Guest Roast: Poverty – Who is to blame?

By David Harper.

Who’s to blame for poverty?  Is it the poor themselves?  Or society?  Or is it just bad luck or fate? Just over forty years ago, American sociologist Joe Feagin asked over a thousand Americans and found that 53 percent blamed the poor themselves, 22 percent blamed societal factors and 18 percent put poverty down to fate (1972). In a very real sense people were prepared to blame the victim. The tendency to blame the victims of poverty for their own fate is similar to what Melvin Lerner (1980) has called the belief in a just world – the Just World Theory – where people get what they deserve and deserve what they get. Thus if a person is poor they must somehow have deserved that poverty.

In 1990, some colleagues and I drew on Feagin’s work, designing a survey to examine how British people explained poverty in the developing world. The most popular explanations for poverty included the inefficiency of developing world governments, exploitation by other countries and climate. However we found that those with a stronger Just World belief were significantly less likely to agree that poverty in the developing world was due to exploitation by other countries, war or the world economic and banking system.

Does it matter what explanations people give for poverty? Joe Feagin thought that it did. He argued that expla­nations for poverty were systematically related to attitudes to welfare and he thought that, as long as Americans individualized their economic and social problems, attempts at redistributive reform would be impossible. Similarly, one could argue that if people think poverty is due to bad weather and droughts or a result of corrupt governments or the poor themselves we may be less likely to consider the need for changes in the system of world trade.

However, some commentators have argued that people’s explanations are a little more complicated than these surveys might suggest. The American political scientist Murray Edelman for example argued that people did not just prefer one type of explanation (1977, 1998). Rather they could draw on different, even apparently contradictory, explanations: a person might both blame the poor and society in different contexts. In other words we can give individualistic explanations in situations where we feel threatened (economically, psychologically, etc.) and structural explanations when we are not in such situations or where we are at the receiving end of poverty.

Particular kinds of explanations can serve quite useful functions for governments.  For example, it is easier to justify cutting welfare benefits if one can somehow argue that the poor are, in some way, undeserving. It is instructive to look at how politicians implicitly invoke certain explanations through the use of words and images. For example, geographer Kayleigh Garthwaite of the Wolfson Research Institute at Durham University recently showed that when the U.K.’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat government were adopting austerity measures and cutting the welfare budget in 2010/11, they drew on notions that those on welfare are ‘shirkers’ and ‘scroungers’. The Huffington Post released a video that shows how during the recent U.S. presidential elections, Republican candidate Mitt Romney appeared to invoke similar ideas.

The same holds true in relation to explanations for poverty in the developing world.  The interventions which are proposed for reducing world poverty depend on what we think the causes of poverty are. Unfortunately, with some notable exceptions, most media coverage of poverty in the developing world by the media tends to focus on poor individuals (often presented as passive victims), the climate or corruption and inefficiency in national governments of the South rather than links between the West’s material wealth and the developing world’s relative poverty (e.g. through massive levels of debt or unfair trade agreements). Moreover, often charities avoid debates about the causes of poverty lest they are seen as adopting a political position. A sign that dominant images and explanations serve a powerful political function can be seen in the reaction to those who attempt to ask questions about why poverty occurs. As the Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara commented:

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint.  When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.

If we are to effectively fight poverty, then we need to intervene in the debate about the causes of poverty, showing its real causes and, perhaps, showing how those explanations which blame the poor, corruption or the weather are self-serving.

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Dave Harper is a Reader in Psychology at the University of East London.   (

For your reference:

Edelman, M. (1977).  Political Language: Words that Succeed and Policies that Fail.  Academic Press, Florida.

Edelman, M. (1998).  Language, myths and rhetoric.  Society, 35, 131-139.

Feagin J. (1972) Poverty: We Still Believe that God Helps Those Who Help Themselves. Psychology Today, 6, pp. 101-110, 192.

Harper D. J. (2003). Poverty and Discourse. in S.C. Carr, & T.S. Sloan (eds) Poverty & Psychology: From Global Perspective to Local Practice. New York: Kluwer-Plenum.

Harper, D.J., Wagstaff, G.F., Newton, J.T. & Harrison, K.R. (1990). ‘Lay causal perceptions of third world poverty and the just world theory’, Social Behavior & Personality, 18, 235‑238.

Garthwaite, K. (2011) ‘The language of shirkers and scroungers?’ Talking about illness, disability and coalition welfare reform. Disability & Society, 26: 3, 369 — 372

Lerner M. J. (1980) The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. New York: Plenum Press.



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  1. Dear George,

    I think, under Feagin’s definition, the view that there will always be poverty (assuming a Capitalist framework), would be seen as fatalistic but this is an issue on which we clearly have different views. I’m afraid I’m not an expert in development economics and so don’t feel able to respond to the other issues you raise though it sounds like you see increasing welfare as the main way of reducing poverty. In contrast, for me, from an international (rather than from the parochial context of the UK where I’m based), the main issues would involve creating fairer health systems and a fairer system for world trade.

    Incidentally, my previous post included a comment about reductions in poverty but was poorly phrased. What I meant to say, of course, was that there had been dramatic DECREASES in infant mortality and INCREASES in life expectancy in a number of countries over the last couple of hundred years!

    • Dear David,

      I am not a full scale economist myself (I am an engineer by profession, working on my phd in environmental economics), and I try to think in a simple manner. I am not implying that increasing welfare will reduce poverty. What I am actually trying to say is that we cannot eliminate poverty (if we define poverty as a dividing line of income), because the line is an indicator, and it will exist as long as there are economists. So poor people will always exist. If my hypothesis is correct, then we must define the every day torture that many people face (i.e. lack of amenities and limited access to resources) not as poverty, but as limited welfare. And welfare can actually improve through “fairer health systems and a fairer system for world trade”, as you say. I am sorry that I am not well acquainted with Feagin’s doctrines, but I will take a deep breath and read them, for the sake of this intriguing conversation.

      Warm regards

      PS: you can find me at LINKEDIN:
      is there any place I can find you ?

      • Dear George,

        I understand the difficulty then. I think you’re referring to the notion of ‘relative poverty’ which defines poverty in relation to others’ income. So, by definition there will always be poverty unless everyone is paid the same. However, people, governments and other institutions develop explanations to explain differences in income. My blog post and the work of Feagin and others is really an attempt to understand the social effects of these explanations. I’m afraid I’m not very linked into social media but thanks for your contributions. Please don’t feel the need to read Feagin’s work on my account!


  2. Dear George,

    Thank you for your comment. As I argue in the post there are certain assumptions implied by our explanations of poverty. From your comment it sounds like you view poverty as rather inevitable, something that we cannot do much about and related to ‘human nature’. I think this would come closest to what Feagin would see as a fatalistic type of explanation. It strikes me that the notion of ‘human nature’ is invoked in many different — often contradictory — ways in public discourse. For example wouldn’t some people argue that it was ‘human nature’ to want to help those worse off than ourselves? I would argue that there have been huge strides in poverty reduction over the last few hundred years in some countries – one only needs to see the dramatic decreases in infant mortality and life expectancy in a number of countries over the last couple of hundred years. Clearly something can be done about poverty. Perhaps the issue is how do we ensure that this happens in all countries rather than some?

    • David,
      I would not describe my view as fatalistic. I am not implying that poverty is a natural thing, but I think (within the capitalist setting) that there always will be a group of people below the poverty line. Perhaps these people will suffer less (on our 2013 standards) than today. But on their (future) standards, poverty should be still a life- and welfare- burden. I totally agree that giving and caring is also in the human nature and that is why poverty (as you say) is being reduced, or rather (as I would say) welfare is increasing. But would you argue that increasing welfare reduces poverty? I am not so sure.

      To share my concern, in my field (environmental economics) there is always a debate: improve welfare by tightening environmental standards (and slowing development) or improve welfare by loosening environmental standards (and promoting development) ? I am not sure there one answer to that. Nevertheless, a recent publication I discovered (see below), depicts a possible answer through facts.

  3. David,
    your brief assessment on poverty is really helpful. I personally believe that poverty is the result of our human nature trapped within a capitalist environment. In the fight for welfare, everyone is struggling to be on top of the others so some are naturally left behind. No Rawls’ theory on making the poorest better-off, under the veil of ignorance, seems able to change that. I will certainly read the Reference (btw: thanks for your paper on ‘Poverty & Discource’)


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