Dr Heejung Chung

Dr Heejung Chung

Dr Heejung Chung

Heejung is Reader in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research. She is also a member of Kent's Q-Step Centre.

“I am interested in cross-national comparative analysis of welfare states and their labour markets. Currently my two main research areas are subjective employment insecurity and the roles institutions play therein, and the role of flexible working on work-life balance of individuals.”

Heejung was part of our Think Nation Project Twist-It Live! event in December 2018, where she was one of the panellists in our discussion.


Heejung Chung talks with Project Twist-It

Thinking about the word poverty, how do you think poverty is defined in the UK?

The official definition of poverty is if you have less than 60% of the median wage you are defined as poor. The median wage is if you line everybody according to their income, the person right in the middle.

So, obviously that’s the official definition, but you have to consider that depending on where you live, what your living conditions are, what your needs are, you could be poor and materially deprived even if you have 60% of the median wage, because obviously there’s very high rent costs and the fact that the median wage income has also declined over the years, so even people who are not officially poor can really struggle to kind of make ends meet.

I think at the moment our official definition of poverty may not really capture the full extent to which people are deprived in this country.

How does the UK compare to the other places that you study?

The UK is what we consider the ideal type of the liberal welfare state. Which means that it has a benefit system which is a bit more stringent than other countries, such as Scandinavia – Norway, Sweden, Denmark – as well as what we consider the continental European countries – so France, Germany. And also it is very means tested, which means it is providing benefits to the most needy, compared to other countries where benefits and services are provided to more of a general middle-class – for everybody really.

In your work what have you made of the general attitude in the UK towards people who are poor, towards people who are living in poverty. And how does that differ from the other areas that you study?

So, as I said, the UK has a very stringent welfare state – where there’s not a lot of benefits and services going to people, it is only geared towards the very poorest. In comparison, we don’t spend a lot on the welfare state. But, if you ask people – so, do benefits and services make people lazy? – it has to have almost the highest level of people agreeing to that.

Almost two thirds of the population in the UK in 2016 agreed that benefits make people lazy. And if you compare that to the most generous welfare state, for example, Sweden or Finland, only a third of the population believe that is the case.

And then you wonder why it is that countries where the welfare state really is spending a lot of money on benefits and services to make sure people have a decent life have a lower rate of this idea of stigmatisation – negative perceptions of benefit recipients.

The key really lies in the fact that the welfare state and how it’s designed brings about cultural distance between people. If we were in Sweden, you and I and a lot of different people will all be in the same scheme. So we’re all putting money – a lot of money, because there’s very high tax – into this very generous welfare state, but then we all benefit from it. We benefit from very good education, we benefit from good pensions, we benefit from good health care systems.

In the UK, with the exception of the health care system perhaps, you have, for example, unemployment benefits only for the very needy and in very, very small amounts. But you tend to get people thinking that the people who get that are really scrounging off of the state. It’s because you divide the population, where some people don’t get anything and only a small group of people get it.

But also, this stems from the kind of the ideologies that developed during the 1980s during the Reagan and Thatcher years, where the Reagan administration and the Republicans wanted to really dismantle the welfare state and benefit systems in the US at that time and make it much more stringent, to what we consider the workfare system. As a citizen you don’t have a right to a decent living; you have to show that you’re going to be working for it.

And to be able to do that they’ve developed this term called the welfare queen. The welfare queen was a fantasy, it doesn’t actually exist – it was black single mom, with lots of children, scrounging off of the state, wearing a mink coat, fancy car, but then using her food stamps to feed her children. That doesn’t really exist in the US, but they used that image and that imagery to make sure that other people, the voters, were ok with the state dismantling the benefits and services at that time, to really some of those small, very deprived groups.

I think that’s exactly what happened in the UK as well. It was through policy, through the discourse of the politicians – the way they speak about poverty – but also the media. You always get this image – in television but also in print media – about the welfare scroungers – they have so many children and they live in this really big council flat that no one else can afford… Those kind of imageries are perpetuated to really develop this idea of these welfare scroungers.

What I find really interesting is that people who should not have those ideas about these stigmatosed poor people, and much more understanding of the conditions of the deprived, are also holders of these ideas. Because I think on one hand you want to distance yourself from this very negative stigmatised group, but also make sure that you’re not a part of it.

Have you seen examples around the world where that kind of stigma or stereotype about poor people has been reversed or turned on its head and people’s opinion of the working class or the poorest or the most needy in a certain country has actually improved?

I’m not aware of it. But what you can see – cross-nationally as well as cross-history – is that countries where unemployment benefits, but also all sorts of other kind of benefits and services, encompass a larger group of people are the ones where such ideas don’t exist. Because the benefit recipient is me.