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Poverty Shaming: What does it really mean?

Poverty is a social construct based on social and economic factors. To be poor means you have limited resources and opportunities. The American Dream teaches us that upward social mobility is attainable by hard work. We are all born into either the upper, middle or lower class and grow up learning that the American Dream is to move from a lower class into a higher one, or if you are already in upper class, to become even richer. It sounds simple enough, but the truth is, the American Dream isn’t as achievable as one might think.

There is a notion that everyone wealthy worked hard to become successful when the truth is most inherited their wealth. The economic class system creates division in which the poor try to obtain financial stability and the rich try to become richer. This race for resources drives upper and middle-class people to actively pull resources from lower income families. We see this throughout history and even in current events. Many Americans born into poverty have a lesser chance to mobilize upward than those born in middle-class families. About 7.8 million of the United States population lives in poverty. Those in poverty are often stereotyped as uneducated, drug users, lazy and worse. Ultimately, the cycle of poverty continues because economic inequality among classes has become normal and accepted, and we shame anyone of a lower economic class. But why do we poverty shame?

Poverty shaming occurs because wealth is a tool to achieve one’s personal goals. When a person is not wealthy, the assumption is if they were working hard, they wouldn’t be poor. But working hard does not equal wealth. In fact, wealthy people in power control systems that are supposed to benefit all, individuals regardless of gender, race, or sex.

Poverty shaming is also a tool people use to make themselves feel better and appear to be better than others. “For the players of the shame game—the rich and the powerful who consolidate their power and vast wealth at the expense of others—shaming people is a way of affirming how great they are,” says Mary O’Hara. Shame is a social mechanism used to put others down, usually by describing them as incompetent. Shame does not account for external forces or circumstance, instead it places all blame on the individual. Shame is always wrong and narrow sighted, yet it gives the shamer a sense of superiority and moral victory which is why it’s hard to stop.

Some think poverty is being unable to afford expensive cars, designer clothes, and expensive houses. However, true poverty is being unable to feed your kids, afford transportation to work, find a job with a living wage, and being stuck in a bad neighborhood because it’s the only housing you can afford. Poverty is ingrained in our health, justice, and economic systems, systems that require the greatest amount of equality. Inequalities and shaming often led to emotional and physical distress for those living in poverty.

The opposite of shame is empathy. When you hear the stories of those living in poverty, you’ll think “Wow. That makes sense why you are struggling, you never got a chance!” And that is real poverty. It’s measurable, understandable, and can be fixed if some of the barriers were removed. But it’s easier to shame the single mom of two young kids for being lazy because you don’t have to hear about her leaving an abusive man and working multiple jobs to support her family.

For those living in poverty, shame is inevitable and a threat to their existence. Eradicating poverty will take time and effort. The shame placed on those in poverty must stop now. First, it is pertinent to educate yourself on the cycle of poverty and how shame plays a role in perpetuating myths. Shaming someone because they cannot afford necessities and luxuries does not motivate them to change or help in any way – it only makes things worse. Encouragement, donations, support and empathy will help combat poverty.


Kelley Traynham is a writer in the North Carolina Community Action Association’s

Communications Fellows Program. NCCAA Communications Fellows are students or recent

graduates pursuing a career in communications, graphic design, IT, public policy or a related

field. They receive a stipend for their participation in the program. For more information on the NCCAA Communications Fellows Program, please contact Yvette Ruffin, director of the NCCAA Communications Fellows Program.

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