If you are born poor, it is not your fault but if you die poor, it is your fault.
- Popular saying
Persons living in poverty are seen as responsible for their problems; they remain poor because they are lazy and have failed to align themselves with the system. This thinking, which in itself is stigmatizing, profits from a global capitalist system that has shaped our society for decades. This system prioritises the accumulation of profit through private ownership and individualism over economic equality; thereby, limiting the number of available economic opportunities, as well as leading to socio-economic inequalities and other social issues that hit the poor hardest. Meanwhile, wealth is deceptively attributed to personal merit and poverty is proliferated solely as personal failure and not a result of structural deficiencies.
Often the term ‘dignity’ is used by actors to describe one of the intended outcomes of social assistance to its recipients. This shows that there is a recognition of the existing negative stereotype faced by persons considered as poor in the society and their access to social assistance benefits is seen as a remedy. Although there are studies acknowledging that increased household consumption and reduced borrowing fosters the dignity of recipients, the process of accessing social assistance is not often a dignified path and has received little attention.
This blog highlights some of the inappropriate treatment experienced in the receipt of social assistance. Dignity of the recipient should not be merely a programme outcome but should manifest as the most important principle in program delivery to avoid and eliminate humiliation and stigmatisation of recipients.
Accessing social assistance
Social assistance programmes include unconditional and conditional cash transfers, in-kind transfers (e.g food) and subsidies (fee waivers in health, education, housing etc). Although participation in most of these programmes are voluntary, they require a great deal of effort from the recipients whilst applying for and continuing receipt of benefits. Therefore, there are several administrative and non-administrative processes undertaken by recipients to ensure access to social assistance benefits such as supplying additional information to prove eligibility, traveling to collection points, or adhering to conditions to continue benefitting from the assistance. It is equally important to note here that most recipients of social assistance are women with children, persons with disabilities and older persons.
Humiliation and Stigma
Recipients may be subjected to several demeaning experiences when accessing transfers. These may result from existing societal stereotype attributed to poor people as well as specific characteristics of the programmes themselves. These include long distance travels by foot and/or by vehicle that begin at the early hours of the day; long waiting time and queues under the sun and rain whilst being denied shades, seats, or access to toilets; and dehumanizing treatment by staff among others. Generally, recipients’ negative experiences can be encountered during the application process and observance of conditions.
Balen (2018) notes that “queues play an important role in the process of humiliation and shaming…implies learning the cost of being poor, of the valuelessness of one’s time and comfort”. Recipients are delayed (by service staff) and expected to wait patiently for hours to access assistance because if they (recipients) did not need the free handouts, they will not be there in the first place (Cookson, 2018). This is the same situation for recipients who queue at hospitals and schools for attendance certificates in order to meet up the conditionalities in accessing transfers (in the case conditional cash transfer programs). In some cases, while standing in those uncomfortable queues, recipients are unfairly treated, humiliated and regarded as nuisances by service staff (ibid).
The side effects of these experiences and stereotype manifest in several forms: in the perceptions towards recipients of social assistance, the psychological impacts on recipients and their families, and programme effectiveness. Recipients can be negatively treated and stigmatised by non-recipients, particularly in cases where social assistance is viewed as a charitable intervention from the government to uplift persons from poverty and not as an obligation to the citizens. Furthermore, this may result to stigma among the recipients as some see themselves as more deserving of the transfers than the others (Hochfeld and Plagerson, 2011).
Additionally, cash transfer recipients experience external pressure with respect to the way the transfer is spent, for instance, children from household who were receiving cash transfer were singled out at school for lacking in school materials and instructed to tell their parents to use the transfer to purchase school supplies. Parents were also singled out and shamed at school meetings (Belan, 2018).
Such experiences affect the self-esteem of social assistance recipients; thus, triggering shame and exacerbate recipients’ efforts to continuously defend their dignity. They can also serve as barriers discouraging the participation of eligible people in the programmes and as a result, reduce the effectiveness of the intended programmes’ outcomes (Ribar, 2014).
The negative stereotype of persons considered poor is explored as the bedrock of stigma and humiliation faced by recipients of social assistance. However, programme related elements such as burdensome enrolment processes, strenuous conditions for continued benefit, inconvenient delivery methods and disrespectful attitude from service staff can fuel or be fuelled by the stereotype resulting to stigma, humiliation, and ultimately, shame. Many providers have failed to create a dignified process to ensure a more respectful way of accessing social assistance and as a result, recipients have been forced to defend their dignity and self-image. In the end, the programmes become counterproductive in fostering the dignity of recipients as envisioned.
Reorientation is the most effective way of addressing stereotype and its effects. Agencies providing social assistance should create unambiguous processes that ease programme accessibility by (1) avoiding discomfiting policies and programme procedures as determinants of eligibility; (2) establishing (disability) user-friendly delivery methods that prioritize the convenience of recipients and service staff; (3) conducting strategic campaigns to counter stigma and humiliation; (4) developing an unbiased effective system that receive and respond to grievance of recipients. Recipients should be informed about such a system and accessibility and confidentiality guaranteed; (5) inclusion of recipients’ experiences into programme monitoring and evaluation activities, including, improved programme oversight on protection of recipients; and (6) holding staff accountable for derogatory actions as well as ensuring favourable working conditions for staff.
To conclude, ensuring dignity for recipients should be both principle and outcome central to agencies’ policies and practices, which will in turn, reflect positively in the way recipients see themselves and how they are treated.
Balen, M. E. (2018). Queuing in the Sun. In J.P.O de Sardan & E. Piccoli (Eds.), Cash Transfers in Context: An Anthropological Perspective (pp.141-159). Berghahn Books.
Cookson, T. P. (2018). Unjust Conditions: Women's Work and the Hidden Cost of Cash Transfer Programs. Oakland, CA: University of California Press. Access here.
Hochfeld, T., & Plagerson, S. (2011). Dignity and stigma among South African female cash transfer recipients. IDS Bulletin, 42(6), 53-59. Access here.
Ribar, D. C. (2014). How to improve participation in social assistance programs. IZA World of Labor, 104, 1-10. Access here.