Working with colleagues in China, India, Norway, Pakistan, South Korea and Uganda, we have recently completed research funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in seven countries, including the UK.
The study found that shame is an important part of the experience of poverty in all of these countries, a fact which until now has been largely ignored in anti-poverty policies which instead often reinforce feelings of shame. In his new book, Robert Walker (2014) explains,
Shame is evident in the framing, structure and delivery of antipoverty programmes in each of the seven study countries albeit manifest in a variety of ways. Sometimes the imposition of shame in the form of stigma is justified by policy makers and supported by popular opinion. Both naming and shaming, and blaming and shaming are commonly thought to be effective ways of policing access to welfare benefits and changing and regulating anti-social and self-destructive behaviour.
The finding of a common link between poverty and shame has important implications for how we think about, design and build policies intended to alleviate poverty.
People in poverty in all seven countries described feeling ashamed at being unable to live up to their own or others’ expectations due to a lack of income and other resources. But more importantly, they reported routinely being stigmatised, labeled, shunned and ignored in many different spheres of their lives.
Politicians, bureaucracies, the media and society in general all played a significant role in shaming people on low incomes. The effects were routinely negative; people frequently expressing feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression, wanting to withdraw from society and sometimes feeling that they wanted to end their own lives. Tony for example said, ‘I just get very depressed… very depressed, you know? That’s not managing …just stay in bed all day or watch the TV, its soul destroying’.
Having completed the research and having recognised the profound role of political, media and public debates in imposing stigma and shame on people living in poverty, in a second stage ESRC Knowledge Exchange programme we considered how to change people’s understandings about poverty. We wanted to shift the nature of the political, media and public debate so that it became more humanising and dignifying.
One of the most striking findings from the research was the stark differences between the world views of people on low incomes compared to those who were relatively affluent. Those better off repeatedly spoke of the failings and inadequacies of people in poverty; their laziness and lack of willingness to do anything about their situations, or their acceptance of ‘dependency’ on the state and others for their basic needs. Yet when we spoke to people living in poverty, the realities of their lives and their responses to their circumstances were far from passive or accepting of their lot.
Despite their best efforts to function as providers, members of communities and society in general, the biggest challenges that people on low incomes faced were the attitudes of others towards them and the negative judgements that were made about them.
We’ve produced a series of short, easily accessible films to start an alternative conversation about poverty. The films, produced in collaboration with the UK Media Trust, present these different world views back to the public, to the media and to politicians.
In the first of the films from the UK, we meet two families living in close proximity to each other in Guildford, a city in the South East of England.
Why are society, the media and politicians so fixated on the idea that the causes of poverty sit with the individual? Is shaming people in poverty a form of political control? What might be gained or lost if we made dignity rather than shame the guiding principle for how we discuss poverty and make policies to alleviate it? Our research suggests that the impact of such a shift could be transformative – enhancing humanity on the one hand and the efficacy of anti-poverty policies on the other.
View the film here and send us your thoughts and ideas: http://povertyshamedignity.spi.ox.ac.uk/countries/united-kingdom.html