Poor people are often defined simply by what they lack—money, resources, opportunity. Yesterday's conference on child poverty in Washington, D.C. brought together great minds to help low-income children gain access to these missing resources. 

Less talked about is something poor people often have too much of: shame.

Recent research reveals a universal link between shame and poverty, meaning poor people all around the world suffer from this incapacitating emotion. As the article affirms, shame has negative physiological and psychological consequences and reduces human agency. While shame is felt internally by those in poverty, it is imposed upon them externally through victim blaming and tropes of indolence by those who are not poor.

The poor are often blamed for their own poverty, a stigma on the almost 2.5 billion people living on two dollars a day or less. It seems unlikely that such a large group of people are separated from the world of hardworking bootstrappers by their own laziness.

Instead, research points to structural inequalities and intergenerational cycles as the root causes of poverty, as shown in this recent post by TCF fellow Jeff Madrick. Even in the United States, my colleague Paul Jargowsky shows poverty is largely reinforced by where you live.

Eliminating poverty has been a longstanding goal of policymakers, but along the way, the politics of shame have often turned the war on poverty into the war on poor people. The real truth is that poverty is an inheritance, not a shameful crime.

So how can we avoid shaming the poor and instead find workable solutions?

Rethinking Conditional Cash Transfers

A first step is simply to include the poor in the policy debate, according to the NGO, ATD Fourth World. Although a seemingly simple statement, ATD’s report reveals inclusion is the exception, not the norm.

Skeptics argue that those living in poverty don’t have access to resources like quality education that would help them make informed decisions. A policy model to help bridge that gap is the conditional cash transfer (CCT), which offers poor households a cash stipend conditional on certain actions, such as attending school or getting vaccinated.

CCTs, Latin America’s policy tool of choice, alleviate the immediate woes of poverty while investing in the future of human capital. CCTs are relatively inexpensive policy levers and have delivered results, reaching the lives of millions.

While CCTs have been proven to work, they do have some downsides. In particular, CCTs continue to perpetuate paternalistic notions of “we know best,” and their very success feeds into this self-serving mantra.

Looking Toward Alternatives

Another policy tool that shows promise is the conditional grant given directly to the poor. The Youth Opportunities Program (YOP) in Uganda, for example, gave an average of $7,100 in grants to groups of poor and unemployed adults in response to proposals detailing how they would use the money to start independent trades. After receiving the cash, recipients were allowed to determine their own expenditures.

Surveys administered two and four years after dispersal of the YOP grants revealed surprisingly positive results: participants invested in skills training, tools, and entrepreneurial materials. Earnings increased by almost 40 percent.

What projects like the YOP grants show is that, when given the capital, poor people can make intelligent choices that greatly improve their situation. (If you need more convincing, check out this Vox article, which debunks the myth that all that hard-earned cash is going to booze and cigarettes for the poor.)

Perhaps what makes YOP grants more effective and appealing when compared to CCTs is that they empower individual agency. So, while CCTs deserve a place in our anti-poverty toolbox, it is worth looking beyond the initial results of simplistic transactions into the long-term effects of our policies. And whenever possible, we should avoid solutions that have the potential to stigmatize the poor and perpetuate shame.

It seems the best way to help poor people is to simply empower them.


Photo caption: TCF fellow Jeff Madrick speaking at Inequality Begins at Birth