced – when it does occur it is ‘opportunistic, low-level, with respect to small, subsistence amounts of money’. By contrast, those convicted of benefits fraud offences face being banned from the system for life – a sentence the impact of which has enormous implications for them and their families.

In fact, she said, the real effect of the current trend towards a strong approach is the undermining of the autonomy and personal independence of welfare beneficiaries, who feel fearful, anxious and ashamed of their position; they are rendered more vulnerable to abuse and harassment; and community solidarity as a whole suffers.

Ms Sepúlveda drew attention to concrete examples of policies adversely affecting the poor around the world, including: the proliferation of rules prohibiting solicitation of money in public, loitering, obstructing pavements, or lying in particular areas; the requirement under the UK’s new austerity budget for recipients of disability benefits to undergo intrusive tests of their ability to work; parents in aboriginal communities in Australia becoming liable to lose welfare payments if they allow their children to become ‘truants’.

These policies can be challenged, she argues, as attacking the symptoms rather than the causes of poverty. The real results are social exclusion and reduced agency. What is needed is a rights-based approach that ensures that due respect is afforded to human dignity, autonomy and freedom to make choices; this is the way to combat stigma. A radical suggestion is for programmes giving money to the poor ‘with no strings attached’. While this idea represents the far end of the spectrum, Ms Sepúlveda stresses that its grounding in rights-based ideals should not be dismissed. The next stage is to raise awareness of human rights issues in relation to poverty; to proceed on a basis of evidence rather than prejudice; and a reconsideration of policy approaches in order to remove obstacles to equality.

The presentation raised a number of questions from the audience, ranging from the appropriate role of incentivisation to work, to the potential for the addition of ‘economic status’ as a protected ground in antidiscrimination law.

James Beeton is currently reading for a BCL at the University of Oxford.

Photos from this event can be found here and the podcast here.

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