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Who should be shamefaced?

Jose Nuñez lives in a homeless shelter in Queens with his wife and two children. He remembers arriving at the shelter: ‘It’s literally like you are walking into prison. The kids have to take their shoes off, you have to remove your belt, you have to go through a metal detector. Even the kids do. We are not going into a prison, I don’t need to be stripped and searched. I’m with my family. I’m just trying to find a home’.

Maryann Broxton, a lone mother of two, finds life exhausting and made worse by ‘the consensus that, as a poor person, it is perfectly acceptable to be finger printed, photographed and drug-tested to prove that I am worthy of food. Hunger is not a crime. The parental guilt is punishment enough.’

Palma McLaughlin, a victim of domestic violence, notes that ‘now she is poor, she is stigmatised’; no longer ‘judged by her skills and accomplishments but by what she doesn’t have’.

People in poverty feel ashamed because they cannot afford to live up to social expectations. Being a good parent means feeding your children; being a good relative means exchanging gifts at celebrations. Friendships need to be sustained by buying a round of drinks or returning money that has been borrowed. When you cannot afford to do these things, your sense of shame is magnified by others. Friends, even close relatives, avoid you. Your children despise you, asking, for example: ‘why was I born into this family?’. Society similarly accuses you of being lazy, abusing drugs or promiscuity, assumed guilty until proved innocent. You can even be blamed for the ills of your country, the high levels of crime or its relative economic decline. The middle class in Uganda ask: ‘how can Uganda be poor when the soils are rich and the climate is good if it’s not the fault of subsistence farmers’?’

In the US, as in Britain, it may be welfare expenditure that is blamed for stifling productive investment.

Head in Hands by Lenny Flank. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr
Head in Hands, by Lenny Flank. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Shame is debilitating as well as painful. People avoid it by attempting to keep up appearances, pretending everything is fine. In so doing, they often live in fear of being found out and risk overextending finances and incurring bad debts. People in poverty typically avoid social situations where they risk being exposed to shame; in so doing lose the contacts that might help them out when times get particularly harsh. Sometimes shame drives people into clinical depression, to substance abuse and even to suicide. Shame saps self-esteem, erodes social capital and diminishes personal efficacy raising the possibility that it serves also to perpetuate poverty by reducing individuals’ ability to help themselves.

Shame also divides society. While the stigma attaching to policies can be unintentional, sometimes the result of underfunding and staff working under pressure, the public rhetoric of deserving and undeserving exacerbates misunderstanding between rich and poor, nurturing the presumption that the latter are invariably inadequate or dishonest. Often around the world, stigmatising welfare recipients is deliberate and frequently supported by popular opinion. Blaming and shaming are commonly thought to be effective ways of policing access to welfare benefits and regulating anti-social and self-destructive behaviour. However, such beliefs are based on two assumptions that are untenable. The first is that poverty is overwhelmingly of people’s own making, the result of individual inadequacy. This can hardly be the case in Uganda, Pakistan or India. Nor is so elsewhere. Poverty is for the most part structural, caused by factors beyond individual control relating to the workings of the economy, the mix of factors of production and the outcome of primary and secondary resource allocation. The second assumption is that shaming people changes their behaviour enabling them to lift themselves out of poverty. However, the scientific evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that shaming does not facilitate behavioural change but merely imposes further pain.

Jose, Maryann and Palma were not participants in a research project. Rather they are members of ATD Fourth World, an organisation devoted to giving people in poverty voice, and their testimonials are available to read online. Echoing Martin Luther King, Palma dreams that one day her four children will be judged not by the money in their bank accounts but by the quality of their character.

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