Adam Smith (1776) already pointed to the social dimensions of poverty, including the feeling of shame. Drawing on Smith, Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen argued in his widely-read essay ´Poor, relatively speaking´ (1983) that shame lies at the core of poverty. It is now increasingly acknowledged that poverty is more than just monetary poverty but also entails deprivations in non-material spheres. One of the latter is the experience of shame. This blog post provides a short literature review, shedding light on the relation between poverty and shame. [1]

Poverty and shame – How are they related?

In Psychology shame is referred to as a self-conscious and moral emotion as opposed to so called basic emotions such as anger or fear. Shame is relational as it entails a negative assessment of the self, made with reference to one’s own aspirations and the (perceived) expectations of others or of society (Tracy et al., 2007). When it comes to poverty, shame can take many forms. For instance, being unable to meet one’s own necessities is often accompanied by a feeling of shame, even more so when it comes to the needs of one’s own children. Shame is also experienced when one is unable to do what is customary in society, such as the celebration of religious or traditional festivities. Unemployment is another dimension that is closely related to poverty-induced shame as being unemployed often evokes a feeling of uselessness. Having to accept alms or special treatment can further exacerbate the feeling of shame as well as encounters with those administering welfare or social protection programmes.

Poverty-induced shame can have several negative consequences, including low self-esteem and withdrawal from society, often perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty even more. Robert Walker from the University of Oxford has conducted extensive research on the topic and concluded that such shame not only hurts but also undermines individual agency, adding to the negative experience of poverty and its perpetuation. In the worst case, it can lead to depression and even suicide (Walker, 2014).

Robert Walker and Elaine Chase have coined the term ‘poverty-shame nexus’ (see Walker and Chase, 2013). Accordingly, poverty – like shame - is also relational as the experience of poverty is determined by others as well as by the self (Walker, 2014). By constantly evaluating its members against the dominant norms and expectations, society plays an essential role here. Acknowledging the significance of shame, Amartya Sen argues that the ability to go about without shame is a fundamental capability which is essential to a life without poverty anywhere in the world. “The ability to go about without shame”, he concludes, “is at the irreducible absolutist core in the idea of poverty” (Sen, 1983, p.159).                

Shame – a universal but differentiated phenomenon

While the material resources needed to prevent one from feeling ashamed vary across cultures and levels of economic development, the emotional experience of poverty-induced shame and its impacts are almost universal. Chase and Bantebya-Kyomuhendo (2014) have studied the topic in countries as diverse as rural India and Uganda and urban United Kingdom and Norway. The authors highlight that the experience of shame is often very similar despite clear differences in material well-being and cultural traditions. In all cases the most common response was to feel inadequate and to withdraw from society to save face.

Despite the universal characteristics of shame, the exposure to shame depends on the social role, responsibilities and status attributed to someone based on his or her age, ethnicity, gender and class. Women for instance, have to fulfil several roles in society and are as such “exposed to multiple and cumulative forms of shaming” (Walker et al., 2013, p.232). While they try to comply with their roles as ‘good mothers’, they may be blamed for not working or vice versa. For men on the other hand, relying on others or on welfare benefits is often perceived as a challenge to their sense of masculinity and their traditionally ascribed roles as breadwinners (also Lister, 2004).


Research and policy implications

As a response to the shortcomings of the conventional, mostly monetary, definitions and measurement of poverty, many alternative conceptualizations of poverty have emerged over the years, such as the Human Development Index (HDI) or the Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MDI). While these new indexes extend beyond the measurement of monetary poverty, taking into account for example access to education and health services, psychological well-being, including the experience of shame, is usually not included. As Yongmie Nicola Jo puts it in her article on the psycho-social dimensions of poverty: “The psychological well-being of a person in poverty still tends to be treated on a narrow individual-level or as a separate domain from the person’s financial problems or the broader socio-economic and political context” (Jo, 2013, p. 515). Drawing on Sen, Diego Zavaleta (2007) suggests globally comparable indicators to measure shame and humiliation, such as: levels of shame proneness, perceptions of respectful treatment and unfair treatment based on gender, race or economic background.

From a policy perspective, it is important to note that anti-poverty policies can heighten or lessen the level of shame. Mark Peel in his study on poverty on Australia therefore argues that policies must also “be a response to the psychological and emotional wounds of poverty and not just its financial consequences” (Peel, 2003, p. 167). Policies, including social protection policies such as cash transfer programmes, are an important instrument for poverty reduction and help to make households more resilient against a variety of shocks. Yet, the design of these policies and how they are presented in public can easily increase the feeling of shame. Likewise, the way how programme administrators treat beneficiaries has a significant impact on the level of shame felt by those who are meant to benefit from the programme.

To put it in a nutshell, shame is central to the understanding of poverty. It is time to move beyond purely monetary conceptualisations of poverty and to pay more attention to its psycho-social dimensions. 


[1] This blog post follows collaboration with Keetie Roelen at the Centre of Social Protection (CSP) at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). Find her recently published working paper here:


Chase, E., & Bantebya-Kyomuhendo, G. (Eds.). (2014). Poverty and shame: Global experiences. OUP Oxford.

Jo, Y. N. (2013). Psycho-social dimensions of poverty: When poverty becomes shameful. Critical Social Policy, 33(3), 514-531.

Peel, M. (2003). The lowest rung: Voices of Australian poverty. Cambridge University Press.

Sen, A. (1983). Poor, relatively speaking. Oxford economic papers, 35(2), 153-169.

Smith, A. (1776). An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. 

Tracy, J. L., Robins, R. W., & Tangney, J. P. (Eds.). (2007). The self-conscious emotions: Theory and research. Guilford Press.

Walker, R. et al. (2013). Poverty in global perspective: is shame a common denominator?. Journal of Social Policy, 42(02), 215-233.

Walker, R., & Bantebya-Kyomuhendo, G. (2014). The shame of poverty. Oxford University Press, USA.

Zavaleta, D. (2007). The ability to go about without shame: A proposal for internationally comparable indicators. OPHI Working Paper 3, University of Oxford.

Cover image: Available here

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Social assistance
Social Protection Approaches: 
  • Social protection definitions and features
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Poverty reduction
  • Global
  • Global
The views presented here are the author's and not's


Very important discussion. Shame, symbolic violence and other imaterial aspects of social exclusion need to be considered in public policies. Good work.