Tuesday 1 May 2018

The 'Undeserving' Part 2 | #VoteLabour3rdMay

(Yet more of) THE UNDESERVING.

In Part 1 of this two part piece I reflected on how the historical framing of people and groups as ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ (which we can date to the 16th Poor Laws) still serves both to stigmatise and impact on the lives of many. I focused on the Windrush generation in the main, with a brief consideration of those living in poverty today. Here I continue to highlight the perniciousness of such labelling with some further examples. (See here for Part 1 http://arwenackcerebrals.blogspot.co.uk/2018/04/the-undeserving-starting-with-windrush.html )

As discussed in Part 1 the 2014 Immigration Act and support for Mrs May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy showed it is not just those (obviously) on the Right who distinguish between those that deserve resources and respect and those who do not – the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’. Only 16 MPs voted against the Act, six of these were Labour and included, Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell.  

Another example of a government strategy which had a detrimental influence on (at least some) people’s experience and sense of self was the New Labour Government’s Teenage Pregnancy Strategy. The strategy had two targets. These were to:  

         [Reduce] the rate of teenage conceptions, with the specific aim of halving the rate of conceptions among under 18s by 2010.

         [Get] more teenage parents into education, training or employment, to reduce their risk of long term social exclusion. (SEU 1999:8) http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http:/www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/cabinetoffice/social_exclusion_task_force/assets/publications_1997_to_2006/seu_leaflet.pdf

The existence of these targets had a negative impact on the experience of young parenthood. The focus on prevention automatically positioned parenthood for young people as negative and the narrow focus of the support agenda supported the view that the only measure of success within society is that of economic activity. Young mothers were stereotyped as a burden on the state and as bad mothers who along with their children were severely disadvantaged. The political discourse then stigmatised young mothers and individualised the problems of teenage motherhood, due to the focus on age, rather than an examination of the structural factors that affect(ed) young peoples’ lives (Phoenix 1991). While the Labour Government did in some ways attempt to highlight structural inequalities that affect young people experiencing teenage pregnancy and parenthood, government initiatives reinforced negative images. By placing the issue of teenage pregnancy and parenthood under the remit of the Social Exclusion Unit, the UK Government recognised that there can be a detrimental impact on the lives of those involved. But this also reinforced the pervading notion that teenage pregnancy leads to an inevitable exclusion from mainstream society.

With colleagues from Coventry University (I must especially mention and thank Geraldine Brown and Geraldine Brady here) I was involved in a series of research studies, evaluations and initiatives aimed at understanding and supporting pregnant teenagers, young mothers and their children and partners. This included research on pregnancy and post-natal experience, on housing, on education, on experiences of violence and abuse and a project looking at the experience from the perspective of young fathers. The work that we did led us, not surprisingly, to argue strongly for a focus on the holistic experience of teenage pregnancy and young parenthood highlighting the many positive as well as the negative aspects of this experience.

Our research had some good impact including specialist service provision, training for health and social care professionals, peer research opportunities for young mothers and some positive media coverage. However, although we tried hard, we had less influence than we wanted on the strategy itself. So although we suggested ways in which the strategy might be re-framed in a way that did not inevitably problematise teenage pregnancy and young motherhood/young families these were rejected.

With reference to his own research Gary Younge writes:

One of the most tragic aspects of writing about gun deaths in America is hearing black parents make the case for why their child should not have been killed. They will impress on you that their children were not gang members, even when you don’t ask. They will make sure you know their kids had never been in trouble with the police, even when it is not relevant. In short they want to make it clear their child was a casualty worthy of your grief and empathy.

Similarly, we found (as did other researchers) that in an attempt to separate themselves from negative and stigmatising stereotypes the young mothers we spoke to sometimes distanced themselves from similar others in order to present themselves as not like ‘other’ young mothers; thus as ‘deserving’ of respect and resources (e.g. for example Letherby et al 2007, Brown et al 2009). The framing of the current focus on similar individuals and families suggests that the current government seems to have learnt little from the plethora of research in the area:   https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/teenage-pregnancy.

My PhD (undertaken prior to the work considered above) was on the experience (predominantly women’s) of ‘infertility’ and ‘involuntary childlessness’ (in quotation marks because of the complexity of definition) (e.g. Letherby, 1999, Exley and Letherby 2001). Interestingly then I began by researching a group of women who felt stigmatised because they did NOT have children and continued by researching a group of girls and women who felt stigmatised because they DID. With reference to childlessness, here again many of the issues and concerns relevant to this group in the 1990's remain relevant today. Not least, at times, the sense of ‘otherness’, of ‘exclusion’, of being viewed as ‘undeserving’. Yesterday I read this discussion of a comment made in 2015 from Tim Wilson (at that time Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner). (Thanks to Jody Day @gatewaywomen for sharing):

….he pushes the point that everyone is invested in raising and educating younger generations. Parents invest hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money raising their children, whilst the equivalent amount of income remains discretionary for childless people. “How much can society turn around to these people and say, well you never carried the cost of children so why should we help you?” Wilson asks rhetorically.

The author of the article, Miriam Cosic, responds: ‘I think it’s a fair point’ (AFR Magazine 1st May 2015). There is no recognition here of the personal and paid-work based care that many provide for other people’s children and no consideration of the taxes and other contributions to society that individuals who do not have children make. Given the rise in numbers of childless elders (which as yet, as Ageing Well Without Children (AWOC) and others have pointed out, has been given scant political attention https://awoc.org/ ) the swell of individuals who are deemed ‘undeserving’ grows and grows.   

I have concentrated here on issues with which I am particularly familiar. There are many more examples. Just a couple of others below.

Rachel Revesz writes: 

From April 2017 any woman claiming the equivalent of £53 per week for a third or subsequent child would have to fit into one of several exceptions – including declaring she had been raped or that she had the child within an abusive relationship… The government said it consulted widely on the issue and 52 organisations had submitted evidence. The policy and the rape clause were brought in, under the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, with the government declaring it would “restore fairness in the benefit system”….

Within four months of the policy becoming law last year, Child Poverty Action Group issued a claim for judicial review in the High Court against the secretary of state for work and pensions, then Damian Hinds, on behalf of three families. CPAG solicitor Carla Clarke told The Independent that the two-child policy was “deeply disturbing” and “ultimately unlawful”, treating some children as less deserving than others purely because of the order in which they were conceived. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/rape-clause-three-more-children-policy-scotland-ireland-alison-thewliss-a8289651.html

Steve Topple writes:

Nearly two million people are no longer sick or disabled enough not to work. The DWP has magically cured them of their illnesses and fixed their impairments. But the march towards a society which views everyone in terms of ‘work’ and… neoliberal ‘financial worth’, is not over.

… the next groups of disabled people on the DWP’s ‘hit list’ to get fit-for-work are those living with musculoskeletal conditions and mental health issues.

On 25 April 2018, the government released  its first set of data from the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) employment adviser trials. This is where the DWP is co-opting the NHS, by putting Jobcentre staff into therapy settings to get people back to work. DPAC calls  this “psycho compulsion”. Then you have the continuing controversy over the so-called PACE trial – i.e. DWP-funded research that claims  people living with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and other ‘invisible illnesses’ can think themselves better and return to work. Because obviously their symptoms are ‘all in their heads’….

To end where I began in Part 1 the appointment of a new Home Secretary Sajid Javid has not resolved the Windrush scandal, nor has, or should it, ended the spotlight on the prime minister’s role in the creation and progression of a ‘hostile environment’ for the Windrush generation and for others. See for example:

And this in the news today:

Moreover, as this (limited) discussion has shown there are many other individuals and groups who experience stigma and prejudice; many others who are defined as ‘undeserving’ and have little or no power to challenge this definition and it’s negative consequences; many others, even beyond those affected by the 2014 Immigration Act, whose lives are blighted by attitudes, practices and policies that are nothing but HOSTILE.   


Brown G Wilson C Brady G Letherby G (2009) ‘Teenage pregnancy and young parenthood: questioning the inevitability of risk, lone motherhood and social exclusion’ in Johns N and Barton A (eds) Evaluating the Political Achievement of New Labour Since 1997: Social Policy and the Public Trust Ceredigion: Edwin Mellen

Exley C and Letherby G (2001) ‘Managing a Disrupted Lifecourse: issues of identity and emotion work’ Health 5:1

Letherby G (1999) ‘Other than Mother and Mothers as Others: the experience of motherhood and non-motherhood in relation to ‘infertility’ and ‘involuntary childlessness’ Women’s Studies International Forum 22:3

Letherby G Brady G Brown G (2007) ‘Working with the Community: research and action’ in Clay C J Madden M and Potts L (eds) Towards Understanding Community: people and places Houndsmills: Palgrave

Phoenix A (1991) Young Mothers? CambridgePolity Press

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