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Poverty Is Also a Psychosocial Problem

Around the world, the shame felt by those enduring extreme economic hardship can become a trap. Only when policymakers grasp that dignity and self-respect are prerequisites in the struggle against privation – rather than outcomes of its alleviation – will the world have a fighting chance to eradicate poverty in all its forms.

BRIGHTON – Being poor is a highly shameful experience, degrading one’s dignity and sense of self-worth. While the manifestations and causes of poverty differ, the humiliation that accompanies it is universal. Recent research conducted at the University of Oxford found that from China to the United Kingdom, people facing economic hardship – even children – experience a nearly identical assault on their pride and self-esteem.

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Yet, despite the clear evidence linking poverty to psychological distress, policies tacking poverty do not typically take shame into account. Rather, poverty reduction efforts tend to focus on tangible manifestations of deprivation such as lack of income or education. As a result, solutions to poverty often implicitly assume that more material wealth or improved living conditions will automatically translate into non-tangible benefits, including improved mental wellbeing.

This lack of focus on the “psychosocial” side of poverty – the interaction between social forces and individual attitude or behavior – is misguided. If we are to alleviate human suffering and achieve the UN’s premier Sustainable Development Goal of ending poverty “in all its forms” by 2030, addressing the intrinsic and instrumental roles that shame plays in poverty must be front and center in our efforts.

The crippling sense of dishonor that accompanies poverty, and impedes people from taking positive action to improve their situation, has been seen around the world. In India, the shame associated with crop losses and financial stress has pushed farmers to substance abuse and, in extreme cases, suicide. In Tanzania, researchers studying bilingual education have found that a fear of being mocked can prevent students with weaker English skills from participating in class. And in Uganda, poor high school students say the inability to pay fees, purchase uniforms, or obtain school supplies is a constant source of humiliation.

To address poverty-related shame, and adequately account for the role shame plays in perpetuating poverty, a number of steps must be taken.

For starters, policymakers should recognize the problem. Rather than seeing shame as an unfortunate byproduct of living in poverty, human development planners should consider how poverty undermines human dignity. The Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen, one of the most influential voices on poverty reduction, has long argued that shame is a driver of “absolute” poverty. Taking shame seriously must be part of any poverty-reduction strategy.

Moreover, shame, a lack of self-confidence, and low self-esteem can negatively impact how people view their ability to affect change, sustaining a perception of inadequacy that can be debilitating and trap them in poverty. To help people escape, human development strategies must consider how to bolster personal agency, aspiration, and self-efficacy – the belief in one’s ability to influence events that affect one’s life.

Finally, policymakers must be aware that programs aimed at reducing poverty, if not properly implemented, can actually increase feelings of shame. For example, researchers working in India in 2005 found that Indian women stopped going to health clinics in order to avoid debasing treatment by health workers – to the detriment of their own wellbeing and that of their children. Women in South Africa applying for child support grants have reported similar experiences, as have food bank users in the UK. In fact, many respondents in Britain said the stigma of receiving free food was so severe that “fear” and “embarrassment” were common emotions.

The issue of shame, and the need to take it more seriously in poverty-reduction policies, is slowly gaining traction. Academics who research human suffering have recognized that “recipient dignity” is a crucial component of successful poverty alleviation. For example, a 2016 review of cash transfer programs in Africa found that the absence of stress and shame enhanced confidence in recipients, leading to improved decision-making and productivity. Building on such evidence, the University of Oxford is extending its research on the “shame-poverty nexus,” to study how the international development sector can “shame-proof” anti-poverty policies.

Programs aimed at reducing poverty are moving in the right direction, but much work remains to be done to integrate the psychosocial component of poverty into policy and planning. Only when policymakers truly grasp that dignity and self-respect are unavoidable prerequisites in the struggle against deprivation – rather than outcomes of its alleviation – will the world have a fighting chance of eradicating poverty in all its forms.

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