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.
Like this article? Be sure to sign up at the top of this page for weekly email updates directly to your inbox.
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.
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.