On feeling worthless
Jim Lawes is aged 89 and can remember ‘the years of poverty prior to the Second World War when unemployment prevailed’. He notes a difference in Britain between then and now in that in the earlier period ‘poor working people retained their dignity as instanced by the Jarrow marches and other demonstrations. There was a feeling of solidarity and a belief that things would improve’.
Jim’s concern is that today people in poverty, ‘whether in and out of work, have been scapegoated and made to feel that the recession was their fault’. His belief is that ‘the hope and dignity, the feeling of togetherness is no longer as strong; and the media, particularly the gutter newspapers, have done their damnedest to reinforce this idea’.
Jim wrote the following poem in an attempt to support a neighbour who had lost his job after lifelong employment. He saw him struggling to cope with the difference between employment and now the need to attend food banks in order to survive, struggling with the poverty that unemployment had brought and the need to convince himself that ‘there’s no shame in being poor’:
I cannot buy a round of drinks
As I would if I could choose.
I know the cash from just one round
Can buy my toddler’s shoes.
I wish that now I could afford
New clothes for wife and me;
Take both kids to the pictures;
But I know that cannot be.
We scrimped and saved last Christmas
To make sure each had a gift.
Our Christmas meal was Spartan,
Yet they sang – give us a lift.
Lost my job a year last August
So now my days are filled
With seeking fresh employment
But “Sorry, you’re too skilled.”
For years I strove and studied
To ensure I knew my trade,
Yet since I received my notice
“There’s no jobs, mate, I’m afraid.”
My income has been lowered
To a fifth of what I earned.
As I walk the streets, enquiring,
I’m aged forty: so I’m spurned.
There are times when I feel worthless,
Even think to take my life.
Then the only thing that stops me
Is my loved, courageous wife.
Guess we’ll struggle on together
Wond’ring how we’ll pay the bills.
Asking “Please Lord, can you tell us
How to cope with all life’s ills?”
Transforming global conversations about poverty
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 a lack of income and other resources. But more importantly, they reported routinely being stigmatised, labelled, 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.
Paul and Jo Bridgland are comfortably well off and have strong views about being self-made and the importance of their own work ethic. While recognising that some people in poverty ‘are less fortunate’, Paul is of the view that the hardships faced by most people are of their own making, largely a result of people choosing to live on benefits rather than to work.
The film then switches to the home of Tammy and Thomas Mayes who have four children and are currently in receipt of benefits. Tammy and Thomas explain their circumstances, describe their daily lives, the difficulties they face in providing for their family and recount how they are treated and judged by others: ‘A lot of the time they perceive you as lazy and that you don’t want to do anything... Most of the time I try to ignore it but it does on occasions get to me and depress me’
The film speaks for itself. It doesn’t tell people what to think but encourages viewers to reflect on the rift between the two narratives about the causes and consequences of poverty. Why are they so different? Why is one account of poverty so much more common and given greater prominence than the other? Why are people on low incomes judged negatively? 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.