Tackling poverty, shame and social exclusion

Funded by: ESRC, DFID

Completed: 

People and families who are poor or experiencing hard times often speak of the sense of shame they feel when officials and other people treat them without respect:

  • How does it feel to be living in poverty or on a low income? 
  • How is the experience of poverty shaped by society and by policies?
  • Is shame an inevitable consequence of financial hardship?  
  • How can policies be changed to promote dignity rather than to inflict shame?

Background

Funded by ESRC & DFID, the project was a comparative international study across seven countries, examining Amartya Sen's contention that shame is universally experienced by those living in poverty. Shame is believed both to reduce a person's agency and increase social exclusion, processes which, in turn, are thought to curtail economic development. Anti-poverty policies, therefore, may alleviate or conversely exacerbate these processes depending on how they engage with poverty-related shame. If shame in relation to poverty is indeed universal, applying in both the global North and South, this enhances scope for reciprocal policy learning and creates a possible basis for building popular support to tackle global poverty through promoting human dignity. 

Projects

Since relatively little is known about the associations between poverty and the social emotions (such as shame, dignity, disgrace and honour) across different cultures, the research was largely investigative. It was also inherently comparative, searching for similarities and distinctions across different global contexts including: rural Uganda and India, urban China and UK and small-town Norway, supplemented by externally funded doctoral work in urban Pakistan and small-town South Korea.

More information about the Rich Man Poor Man film, summarising the project research is available on the University of Oxford website. 

 

 

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1. Cultural conceptions of shame, poverty and the associations between them*
An exploration of dominant cultural values surrounding poverty and shame in each participating country will be achieved through an analysis in each cultural context of at least two media in including literature, film, television drama and theatre. Download the report of findings.

2. Learning from people with direct experience of poverty*
In each of the participating countries, in-depth interviews conducted with adults and children living in low income households to determine whether and how they experience shame in relation to their economic status. Download the report of findings.

3. Society and shaming*
Ways in which the wider public may, consciously or otherwise, play a role in shaming people living in poverty will be examined through a) focus group discussions with persons of low-middle and middle-high income status and b) statistical analysis of the World Values Survey in each of the participating countries. Download the report of findings

4. Policy analysis of social assistance and other anti-poverty programmes*
This work package identied language, policy structures and implementation practices likely to moderate or exacerbate any shame attached to being poor. The combined components of the study were intended to assist the preparation of a set of principles to inform the future design of anti-poverty policy which have global relevance.

Anti-Poverty Policy and Shame in Diverse Societies*
This report seeks to test the theoretical proposition that, while anti-poverty policies may mediate shame, they may also play a role in heightening the shame experienced by individuals living in poverty. Download the report of findings.

* Not for citation without the authors' written permission

The following three main publications from the research provide substantive theoretical, empirical and policy-focused insights into the work and its implications. 

The Shame of Poverty by Robert Walker and Poverty and Shame: Global Experiences  edited by Elaine Chase and Grace Bantebya are companion volumes.

Combined, these volumes challenge the conventional thinking that separates discussion of poverty found in the Global North from that prevalent in the Global South. They demonstrate that the emotional experience of poverty, with its attendant social and psychological costs, is surprisingly similar despite marked differences in material well-being and varied cultural traditions and political systems. In so doing, the volumes provide a foundation for a more satisfactory global conversation about the phenomenon of poverty than that which has hitherto been frustrated by disagreement about whether poverty is best conceptualised in absolute or relative terms.

The Shame of it edited by Erika Gubrium, Sony Pellissery and Ivar Lodemel  draws on the poverty and shame research to outline core principles that can aid policy makers in policy development. In so doing, it provides the foundation for a shift in policy learning on a global scale and bridges the traditional distinctions between North and South, and high-, middle- and low income countries.

Research within China was carried out by Ming Yan from the Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Beijing, China, and comprised four consecutive stages: 

Cultural norms and values with respect to poverty and shame were examined through an analysis of 34 Chinese literary works (13 novels and 21 novelle or short stories) spanning traditional, modern and contemporary periods. 

Experiences of living in poverty were explored through in-depth interviews with 33 individuals (20 men, 13 women, aged 30-65) from families with children facing economic hardship.

General public views and perceptions about poverty in China were explored via a) focus group discussions with adults and young people not currently living in poverty; and b) analysis of 3 national newspapers and 4 local newspapers in Beijing, their coverage of poverty and welfare issues in China, varying 7-12 year period.

Welfare and anti-poverty policies were examined to consider the extent to which they were likely to contribute to or prevent a sense of shame among people in receipt of public welfare.

Resources:

Not for citation without the authors' written permission

Research in India was carried out by Sony Pellissery and Leemamol Mathew (both based at the Institute of Rural Management, Anand). They were also assisted by Monimala Sengupta and Sattwick Biswas. Four states of the study were:

  1. Cultural conceptualization of the notion of shame studied using Indian films, short stories and proverbs from different languages of India.
  2. The poverty-induced shame as experienced by the poor people were studied through in-depth interviews with adult men and women and children. These poor people were selected from rural areas of Gujarat and Kerala.
  3. Third stage of the study focused on the non-poor people's perceptions on poverty and poverty-induced shame. Here, non-poor persons were selected from the communities where fieldwork was done in the second stage. In this stage, analysis of English news paper reports on poverty issues was also carried out for the period of 2005-12 to know general
    public's view on poverty-induced shame.
  4. In the fourth stage, policy analysis to know the shame potential of anti-poverty polices was carried out. Here, two flagship anti-poverty programmes were specially analysed.

Resources:

Not for citation without the authors' written permission

Research within Norway was carried out by Erika Gubrium and Ivar Lødemel from the Department of Social Sciences (Oslo and Akershus University College). The work was comprised of four consecutive steps, each informing the subsequent stages:

  • An exploration of cultural norms, values and discourses with respect to poverty and shame via an analysis of 11 Norwegian short stories and novels spanning 120 years. 
  • An investigation of experiences of living in poverty via in-depth interviews with 28 adults claiming social assistance or engaged in a labour activation programme targeted to social assistance claimants.
  • An exploration of general public views and perceptions concerning poverty in Norway were via a) focus group discussions with adults engaged in full time work and not claiming social assistance; and b) a random sample of newspaper articles focused on poverty and
    welfare issues in Norway over a five year period. 
  • An examination of Norwegian social assistance policies to consider the extent to which they were likely to contribute to or prevent a sense of shame among claimants.  

Resources:

Not for citation without the authors' written permission

Research within Pakistan was carried out by Sohail Choudhry from the Department of Social Policy and Intervention (University of Oxford) and comprised four consecutive stages:

  • Cultural norms and values with respect to poverty and shame were examined through an analysis of 28 Pakistani collections of Short Stories and Poetry over the last three hundred years period.  
  • Experiences of living in poverty were explored through in-depth interviews with 40 adults (21 men and 19 women) and 18 children and young people facing economic hardship.
  • General public views and perceptions about poverty in Pakistan are to be explored via a) one focus group discussion with ten members of Pakistani parliament b) a focus group with senior civil servants c) a focus group with members of civil society d) two focus groups with the randomly selected people not currently living in poverty;  and e) one focus group with children and young people not experiencing poverty
  • Pakistan historical evolution of Welfare and anti-poverty policies were examined to consider the extent to which they were likely to contribute to or prevent a sense of shame among people in receipt of public welfare.

Resources:

 

Research within South Korea was carried out by Yongmie Nicola Jo from the Department of Social Policy and Intervention (University of Oxford) and comprised three consecutive stages:

  • Socio-cultural discourse with respect to poverty and shame were examined through an analysis of 30 South Korean popular films spanning 35 years from 1975 to 2010. 
  • Experiences of living in poverty were explored through in-depth interviews with 31 adults (women and  men) residing in the area of Kangbuk-Gu of the capital city of Seoul.
  • Welfare and anti-poverty policies were examined to consider the extent to which they were likely to contribute to or prevent a sense of shame among people in receipt of public welfare.

Resources:

    Research in Uganda was carried out by Professor Grace Bantebya Kyomuhendo and Mr. Amon Ashaba Mwiine from the School of Women and Gender Studies (Makerere University)
    and comprised four consecutive stages:

    • Cultural norms and values with respect to poverty and shame were examined through an analysis of 81 proverbs in the most widely spoken Ugandan languages (Luganda and Runyakitara) and four literary works.
    • Experiences of living in poverty were explored through in-depth interviews with 30 adults (17 women and 13 men) and 30 children and young people (13 girls/young women and 17 boys/young men) facing economic hardship.
    • General public views and perceptions about poverty in Uganda were explored via a) focus group discussions with beneficiaries and non beneficiaries of anti-poverty programmes and b) analysis of coverage of poverty-related issues within a sample of five English and local language newspapers between 2001 and 2011.
    • The framing, shaping and delivery of poverty alleviation policies and programmes in Uganda were examined to consider the extent to which they are likely to create avenues for shaming people living in poverty.

    Resources:

    Not for citation without the authors' written permission

    Video interviews from Uganda for the Rich Man, Poor Man film.

    Research within the UK was carried out by Elaine Chase and Robert Walker from the Department of Social Policy and Intervention (University of Oxford) and comprised four consecutive stages:

    • Cultural norms and values with respect to poverty and shame were examined through an analysis of 30 British novels spanning 150 years combined with an analysis of some 30 British social realist films. 
    • Experiences of living in poverty were explored through in-depth interviews with 42 adults (31 women and 11 men) and 22 children and young people facing economic hardship.
    • General public views and perceptions about poverty in the UK were explored via a) focus group discussions  with adults and young people not currently living in poverty;  and b) analysis of a random sample of newspaper coverage of poverty and welfare issues in the UK over a five year period. 
    • UK Welfare and anti-poverty policies were examined to consider the extent to which they were likely to contribute to or prevent a sense of shame among people in receipt of public welfare.

    Resources:

    Not for citation without the authors' written permission

    Video interviews from the UK for the Rich Man, Poor Man film.

    The following are resources that could be used to encourage whole school approaches to thinking differently about poverty and its psychological and social impacts.

    1. Poverty proofing the school day is a resource developed by Children North East to help schools think creatively about how best to respond to the added challenges to learning encountered every day by children and young people living in households on low incomes.  Schools are provided with a tailored package of support which can include: an assessment of their policies and practices to identify any that are likely to stigmatise or isolate children from low income families; training for teachers and governors; school exchanges; and a tailored Action Plan for poverty proofing the school with on-going support from the project team. 

    The website includes creative video clips and shorts that can be used in classrooms and with other school staff to stimulate discussion about how the school might respond more effectively to the needs of children and young people from low income families.

    2. We worked with the Pegasus youth theatre  to produce The Heap – An Educational resource and supporting educational materials on poverty and social justice. Built on a theatre in education project, the resource can be used with the additional classroom handouts to promote discussion and dialogue about poverty. It draws on the ‘Poverty and Shame’ research and encourages young people in schools to engage with the psychological and social impacts on poverty

    3. Films
    The poverty and shame short films produced with the Media Trust can be used to stimulate discussion and debate.  These were produced in the UK, Pakistan, South Korea and Uganda - see country sections above. Download our short film discussion guide to spark conversations about the films.

    4. Makutano Junction
    Working in collaboration with Mediae (Media for Education and Development) we integrated a number of key messages from the poverty and shame research into 4 episodes of Series 13 of Makutano Junction (some available on YouTube). This is an edutainment soap opera broadcast to more than six million people across Kenya and East Africa. A supplementary leaflet on poverty was also produced for the project.

    A summary of findings from follow up focus group discussions to examine how the messages were received is available for download.

    We have worked in partnership with ATD Fourth World (in the UK and internationally) to help change ideas and thinking about poverty and those experiencing it.  The following links include materials that promote alternative images and ideas about people living in poverty.

    ATD Fourth World – The Roles we play

    ATD Fourth World – Together in Dignity  

    Films:

    Pakistan

    South Korea

    Uganda

    United Kingdom

    1. The Reporting Poverty guidelines produced by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation  provide a resource for journalism tutors and students on how to report about poverty ‘fairly and authoritatively’.

    2. Shaming people won’t get them off welfare by Robert Walker in the Guardian

    (Note the number of responses and comments to this article)

    3. Poverty and Shame on BBC Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed (skip to the second half of the broadcast) Elaine Chase and Sohail Choudhry discuss the research and its implications for policy in the UK and in Pakistan.

    The following are other research and advocacy initiatives that are relevant to and complement our own body of work.

    Poverty and Social Exclusion Research

    The Child Poverty Action Group

    ATD Fourth World

    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’:

    Redundant

    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?”
    Jim Lawes

    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.

    View the film in the UK section above.

    List of site pages