Poverty and the Doctrine of Shame (part 1)

I’ve been mulling on this topic for a few days. It’s so complex that it could easily turn into a book, but I’m going to try to be semi-brief (well, in two parts, with this as part 1). Plenty of others have written about the complex factors that contribute to long-term poverty, so I’m not going to rehash those discussions. What I want to focus on is how our society shames and judges people who are poor.

A lot of the shaming comes in the form of puritanical super-virtuousness. The comment section of a recent blog post by emergent Christian author Rachel Held Evans was quickly filled with armchair poverty “experts” whose remarks were far removed from Jesus’ teachings that I wondered if we read from the same Bible.

This poster reads (and I cringe) "Welfare: You work hard so they don't have to!"

I hesitated about posting this pic, but I wanted to illustrate the stereotypes about welfare and poverty.

Here is an example from the blog comment section: “The poor fall into two categories – those without knowledge and the lazy.” During my childhood, my mother typically worked at least three jobs and still struggled at times to make ends meet. The blog reader’s declarative statement resembled childhood messages that I absorbed from the culture around me.

But generalizations sound quite different when we attach them to specific people. A rephrasing of the above comment might go like this: “Your mother’s struggles revealed that she fell into one of two categories – she lacked knowledge or she was lazy.”

Now, I have indeed encountered those who would have been so brazen as to insult my mother directly…or any other random person who has had financial difficulties. In general, though, a lot of these blanket statements are generic, and when pressed, the person doing the judging would most likely backtrack if I were to call out that kind of insult with a reminder that most of us know and love people who have faced financial challenges.

"Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor." James Baldwin

This leads to another type of comment (here, I’m paraphrasing things I’ve heard frequently): “Your mother [or someone else we personally know] was different. She was doing the best she could, unlike those other lazy people.” My internal response: “Really? Are you absolutely sure about that? How do you know whether or not others were trying just as hard as she was?”

And then a typical followup from the armchair poverty expert: “I know this person who is collecting welfare and is on Medicaid, but she uses her food stamps to buy junk food, and she has an iPhone. She is always bragging about how she doesn’t have to work and can just live off the government.” (It’s usually a woman, thanks to the 1980s “welfare queen” myth.)

iPhone screen

There’s a lot to unpack in that kind of statement, but again, others have tackled the sociological aspects of this topic much better than I can here. A couple of things in the “I know this person who…” argument stand out to me, though. For one thing, there is an assumption that if one person in a particular situation is exhibiting a particular behavior (such as “taking advantage” of the system), it must be the norm, even when there is a lack of evidence to support such a questionable logical leap.

But I wonder what would happen if this same type of rhetorical formula were used in a different context. It might go something like this: “I know this person who speeds on the highway, but he has a radar detector and texts while driving. He is always bragging about how he never gets tickets and how he’d rather pay for a ticket than slow down anyway.” For whatever reason, speeding (which regularly endangers a whole lot of people’s lives, including children) is considered more socially acceptable behavior and far less dangerous than the possibility that someone might collect food stamps without actively looking for a job.

Another thought also comes to mind with the “I know this person who…” statement. Maybe the anecdotal woman really wishes that she could find a decent-paying job, and she is embarrassed that she can’t. There are times when we as humans might not want to admit to our own disappointments, so we minimize or dismiss our feelings in order to save face.


It can be as simple as saying, “Well, I was going to break up with him anyway,” when the reality is that we weren’t expecting to get dumped. Or perhaps after getting passed over for a promotion, it’s justified with “I didn’t want the extra workload,” when in fact we were excitedly anticipating the challenge of new responsibilities. Or for women who have had no luck conceiving: “I love the freedom of not having kids,” when we secretly picked out baby names years ago.

Vulnerability is difficult stuff. We don’t always handle it well, and a lot of us will go to great lengths to avoid letting others know how we really feel about things that are emotionally painful. This is especially true about poverty. When someone says, “Poor people are lazy” (or “parasites” or “bums” or “stupid” or any number of other negative words that are often associated with poverty), maybe it’s just easier not to admit how difficult poverty really is.

When someone has applied for countless jobs, only to be rejected again and again, it’s demoralizing. But when that same person has to listen to judgmental comments from total strangers (not to mention supposed friends and family), it’s even worse. Because these insults might be confirming the deepest, darkest fears that many of us carry inside us: that there is something inherently, horribly wrong with us. Taken a step further, when these attitudes are taught in church, or articulated by those who claim to be Christian, this is what might be heard (whether or not it’s intended): “God does not approve of you. Poverty is your punishment.”


But poverty is not a punishment. Regardless of what our worldly, materialistic consumer-driven society might tell us, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Shame can drive us to do all sorts of destructive things to ourselves (physically, emotionally, and spiritually), and in my experience, I haven’t found a single beneficial value in shaming others. I’m going to continue this topic in a future post, but for now, I want to end with a message to the many friends I have who are struggling right now: I believe in your goodness. You matter. And no matter how difficult life might seem at times, I’m cheering you on.

17 thoughts on “Poverty and the Doctrine of Shame (part 1)

  1. onesadhaka says:

    That was really nice. People tend to forget how hard it is to ‘get a good job’ when your main concern is finding food and shelter…or surviving.

  2. jetsytravels says:

    There is a great deal to mull over in this post, Cynthia. You have humanized this issue. I often think of how differently we would react to people we might be tempted to judge if we could just walk in their shoes for a time. I am looking forward to Part II. b

  3. […] When someone has applied for countless jobs, only to be rejected again and again, it’s demoralizing. But when that same person has to listen to judgmental comments from total strangers (not to mention supposed friends and family), it’s even worse. Because these insults might be confirming the deepest, darkest fears that many of us carry inside us: that there is something inherently, horribly wrong with us.  Poverty and the Doctrine of Shame (part 1). […]

  4. Danny Riggs says:

    Another masterpiece, my friend. You know my background and where I am today. I get so frustrated by both sides of this argument. The one thing I have learned along the way is that a life is best lived by the person living it. If folks are so certain that they can do better – they should go right ahead and do so with their own life. 🙂

  5. rogerwolsey says:

    Excellent piece. Powerful. I sometimes wonder if part of the reason that so many of us hate on the poor is because we know in the back of our minds that most all of us are 1-2 paychecks, or 1 serious injury/illness, from being poor or even homeless ourselves. Our degree is bashing the poor is directly related to our degree of repressed anxiety that they – could be us — along with our repressed anger at a System that allows such grave gaps between the haves and the have-nots. It’s a theory.

  6. Rose F says:

    Thanks for this. I’ll look forward to part 2.

  7. […] Poverty and the Doctrine of Shame (part 1). […]

  8. Great piece… I really think classism is one of the biggest “isms” that exists, yet somehow widely goes unnoticed and unchallenged as being problematic.

    In regards to this paraphrased quote: “I know this person who is collecting welfare and is on Medicaid, but she uses her food stamps to buy junk food, and she has an iPhone.”

    I HAAAAATE it when people say things like that. Apparently the poor absolutely MUST live in horrible rags and be miserable in every way, all the time, or they’re undeserving of ANY help. As if they have to apologize for not appealing enough to peoples’ nonsensical prejudiced view of what a poor person “should” be while getting help.

  9. pynomrah says:

    Reblogged this on Somewhere in the Middle of Everything and commented:
    This is what I mean when I talk about being ashamed. When you can’t make ends meet, when you have to get some kind of assistance, when you have to ask for help you are indoctrinated to feel ashamed even if you are doing everything you are “supposed” to do. If you don’t make enough to live on you should be ashamed of yourself.

  10. pynomrah says:

    Very good piece here. I grew up in poverty and am still struggling with it today. Poverty shaming from friends and family has actually driven me away from my social network and into the world of anonymous blogger. There’s a lot of “I know this one person” bullcrap out there but what they don’t know is what creates the mentality that drives some of those bad decisions, and why it’s not easy to break. I think poverty shaming has become acceptable because you can always just say the person is lazy and not trying.

    • cynthiabeard says:

      Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m sorry that you’re struggling and especially that you have experienced shaming from friends and family. Please know that you’re not alone. Even though we are communicating via cyberspace, I’m in solidarity with you.

  11. […] I know that there are people who receive food stamps and other government benefits when they don’t really need them, but these people are not the norm. They’re just memorable, and they stick out as examples because they piss people off and don’t care.  Cynthia Beard discusses the fallacies of anecdotal arguments like this in her post Poverty and the Doctrine of Shame, Part 1. […]

  12. I grew up poor and because of society’s views I was made to feel ashamed of it, as if I wasn’t as worthy as other people simply because my parents were struggling financially. Why does society always have to be so judgmental?

  13. […] way behind on blogging. Travel stuff on the way, and also part two of Poverty and the Doctrine of Shame. In the meantime, here is a silly break…a change of pace from the super-serious things […]

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