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‘Poor’ Practice: The Stigmatisation of Families Living on Low Incomes


Development Pathways

Let’s begin with some simple semantics: poor [bad] performance; poor [bad] quality; poor [shoddy] work; poor [weak] effort; etc. So, what do we mean when we talk about “poor people” or “the poor”? I’m struck by how – in discussions on social policy in many high-income countries – progressive writers often avoid using the term “the poor,” preferring to talk about “families living on low incomes” or “families living in poverty.” Yet, in international development, many of us – and, yes, there is significant mea culpa here – have fallen into the trap of referring to such families and individuals as “the poor.”

Yet, as the examples above illustrate, the term “the poor” has strong connotations of worthlessness and inferiority. Indeed, we often exaggerate these negative connotations by our unwitting use of adjectives. Does anyone admit to using the terms very poor, the extreme poor, the poorest, and the chronically poor (yes, my hand is up)? My personal favourites are: the hard-core poor (which, with a slight misspelling, turns into something very interesting); the ultra-poor (who sound like violent Italian football fans) and the non-viable poor (a rather unfortunate term that was used to describe the recipients of a cash transfer scheme in Zambia which was aimed at the 10% of families on the lowest incomes). In DFID, I even had the misfortune of taking over leadership of a policy team called Reaching the Very Poorest, which – out of embarrassment – I quickly changed to the Social Protection Team.

Of course, neoliberals happily employ the term “the poor” since one of their hard-core beliefs is that people are “poor” due to their own failings. This justifies, for example, advocacy in favour of conditional social security schemes, since neoliberals tend to view “the poor” as naturally lazy or unable or unwilling to care for their children. So, the World Bank explains its support for conditional cash transfers (CCTs) on the grounds that “the poor” either demonstrate “incomplete altruism” towards their children or hold “persistently misguided beliefs” about the value of investing in their health and education (Fiszbein and Schady 2009). We also find neoliberals opposing social security schemes on the grounds that they create “dependency among the poor,” reflecting a deeply held belief that families are “poor” because they are unwilling to work (and resonates with the characterization – by neoliberals in the UK – of families receiving social security transfers as “skivers”). Hence the promotion by many governments of workfare schemes, despite their potentially harmful consequences (see a previous blog on the topic).

In high-income countries it is commonly recognised that “targeting the poor” is stigmatising and we know that many people avoid applying for “poverty-targeted” schemes since they are too proud to be identified as “poor.” A high level official from the US government once explained to me that, in part, the relative “targeting” success of the USA’s Food Stamp scheme was its highly stigmatising nature: it was shameful for families to use the food stamps in public. Yet in low- and middle-income countries, many international NGOs and development practitioners – who otherwise view themselves as progressive – happily promote the “targeting” of schemes at “the poor.” Apparently, if you live in Africa, Asia or Latin America, we are happy to stigmatise you – or we believe that you are somehow unable to be stigmatised by being identified as “poor” – but we’ll avoid doing the same in our own countries (perhaps a hint of ethnocentrism here or, at best, naivety).

In fact, as in the USA’s Food Stamp scheme, stigmatisation is often unwittingly promoted in international development as a tool for selecting recipients in low- and middle-income countries. It helps underpin “community-based targeting,” which depends, to a degree, on people being too ashamed to be publicly identified as the “poorest” in the community. Another favoured tool is to post lists of recipients of social security schemes in public places, in the hope that the “non-poor” will avoid selection because they are fearful as being identified as “poor” – and, therefore, less worthy – on a public list. In Nepal, the World Bank even proposed publishing the names of those selected by a proxy means test in national newspapers, although I don’t know whether this eventually went ahead.

Of course, despite the enthusiasm of many international development practitioners for these stigmatising tools, they are often resisted by those subjected to them. In Malawi’s Social Cash Transfer Scheme, an evaluation noted that many people found the community-based selection process to be painful, while some communities subverted the selection process by distributing the cash to everyone, to avoid creating divisions and stigmatisation[1] (a phenomenon noted elsewhere and which is particularly widespread in Indonesia). Nonetheless, the scheme continued to promote “community based targeting” and, in fact, for a number of years supporters of the scheme actively opposed DFID’s – ultimately unsuccessful – lobbying in favour of an entitlement based social security scheme.

We need to reflect on whether the use of stigmatisation in international development is derived from our use of terms such as “poor [less worthy] people.” Language shapes the way we think and behave and, if we continue to use degrading terms to describe families on low incomes, we may well begin to believe that doing strange and dehumanising things – such as posting their names on walls – is “good practice.” Indeed, have we fallen into the trap of using the language of neoliberals so that they are able to shape how we think and behave?

I’m not certain that I have the answer to the linguistic dilemma we face, and I’ve failed too often myself. But, at least terms such as “on low incomes” or “living in poverty” describe a transitory phenomenon rather than the permanent categorisation implied by “the poor.” At the very least, if we actively reflect on how we describe people, it may change the way we behave towards them. We may stop designing schemes that demean people through the mechanisms employed to select recipients and, instead, move towards inclusive entitlement schemes that recognise people as citizens with equal rights.

Amartya Sen (1995) wrote that: “Any system of subsidy that requires people to be identified as poor and that is seen as a special benefaction for those who cannot fend for themselves would tend to have some effects on their self-respect as well as on the respect accorded them by others.” He quoted the philosopher John Rawls who argued that self-respect is “perhaps the most important primary good.” Let’s try and remember this as we design social policy in developing countries.

[1] See Miller (2008) and Kidd et al (2011)