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‘You can improve the policy by attending to people’s dignity’

David Robson meets psychologists considering the importance of how poverty is framed.

08 June 2021

If you have never experienced poverty for yourself, take a minute to imagine that you are applying for financial support. The money is there, you are told, if you are 'needy', 'deprived', and 'vulnerable' – the 'people who have nothing'. The employees you meet are empathetic and you are grateful for their help. But at every step of the bureaucratic ladder, you are faced with constant reminders of the fact that you are 'disadvantaged' and the subject of 'charity', and that this money should only be used to pay for the bare essentials.

Now imagine that you could get exactly the same support, but that it's delivered without the negative framing. The money, you are told, will be a step to building a better life for yourself and the people around you, and you can use it however you want to grow your skillset and reach your goals.

How do you think your attitudes and behaviour might change in each case?

The psychologist Catherine Thomas was confronted with this question on a daily basis when she lived in Nairobi, Kenya. 'You would see different NGOs abound in this area, and some were really focused on hope and empowerment, while others were all about charity, in essence,' she says. 'And I was interested in how it might feel to be a recipient of a charity, rather than an organisation that's working with your community towards a better future.'

When Thomas returned to Stanford University to study for a PhD, she decided to put the idea to the test. Her research joins a growing body of literature examining the stigma of poverty and the way that it shapes people's thinking, feelings and behaviour – with some serious implications for the ways that organisations and governments deliver their support.

The culture of poverty

Thomas's research builds on decades of interest in the causes and effects of poverty – some of which has done more harm than good. In the 1960s, for instance, sociologists such as Oscar Lewis described a self-perpetuating 'culture of poverty', passed from generation to generation, that leads to disengagement and apathy, and hostility to institutions such as the police or the government. They were often fatalistic about their circumstances and had few aspirations for change.

The 'culture of poverty' was believed to become engrained at a young age, with long-lasting effects on people's lives. 'By the time slum children are age six or seven they have usually absorbed the basic values and attitudes of their subculture. Thereafter, they are psychologically unready to take full advantage of changing conditions or increased opportunities that may develop in their lifetime,' Lewis wrote in Scientific American in 1966, based on his work in Puerto Rico and New York.

The concept has lingered in politics and the media. 'It led to a lot of very pejorative interpretations and representations of "the poor",' explains Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington, a social psychologist at the London School of Economics. When it came to providing financial support, policy-makers were worried that financial handouts would simply breed a growing dependence that further perpetuated this culture. They certainly didn't want to frame welfare in positive terms; people needed to remember that it was a last resort for the needy, otherwise they would never want to leave the system (Edin et al., 2017).

It is only with careful experimental research that we have been able to reject many of these assumptions. These studies show that financial instability can indeed have important consequences for people's reasoning and decision making, but that these effects are highly dependent on people's immediate context. If poverty is self-perpetuating, it is because the mental strain makes it harder to find long-term solutions to the problems at hand (Shafir, 2017); they are not engrained in the culture. 'You can take anybody who's very capable, and put them in the context of poverty, and they'll start performing less well,' says Eldar Shafir at Princeton University. And any relief that eases that strain should bring about direct benefits to short- and long-term thinking.

Consider a study examining shoppers at a New Jersey mall – a sample of participants that broadly corresponded to the socioeconomic spread across the whole USA. The scientists first presented the participants with a financial problem, such as: 'Your car is having some trouble and requires $X to be fixed. You can pay in full, take a loan, or take a chance and forego the service at the moment... How would you go about making this decision?' In some cases, the value of X was relatively large, $1500, while in others, it was $150, which would be more manageable to most people.

The participants were then given two nonverbal tasks: a common test of 'fluid intelligence', and a test of cognitive control, in which the participant had to provide rapid responses to different stimuli while making as few errors as possible.

For the richer shoppers, the form of the financial problem did not seem to matter – whether the car repairs cost $150 or $1500, they were equally able to complete the cognitive tasks without any difference in results. For the poorer participants, however, the differences were stark – with much worse performance following the 'difficult' financial problem. The purely fictional scenario about costly car repairs seemed to have triggered their own financial worries, which temporarily reduced their fluid intelligence and their cognitive control.

To replicate the result in a more distant cultural context, the researchers performed a similar experiment with farmers in the Villupuram and Tiruvannamalai districts of Tamil Nadu, India. With much of their income drawn from a single crop – sugar cane – the farmers often face financial strain in the weeks immediately before their harvests, as they struggle to eke out the money made from the previous crop. After the harvest, however, their resources are relatively abundant. Testing the same farmers' fluid intelligence and cognitive control in both circumstances, the researchers found reduced performance in the times of financial hardship, and elevated performance after the crops had been gathered (Mani et al., 2013).

The researchers describe the effects as a restriction of our 'mental bandwidth', which, they believe, could contribute to many counter-productive decisions. 'If all your bandwidth is devoted to this financial juggling, you have fewer resources left to ensure that you are eating healthily, or that your kids are doing homework – everything is neglected,' says Shafir, who was one of the co-authors of the paper. The same scattered thinking could also lead to workplace errors that get you fired, or a missed opportunity for promotion – things that would make it harder to escape the current situation.

The social stigma attached to poverty will only exacerbate these effects. In one study, at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, students were asked to give a presentation about their expectations of their future prospects, before being given a test of mental focus. Conscious of their low status, the students from poorer families seemed to find the talk much more tiring than their richer peers – leading to worse performance on the later test. The greater mental 'depletion' could also be seen in their behaviour; after giving the presentation, the poorer students were also more likely to snack on unhealthy treats.

To test whether this was due to students' fears about being judged harshly, the researchers asked another group to talk about a subject that was less likely to trigger thoughts about their socioeconomic status – such as where they planned to live after graduation. Now, there was little difference between the richer and poorer students. It was the potential to experience stigma – and their sense of being an 'imposter' at the prestigious university – that seemed to be exhausting their mental resources. And the more sensitive that they, personally, felt about their social status, the worse they performed (Johnson et al., 2011).

Crucially, someone's perceptions of their social status – and its effects – can also modify the way they think about the future. In laboratory tasks, people who are assigned to the role of 'manager' were more willing to wait longer for a bigger reward – while those who had been assigned the role of a general worker tended to prefer to receive a smaller reward upfront, even if it meant that they would lose out in the long-term (Joshi & Fast, 2013).

This tendency of focus on short-term goals may be related to the reduced 'bandwidth' and self-control that comes with feelings of lower status; if you're constantly feeling distracted, it's hard to come up with long-term plans. But you could also see it as a rational response for people who face continued instability as a result of their low status, says Sheehy-Skeffington. 'I think the sense of control and predictability are key,' she says. If you don't have any faith that the future will turn out as hoped, it makes sense to stay focused on the here and now. Tellingly, this kind of myopic decision making is much less common when people have greater trust in the community around them – independent of their financial situation (Jachimowicz et al., 2017). Whatever the reason, the result of that short-term thinking may be less investment in things like education.

Ultimately, the feelings of instability will make it much harder to climb the social ladder and escape your current circumstances. 'If you see yourself as an independent individual, who is more in control of your circumstances, then you will be more comfortable when you're put into high status situations; you're more likely to apply for those sorts of positions, and you're more likely to be accepted,' says Antony Manstead, a social psychologist at Cardiff University.


Given these findings, it may be possible to offer some small 'nudge' techniques to ease the immediate psychological burden. Shafir, for example, argues that urging companies to pay employees weekly, rather than monthly, would increase their financial stability. 'It would make the financial juggling a bit easier,' he says. For jobs with flexible working hours, meanwhile, employers could give their timetables a few weeks in advance, so that it is easier for people to arrange childcare and transport. The aim, in each case, is to reduce the cognitive load, so people have more bandwidth to deal with other tasks that might improve their lives in the long-term. 'We, as a society, can make the poor significantly smarter by facilitating their lives,' Shafir says. 'It could mean that people eat better, sleep better, and make fewer mistakes at work.'

The research on social status and stigma, meanwhile, may lead us to rethink the ways that poverty is represented in the media, which often perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes. 'They often feed into this general perception that somehow people are choosing a lifestyle, and that they are almost relishing the situation,' says Manstead. As we've seen, these negative portrayals will only amplify the problems that come with financial instability.

Most counterintuitive, however, are the implications for the policy-makers who are actively trying to alleviate the stress of inequality. As Catherine Thomas noticed in Nairobi, it is not just the tabloids that stigmatise 'the poor'. While well-intentioned, the messaging of many charitable and governmental organisations reinforces the idea that people are somehow powerless and unable to help themselves. 

Qualitative research within the USA had already suggested that the specific framing of financial support could have an important impact on people's attitudes and incentives. Using a series of in-depth interviews, the researchers had compared the effects of two programs – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the core welfare program, and Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which offers refundable federal tax credit for lower-income workers. 

Whereas TANF – with its emphasis on the 'needy' – tended to set up feelings of hopelessness, the researchers found that EITC left people feeling more optimistic and proactive. That may come partly from the name. 'It is more like an honorary title – it suggests that everyone is contributing and that they deserve to have this support from the government,' explains Thomas. It may have also helped that the payments are made through the Internal Revenue Service, which lacked the stigma attached to the 'welfare office', which made it more socially inclusive. The resulting sense of empowerment appeared to translate to greater investments in the future – including educational opportunities – and higher aspirations of social mobility (Sykes et al., 2015).

Inspired by these findings, Thomas wrote three different mission statements for a new programme of economic aid. The first was framed as a 'Poverty Alleviation Organization' – designed to 'help them meet their basic needs'. The second was called 'Individual Empowerment Organization' that aimed to 'promote individuals' potential to create a better future for themselves'. The third framing, in the form of a 'Community Empowerment Organization', was written from a more collectivist viewpoint. 'This organization aims to empower people to improve their own lives and those of the people and communities they care about most.' 

Back in Nairobi, Thomas then recruited 565 participants from low-income settlements, who were given 400 Kenyan shillings (around two days' wages) alongside a mission statement from one of the three programs. Afterwards, they were asked about their feelings about receiving aid, and how others might view them – whether they would be seen as 'selfish' and 'dependent' or 'lucky' and 'responsible' – and they answered some questions testing their sense of self-efficacy. To see whether the different messaging affected their behaviour, they were also given a choice of six videos to watch – four of which were pure entertainment, and two of which were educational, explaining potential business skills.

As expected, the people seeing the 'Poverty Alleviation' message tended to report the most negative emotions, and they were less likely to choose an educational video to watch. The Individual Empowerment fared a little better, alleviating some of the participant's concerns about other's perceptions – though this did not seem to translate to significantly greater interest in personal improvement. 

It was the Community Empowerment message that really spoke to the participants, however – reducing the sense of stigma, enhancing their sense of self-efficacy and increasing the motivation to view the educational videos. 'They were more interested in expanding their financial literacy – in this case, how to build businesses in an informal economy,' says Thomas.

Powerful narratives

For Thomas, the findings highlight the importance of ensuring that the messaging is culturally appropriate. It is now well accepted that European and American citizens are often more individualistic than people from other cultures, where people tend to be more aware of their interdependence with other people. But many international aid organisations fail to take this into account when they plan their programs. 'Our tendency, as Westerners, is to start with interventions and narratives that are very individual-focused – that talk about individual goals, individual aspirations, and individual financial independence,' she says. In a second experiment, Thomas found that relatively simple questionnaires could accurately predict people's behavioural responses to the different messages – a simple level of testing that could be applied before aid programs have been established, she says.

Some NGO workers may worry that messages of empowerment are less likely to elicit donations. Perhaps the organisations need to emphasise the desperate circumstances in order to get sympathy and attention? But Thomas's third experiment, shows that this is not the case. Using an online survey, US participants were told they had been entered into a lottery to win $100. They were then shown one of the three aid messages, and asked how much of the prize they would be prepared to donate to the organisation at hand, should they win. Overall, the participants were relatively generous – on average, they were willing to give around 37 per cent of their winnings to charity, and there was little difference between the conditions – confirming that NGOs can put a more positive spin on their work without risking a reduced income (Thomas et al., 2020). 

Sheehy-Skeffington is impressed with Thomas's study. She agrees that the narratives around aid can be powerful, though she thinks that message of empowerment will need to be reinforced throughout the recipients' interactions with the organisation, from the forms they have to sign to the attitudes of the employees they meet. 'That framing and that narrative should be part of a broader experience,' she says.

Promisingly, Thomas's research has already provoked some interest from outside of academia, including an organisation that helps to direct the TANF benefits in the USA, and she's also working with the social protection unit of the World Bank Group. 'We're now testing these ideas at scale and in the field.'

She hopes that many more policy makers will take note of the narratives they're using. 'Depending on how it's given, aid can inadvertently be a vehicle for reinforcing social inequality, or it can alleviate these stigmatising narratives that keep people down.' Switching those messages should come at little cost, with great benefits. 'You can improve the policy by attending to people's dignity.'

Box: The thick skin bias
The effects of poverty are often easily visible. So why do richer people find it so easy to turn a blind eye?

Nathan Cheek and Eldar Shafir at Princeton University have one answer, with a string of studies investigating the so-called 'thick skin bias'. Put simply, this is a common assumption that people who have encountered hardship will find it easier to endure further trouble in the future. 'The general perception is that if you have a life full of little discomforts and abuses, then they will hurt you less,' says Shafir.
In the first study, participants were asked to consider a description of a character called Jordan. They were then told about various difficulties that Jordan has to face, from the relatively trivial (having a nasty boss) to the serious (being wrongly accused of shoplifting), and asked to rate how 'upsetting', 'annoying', 'intolerable' or 'hurtful' Jordan would find each event.

Cheek and Shafir found that the participants were surprisingly unsympathetic, if they had been told that Jordan had already suffered many financial difficulties in his life, with parents who were in and out of work. Perversely, they cared much more if Jordan was instead a privileged rich kid whose family had never had to struggle for 'food, rent or other basic things'. Further studies revealed the assumption that the 'thick skin' builds over time: they had less sympathy for someone who had been poor for the last ten years, than someone who had only recently lost their money, for example. A bankrupt financier, apparently, would be much more worthy of pity than someone who had grown up on a council estate.

Worryingly, the thick skin bias appears prevalent in a variety of professionals, including teachers and mental health therapists, with potentially important ramifications for the ways that people of different social classes are treated. Shafir thinks it will also stretch to the people in power who would have a chance to tackle poverty head on. 'This research basically suggests that policymakers will be indifferent to the everyday discomforts of the public,' he says. 'They don't think it's a big deal.'

In reality, there is little evidence that the chronic stress of poverty increases mental resilience, whereas there are very obvious reasons why financial stability can take the sting out of negative events. Jordan's wrongful arrest would be far less worrying if he could afford good legal support, for instance.

- David Robson is the author of The Intelligence Trap: Revolutionise Your Thinking and Make Wiser Decisions, out now in paperback (Hodder and Stoughton).
He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.

Illustration: Eliza Southwood

Key sources
Cheek, N.N. & Shafir, E. (2020). The thick skin bias in judgments about people in poverty. Behavioural Public Policy, 1-26.
Edin, K., Shaefer, H.L. & Tach, L. (2017). A new anti-poverty policy litmus test. Pathways Magazine.
Jachimowicz, J.M., Chafik, S., Munrat, S. et al. (2017). Community trust reduces myopic decisions of low-income individuals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(21), 5401–5406.
Johnson, S.E., Richeson, J.A. & Finkel, E.J. (2011). Middle class and marginal? Socioeconomic status, stigma, and self-regulation at an elite university. Journal of personality and social psychology, 100(5), 838.
Joshi, P.D. & Fast, N.J. (2013). Power and reduced temporal discounting. Psychological Science, 24(4), 432–438.
Lewis, O. (1966). The culture of poverty. Scientific American, 215(4), 19–25.
Mani, A., Mullainathan, S., Shafir, E. & Zhao, J. (2013). Poverty impedes cognitive function. science, 341(6149), 976–980.
Shafir, E. (2017). Decisions in poverty contexts. Current opinion in psychology, 18, 131-136.
Sykes, J., Križ, K., Edin, K. & Halpern-Meekin, S. (2015). Dignity and dreams: What the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) means to low-income families. American Sociological Review, 80(2), 243-267.
Thomas, C.C., Otis, N.G., Abraham, J.R. et al. (2020). Toward a science of delivering aid with dignity: Experimental evidence and local forecasts from Kenya. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(27), 15546–15553