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Society, Politics & Law

The links between poverty and shame

Updated Monday 7th April 2014

New research is uncovering links between feelings of shame and poverty that would be familiar to Elizabethans.

Laurie Taylor:
First, a quotation from Corinthians 2 Chapter 9 Verse 7:

"Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give, not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver."

Nowadays, of course, we might feel that such generosity of spirit should not be extended to those whose poverty is as much their own fault as an act of delinquency.

[As in the song] To Be Poor Is A Crime by Freddie McGregor. It's a perfect if ironic representation of the view that the poor – or some sections of the poor – should be, well, ashamed of themselves.

And it is this connection between poverty and shame which is at the heart of a major ESRC and Department for International Development Research Project called 'Shame, Social Exclusion and the Effectiveness of Anti-Poverty Programmes: A Study in Seven Countries.'

And part of that research has recently been published in a book of edited essays called The Shame of It: Global Perspectives on Anti-Poverty Policies

Now I'm now joined in the studio by two of the contributors to that volume – Elaine Chase, who's research officer at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention, at University of Oxford, and Sohail Choudhry, who is lead researcher on the poverty and shame project in Pakistan.

A press conference explaining an aspect of the Benazir Income Support Programme. Creative commons image Icon Salmaan Taseer under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license A press conference about the Benazir Income Support Programme, which some observers suggested introduced a sense of shame in recipients.

Elaine, as I've indicated, the research on this book is part of a very, very big project spanning several countries looking at this interplay between shame and poverty. I mean why so many countries – seven countries – Pakistan, UK, Norway, Uganda?

Elaine Chase:
Okay, well I've been sort of drawing the relationship between poverty and shame, it was the economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen that claimed that shame was at the universal core of the experience of poverty. So the research set out to test out that idea – if we took countries of very different economic social and cultural backgrounds we should be able to find that same association between poverty and shame in each of them, irrespective of the level of material deprivation. So the study took place in Norway, Britain, China, South Korea, India, Pakistan and Uganda.

Laurie Taylor:
Now you say that there is a general definition of shame that we can apply across the board, which we can recognise in all these very different cultural contexts.

Elaine Chase:
Yes that's right. In the context of poverty we would define shame as a feeling of inadequacy at not being able to meet our own expectations or the expectations of others due to a lack of resources. But importantly shame is not just an internal feeling, it's also externally imposed through processes of shaming.

Laurie Taylor:
But shame – if we're talking about shame and guilt, I mean shame is something where you feel that you are responsible, that your own being is somehow implicated, that you have something to apologise for, that you're a lesser person as a result of it – is that right?

Elaine Chase:
I would switch that around and say that that's how we would define guilt. So I think it's about the locus of control. One thing that we would say in terms of shame, unlike guilt, is there's a sense of inadequacy over which one doesn't have such control, so it's around circumstances beyond our control, therefore it's hard to escape it. Guilt, on the other hand, there's a sense that one can make amends for it, one can either do something or stop doing something to make amends for something that one had control over. And that's the distinction we've drawn in the research.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay. Now you talk about the difficulty of defining shame across different countries but Suhail, let me turn to you now, I mean poverty is also rather hard to define, endless debates go on in this country alone about exactly what constitutes poverty but here we're talking about – I mean you're doing work in Pakistan – I mean in that context how do you define poverty?

Sohail Choudhry:
Well Laurie I think while there isn't a standard way of defining poverty there is always an element of unmet need in the concept of poverty. This idea of [indistinct words] though and therefore the [indistinct words] from one setting to the other, some countries, such as in the UK, there is a relative concept of poverty, while Pakistan follows an absolute threshold which is on the basis of a basket of goods. Currently Pakistan has a calorie based measure called FEI, which is food and energy intake measure, where someone who is able to buy 2,350 calories a day is considered to be above the poverty line. And since this approach clearly revolves around the idea of neophysical subsistence it is a long way from capturing emotional or social wellbeing of those in poverty.

Laurie Taylor:
So what else would you want to take into account? I mean you're talking about – we're talking about water, sanitation, education, all such matters.

Sohail Choudhry:
In the way we live in it is well recognised that poverty is more than a mere deficit of income, it has a multi-dimensional nature and therefore a lack of access to vital material resources and social provisions, such as you mentioned healthcare, education, clean water, sanitation, they are all considered integral to the notion of poverty.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay, so you – coming back to you to talk about the ways in which shame is experienced by those who are classified in your research as poor but before we do that let's – before – we'll just abandon our comparative perspective and adopt an historical one for the moment because when we're looking – when you're looking in this research project at the relationship between shame and poverty, how much poverty induces a sense of shame, you can go back a good few centuries and trace the development of this relationship, Elaine, can't you, so – I mean you go back I think to the – when you go back you go back as far as the Poor Laws don't you.

Elaine Chase:
Yes, I think back – back to the Elizabethan Poor Laws where we had this categorisation of the deserving and undeserving poor and then the 1834 Poor Law Reform Act actually coined the term “the pauper”, so someone who was poor not because they were too young, too old, or too sick to work but because of their own making, ignoring the economic backdrop at that time. And we would argue that that undeserving, deserving dichotomy has been sustained in anti-poverty policies since then. In fact if you look for a definition of deserving in the Oxford English Dictionary it's made with reference to the deserving poor, so it's very culturally embedded as well.

Laurie Taylor:
Before you get this division emerging am I right in thinking that there was – that there was a category of the poor who, if you were charitable, you had an opportunity, you gave to but you didn't discriminate between them?

Elaine Chase:
I think that's right, that's right, yes.

Laurie Taylor:
There was just a category called poor, yes.

Elaine Chase:
Exactly, so when the Poor Law Reform came in and people actually had to agree to the conditions of the work house, they had to declare their poverty to that extent in order to get any support that they needed.

Laurie Taylor:
So people would be testing to see how able bodied they were and whether they were capable of working or whatever. Now if we bring this up to date, let's bring this up to date in terms of the distinctions which are made now, you would want to say, I think, that the distinction between deserving and undeserving poor is now much more strictly made?

Elaine Chase:
Definitely, so I mean in terms of the way the welfare and benefit is described in policy, welfare and the provision of welfare is seen as a burden and therefore the recipient of such benefit is seen as a burden. People are systematically shamed within anti-poverty policies, they're pitched against the taxpayer constantly, so we have this very divisive tool of pitching the taxpayer against the benefit recipient. They're defined as scroungers, spongers, they're subjected to increased conditionality, increased number of tests in order to prove that they're worthy of receiving support.

Laurie Taylor:
You've got a little example here from your research of the way in which that deserving/undeserving distinction leads to a sense of shame, here's one of the women respondents from your study:

Reading:
I don't like people knowing I'm on benefits. If I didn't know you I'd tell you I worked. I class this as a proper job – working as a volunteer – that's why I wear the identity badge that way – back to front – so no one sees that I'm volunteering, so it looks like I'm doing a proper job.

But you talk about the ways in which shame is aroused in various different arenas of life for people like Heather in that particular one, in the family, everyday – so how do people maintain pride, how do you buck shame?

Elaine Chase:
Those feelings of being – feeling shame and being stigmatised were very, very common in the people that we spoke with, so people tried to buck shame in a number of ways. They obviously try and carry on as best they can and are incredibly resourceful in doing so but they also tend to withdraw socially – avoid situations within which the kind of – the difficulty of their circumstances becomes public. Some people pretend, as we've just heard in the clip there, pretend that things are better than they are. And people also describe processes of really physical and emotional disintegration, they talk very much about becoming depressed because of their circumstances. Several people we spoke to had contemplated suicide and some had actually attempted it. So at its worse feelings of shame are hugely destructive. But one of the other things that people tend to do is to disassociate themselves from those very negative labels of the sponger, the scrounger, the fraudster and identify perhaps they feel others that might fit into those categories and it's a process by which we believe they aim to kind of maintain their own dignity and integrity.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay, well let's go back to our comparative perspectives and turn to you Sohail because – but first of all let's hear one of your respondents from Pakistan describing the experience of claiming benefits from a poverty relief programme called Sakat:

Reading:
When I go to Zakat office I know I deserve it fully but that does not matter. When they keep me waiting for an hour I forget that I have a right, I just want someone to hear me out. You cannot assert yourself when you are asking for a favour. The thing is one has to bow a little, one has to you know, you have to lower your gaze a little, you don't have to – it lowers itself when you ask for a favour. You cannot avoid remaining slightly humble.

Tell me a little bit about Zakat and the way this – the particular sort of shame that's generated for people who have to go to Zakat for their resources.

Sohail Choudhry:
I think this voiceover very well captured the nature of shame from doing our study and unfortunately in the case of Zakat state policy in Pakistan actively made the experience of beneficiaries worse. For a quick understanding Zakat is kind of an religious tax on wealthy Muslims at a flat rate of 2.5% of their accumulated wealth, which is payable directly to the people in need. Accordingly it had always been distributed privately in Pakistan until the military government in 1980 adopted it as a state programme. With that its discreteness as an informal charity was compromised. Many beneficiaries who were earlier known only to their private benefactors now became public and they had to queue up outside the Zakat offices trying to establish their eligibility, which was immensely degrading and that's exactly what was reported in this….

Laurie Taylor:
I mean it is going through the bureau – having to jump through the bureaucratic hoops which makes them feel ashamed?

Sohail Choudhry:
Exactly it is. And similarly the other programme was the BISP – the Benazir Income Support Programme – which started after the global recession of 2008 and it aimed to give income support for women living in poverty. Its main shaming component came from its original targeting method where each MP in the country was allowed to nominate up to 8,000 people who were given benefits after a simple verification of their citizenship status. So the element of discretion was central to that programme, now this caused a demeaning agency on the part of applicants, the low income women, to prove their eligibility to a single person who had no personal or institutional knowledge of them. And just to remind you that since the women in Pakistan are also culturally restricted to their homes, so they could not establish a two-way interaction with their MPs and therefore depended on others to process their applications.

Laurie Taylor:
Now this, as I said, it's a fascinating project but I want to really know, Elaine, just a last question really to you as we're running short of time, does this make us think of poverty differently, I mean if we're talking about reducing poverty what is the significance of all this work to that project?

Elaine Chase:
Okay we would argue that shame and shaming by policies undermines agency, makes people withdraw, and arguably perpetuates poverty. What we need to do is change the nature of the debate, think about shame proofing policies, thinking about making them essentially about promoting people's dignity and agency rather than constantly putting them down.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay Elaine Chase and Sohail Choudhry – thank you very much.

 

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