Thanks to Tracy Shildrick

We know from research that people experiencing poverty will often deny that they are poor and frequently talk about how they are able to ‘cope’ and ‘manage’ with limited resources. Rob MacDonald and Tracy Shildrick have recently written a paper for The Sociological Review which engages with some of these issues.  

In the paper they  draw on their research with people experiencing poverty and the ways in which they talked about poverty both in respect of their own experiences and how they talked about others. The interviewees were keen to deny that they were poor and  instead they talked about being able to ‘cope’ and ‘manage’ with limited resources. This was despite the fact that many were in deep poverty and at times, could not afford to feed or clothe themselves or their families properly. 

It is in a context where poverty is either invisible (thought to exist elsewhere but not in the UK) or that is it deemed to be a consequence of personal failing, that the interviewees made sense of their own lives. Interviewees were not only rejecting the stigma of ‘poverty’ but they were also constructing a self-identity which set them apart from the (usually) nameless mass of ‘Others’ who were believed, variously, to be workshy and to claim benefits illegitimately. These ‘others’ were people who were described as being unable or unwilling to ‘manage’ their money and who engaged in blame-worthy consumption habits (spending money on drink and drugs). Interviews were heavily loaded with these moral assessments of the poverty of others. The popular and political invisibility and/or distortion of the realities of poverty feeds this widespread belief that, where poverty does exist, it must be self-imposed. 
Our research shows that these discourses about the ‘undeserving poor’ are not simply the ‘top-down’ rhetoric of the powerful (or the ‘non-poor’) but are shared and enacted by those at the bottom, skewed downwards towards ‘others’. The paper argues that the interviewees displayed deeply-felt and strongly-held discursive devices deployed to protect the self from social and psychic blame, by deflecting it on to others, even though those ‘others’ were objectively just like them. In doing so the interviewees sought to distance themselves from the stigma of poverty and the shame of ‘welfare dependency’ as well as attempting to bolster a sense of family respectability and personal pride in managing to get by in hard conditions. So when people experiencing poverty talk about coping and managing, we should be wary of accepting these accounts at face value (or as evidence that others in similar circumstances are failing to cope or manage). The reality is far more complex than this and furthermore, to do so risks falling into the trap of perpetuating a hegemonic discourse which seeks to explain poverty as a failing of the individual when evidence shows that this is very rarely the case.

If you are interested in any of these ideas please do look out for the forthcoming publication, Shildrick, T. and MacDonald, R. (2013) ‘Poverty Talk: how people experiencing poverty deny their poverty and why they blame the poor’ in The Sociological Review, (forthcoming)