The social sector has ignored discrimination at its peril

It’s time to think differently about prejudice against our beneficiaries

Earlier this year I had the privilege of sharing lunch with someone who has worked at the sharp-end of homelessness for over 30 years. He mentioned in passing that the homeless community now incorporates people from other countries who were economic migrants to the UK and that this was not ‘popular’ with the public upon whose donations homelessness charities relied. I half-raised an eyebrow in response to this point.

But there it was – an issue that has followed me around since my first day working in the social sector – that there is significant public prejudice against many of the people that we seek to help.

My first job was with the Community Fund, which still had to have especially high security on its offices at the time. This was because some sections of the media had dubbed grants to organisations supporting refugees and LGBT people as yet more ‘loony lottery winners‘ and encouraged readers to ‘vent their anger’ about these grants. The subsequent wave of hate mail and other actions taken by the public required interventions from both the Police and government ministers.

Some sections of the media had dubbed grants to organisations supporting refugees and LGBT people as yet more ‘loony lottery winners‘ and encouraged readers to ‘vent their anger’ about these grants. The subsequent wave of hate mail and other actions taken by the public required interventions from both the Police and government ministers.

Prejudice is a difficult issue to deal with.  Clearly we’re all aware of it but most of us have reacted to it in the same way that I did – not even a fully-raised eyebrow. For years many of us have seen this kind of thing as a ‘presentational issue’ at best, if we have sought to actively address it at all.  

Maybe it’s been too easy for us to write the issue off as one that does not merit much attention – pretending that prejudice is just the preserve of a pathological fringe, with whom we do not need to engage.

But are we ignoring a growing problem?

Multiple needs

Recently, I began to think about prejudice in the context of the Making Every Adult Matter (MEAM) coalition, which the Foundation helped to establish in 2008. MEAM works to support individuals who experience a combination of problems at the same time such as homelessness, mental health problems, substance misuse and contact with the Criminal Justice System. These people are often let down by public services that are designed to deal with only one problem at a time and the MEAM Coalition does a great job of supporting local areas to develop better coordinated services – helping people progress to live fulfilling lives and contribute to their communities.

But the callous Victorian ideology of the ‘undeserving poor’ is alive and well, and impacts on nearly all of the people that MEAM aims to support and much of the sector’s work, whether we like to admit it or not. People supported through MEAM face common public perceptions depending on the sort of problems they face; mental illness (deserving), homelessness (probably deserving), drug and alcohol misuse (undeserving), offending (exceptionally undeserving) and family breakdown (err?).

At the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation we didn’t really stop to think about whether people were ‘deserving’ or not when we helped to found the MEAM coalition. It was self-evident to us that no one wants to be coping with trauma through alcohol abuse. Nobody aspires to develop a heroin addiction, finance it through petty theft, and wind up homeless.

But to some people out there, perhaps that attitude just paints us as the so-called ‘liberal elite’, mindlessly pressing ahead with programmes to support all manner of undeserving people whilst many in society fail to be persuaded that this work is both important and valid.

What are the realistic chances that this prejudice grows to a point at which it is both popular and acceptable? What if we become the unconscionable assistants of society’s unworthy – and, therefore, not deserving of charitable donations, public funding or an audience.

What if the things that we consider self-evident suddenly became treated with scepticism, or even outright disbelief, by those in power? What if charities and Government agencies are unable to raise the funds or wield the political mandate to provide services to those seen as ‘undeserving’?

Lessons from politics

Politics this year has given us much to learn from.  It is widely agreed that we have recently witnessed a shock shifting of the Overton Window – the frame that generally accepted political ideology sits within.

In complacently ignoring prejudice and other objectionable ideas by branding them as ‘irrational’ and considering them the preserve of a few fruitcakes and lunatics on the fringes of politics, it seems that the political ‘establishment’ was caught unawares when such feelings suddenly crept right into the middle of society’s acceptable range of political thought.

In complacently ignoring prejudice and other objectionable ideas by branding them as ‘irrational’ and considering them the preserve of a few fruitcakes and lunatics on the fringes of politics, it seems that the political ‘establishment’ was caught unawares when such feelings suddenly crept right into the middle of society’s acceptable range of political thought.

Of course, ‘mainstream’ politicians were truly surprised to find that large sections of the public no longer agreed with the same reasonable, rational and self-evidently sensible political consensuses that they themselves accepted.

The political point is an important and relevant one though – as a sector we often work hand in hand with public services. In much of our advocacy work we seek conversations with policy makers and key decision makers, mostly politicians, from the point of view of a well-evidenced, generally accepted consensus – like the fairly easy assumption that the majority of people with a drug addiction did not deliberately set out to develop one.

At the moment we are supporting the MEAM Coalition to improve coordination between public and charitable services, ultimately to make them more effective – but what if some or all of those public services ceased to exist?

All of this makes me wonder if our sector is about to be caught unawares? There is a strong case for tackling prejudice against our beneficiaries. Perhaps it should become a crucial part of every programme we deliver, something just as vital as good practice or evaluation?

It may seem like an outlandish suggestion and I don’t think I would have proposed it a few years ago – but perhaps I should have.

Ryan Letheren is currently Programmes Manager at the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. He was previously Head of Programmes at the Office for Civil Society and has worked in the public and social sectors for over a decade. You can find him on Linkedin & Twitter.