I was recently asked to speak to the theme of ‘the art of ignoring the poor’ at an OECD/ATD Fourth World conference to launch the report of a cross-national study of the hidden dimensions of poverty. ATD’s work to enable the voices of people in poverty to be heard has helped me understand the importance of the psycho-social and the relational in understanding how poverty is experienced. That is not to understate the importance of the material – the lack of resources sufficient to participate fully in society, which is what defines poverty, and the economic insecurity or precarité and powerlessness typically associated with it. But the material has psychological effects and poverty is given meaning through relationships with others at both the interpersonal and societal level (including through interactions with professionals and officials).
Re-reading the words of ATD members, it dawned on me that a common theme, accounting for the ‘art of ignoring the poor’, was the dehumanisation of people in poverty. For example, Kathy, who described herself as a human rights activist in a wonderful ATD Fourth World photo-collection The Roles we Play, explains that ‘the stereotyping of all poor people dehumanises them in the eyes of others.’
One contributory factor is the way in which statistics, important as they are not least to hold governments to account, can obscure the people they count. As Paul, who described himself as ‘thinker’ in the Roles we Play, observed, ‘we have to step out from the shadows of statistics and come forward to present ourselves as more than just mere numbers’.
Yet visibility does not of itself mean recognition. The other key factor is the process of othering through which the more powerful ‘non-poor’ treat the less powerful ‘poor’ as different and inferior. Even at its most benign othering denies people in poverty their complex humanity and subjectivity. Less benign, it robs them of any humanity. Othering shapes how the non-poor think, talk about and act towards ‘the poor’ at both an interpersonal and institutional level.
The media contribute to the process of othering in the typically negative ways they represent poverty. Traditionally poverty has tended to be marginalised in the mainstream media or at best has been reduced to statistics or to pitiful portraits, which themselves can reinforce social distance through sympathetic othering. More recently it has acquired entertainment value through ‘poverty porn’ TV. Here ‘the poor’, and particularly women, are treated as objects of scorn for spectator sport. Such vilification is then amplified through social media although increasingly it also provides a forum for people in poverty themselves to resist such portrayals.
As a consequence of othering, people living in poverty often feel shamed and humiliated. This can be particularly difficult to bear for children and young people whose identities are developing. And it tends to be mothers who carry the burden and guilt of trying to shield their children from shame as part of their work as the domestic shock-absorbers of poverty. Shame and othering can cause deep social and psychological pain when they make people feel worthless, without dignity and disrespected. Dignity and respect speak to a basic human need for recognition of one’s humanity, as articulated by Millicent Simms, a young unemployed woman: ‘I just feel very angry sometimes that people are ignorant to the fact that we are humans as well and we do need to be respected’.
The internalisation of shame can damage the psyche. But the kind of anger expressed by Simms can also fire struggle and resistance, aided by the counter-narratives of agency and human rights, exemplified by ATD’s Roles we Play project. The report’s sub-title – ‘recognising the contribution of people in poverty’ – is an implicit statement of their agency. People in poverty are, like everyone else, creative actors capable of a degree of choice and able to make a difference in their own and others’ lives even if only in small ways. This can simply be through the agency involved in getting by or through, for example, attempts to get out of poverty or through resisting Othering or collective action to improve conditions in local communities.
Yet agency cannot be separated from structure – wider social, economic and political institutions and processes. For people in poverty agency tends to be heavily constrained by oppressive structures in which the more powerful are able to exercise agency to their own advantage. Moreover, research has shown how the corrosive impact of shaming and Othering on feelings of self-worth can itself stunt agency.
Conversely, it has been suggested that recognition of the agency of another is a mark of respect. Recognition and respect of human dignity are at the heart of a human rights approach to poverty and are critical to challenging othering and dehumanisation because they are premised on what we have in common as human beings. As Joseph Wresinski, founder of ATD, remarked: ‘when we speak of human rights, we often forget that fighting for human rights means fighting for the right to be human’. The language of rights and agency helps also to counter the powerlessness associated with poverty. ‘Power not pity’ became a rallying cry of American poverty activists who used the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their everyday organising ‘to counter the denial and shame of being poor’.
At an individual level a human rights approach can be transformative. An unpublished evaluation of a British Institute of Human Rights poverty and human rights project observed that ‘people’s lives and their view of themselves were transformed’, as they saw ‘themselves, often for the first time, as human beings who are worth something just by dint of being human and who are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect’.
In conclusion, the ‘art of ignoring the poor’ is a form of ignorance rooted in the dehumanising Othering of ‘the poor’ who are at best reduced to abstract statistics or pitiful objects. The anti-poverty cause can be strengthened by alternative narratives of agency and human rights in which people in poverty stand as fellow citizens, fellow human beings.