Ending the shame and stigma of poverty

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A forthcoming book (The Shame of it: Global Perspectives on Anti-poverty Policy, Gubrium E. K., Pellissery S. and Lodemel I., Policy Press, 2013), the first of a series reporting on a stream of field surveys in developed and developing countries, draws attention on the social, political and psychological (in one word human) dimensions of poverty and stresses the risk that anti-poverty policies and programs inadvertently stigmatize their beneficiaries and aggravate their own shame.

It argues that poor people are often ashamed of their own condition; in a prosperous society, they feel inadequate, having personally failed; they resent being dependent from state assistance or their lack of agency in social assistance programs such as workfare; they feel dehumanized by their deprivations and subjected to public contempt or even reprobation. This adds an important dimension to income poverty and other deprivations captured under various poverty indexes. Poverty is not only an economic or social condition, it affects individual psyche, self-esteem, self-confidence. Poverty is insulting poor people’s dignity. Extreme poverty is experienced as dehumanizing. This psychological dimension matters socially and economically; economists have recently introduced the notion of “confidence-informed capability”, acknowledging and testing empirically that self-confidence and self-esteem impact individual performance (See Hoff K. & Pandey P., Making up People - the Effect of Identity on Preferences and Performance in a Modernizing Society, World Bank, 2012) and that self-esteem itself reflects others opinion about one-self.  The experience of poverty also impacts one’s relationship to the state as a citizen and one’s social behavior; remarkably, in some countries, the book observes that poor people welcome corruption in service delivery as mitigating the stigma of their categorization (thanks to deliberate errors of inclusion). Shame and lack of self-esteem can also induce withdrawal from social or political participation. A personal sense of powerlessness can lead to political alienation and its dangerous manifestations in democratic regimes.

These observations lead the authors to policy advice since poverty reduction "policies and programs have the potential to either heighten or lessen the shame". Anti-poverty policies and their implementation tools are not neutral symbolically: they are inevitably informed by an explicit or implicit notion of poverty. Historically, societies have often condemned poverty and punished poor people as idle, criminal or disruptive of social and public order (see Geremek B., Poverty: A History, Blackwell, 1991). In past centuries, workhouses were not only meant to shelter but also to physically punish and morally redress the poor. Poverty has often inspired mixed feelings to the public and the state, both compassion and repulsion, and the book argues that to this day poverty reduction policies often betray such ambivalence: "While always normative, the values attached to anti-poverty policies may be rooted in discourses ranging from the positive and compassionate to those that portray people living in poverty as idle feckless and in need of corrective measures." And poor people are not oblivious to the implicitly disparaging judgment conveyed by anti-poverty policies which hold poverty not only as a condition but as an (individual or group) identity: they "describe as degrading those policies that were framed according to essentialist notions concerning how and why they were living in poverty".

But even when devoid of such ideological or political underpinnings, anti-poverty policies may be inadvertently demeaning for their beneficiaries: by depriving them of their autonomy or agency (e.g. by increasing their dependency from political patronage, etc.); when attempting to sort "deserving poor" from “undeserving” ones while inflicting on them humiliating vetting procedures (“the process of shaping oneself to ‘fit’ into the state’s categories of ‘deserving’ welfare recipient was dehumanizing to our low income respondents”); when violating their privacy and making their condition conspicuous (e.g. when having them queuing in front of dedicated utility stores to every one's knowledge); when subjecting them to abuse of power or the inevitable discretion of the bureaucracy (an experience which a respondent recalls as follows: “when a poor man turns up, they size him up and send him away!”); when treating poor people as mere administrative cases or statistical units rather than as individuals (or reducing their identity as citizens or social beings to their being “below the poverty line”); and when keeping them vulnerable to policy changes or just above the survival line without a chance of being socially integrated.

The book argues that the insult (deliberate or inadvertent) potentially inflicted by anti-poverty policies on their beneficiaries can significantly impact their effectiveness: poor people may rather avoid subjecting themselves to demeaning procedures by refusing the benefits granted by the government. In one surveyed country it is argued that “for the rural poor it has been for better to live in a vicious cycle of poverty than get entangled in a vicious cycle of poverty-induced shame”; others would deliberately game the system as a way to preserve their dignity: they " respond with shame proof behavior, such as resorting to corruption in the face of the state's illegitimacy or competing to get into a 'below poverty list' ".

Accordingly, the book cautions policy makers and development practitioners that policy tools and processes can defy anti-poverty policy purposes and invites them to focus on policy implementation: "the more personal and relational the service, the greater the potential for stigma"; it recommends to "relieve the more arbitrary and shaming aspects of discretion and conditionality". It calls for “dignity-based” anti-poverty policies with the recognition and enforcement of the right to dignity in the implementation of social programs. Arguably, in this respect, it highlights an important challenge on the development agenda: ending absolute poverty may not in itself eradicate the stigmas of poverty (such as the lack of agency and autonomy, powerlessness, stigmatization and social marginalization, etc.). Which may be one more reason why shared prosperity (as an engine of social integration) is a necessary tool for poverty reduction, in all its dimensions. 


Roland Lomme

Senior Governance Specialist

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