The Stigmatized Poor: In the Margins of Society


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A shanty, ill equipped against storms and floods like the other surrounding shanties. It is uncommon to see non poor people inside this area. Copyright image by Antonio Rosales, all rights reserved.

Numerous studies focus on aspects of world poverty; in my own (including previous) research, I found a consensus… Poor people often have to carry the burden of social stigma.

I’ve related the previous studies of other researchers in the field to my own research of the poverty in the town of Hagonoy in the Philippines.

Different Types of Stigmas

The sociologist Erving Goffman identified three categories of stigmas: (a) stigmas associated to physical characters or deformations; (b) stigmas associated to personal qualities and experiences; (c) stigmas associated to group affiliations such as ethnic, poor and religious (or nonreligious) people.

These group affiliations carry traits that can pass on from one generation to another.

While my research here pertains to the third category, in my field observations, I have come to consider that some poor people are prone to all three types of stigmas.

Poor people who live in harsh conditions and become sick may find it difficult to afford appropriate medicine and may therefore be left with physical scars if the illness is severe enough; as an example, scavengers are in high risk of various illnesses.

A trash dump in Hagonoy where some poor people search for plastics and metals to sell. The area smells bad and there are a lot of flies. Copyrights image by Antonio Rosales, all rights reserved.

I found that poor people will implement strategies to cope with poverty.

Some of these strategies mean that they break social norms of the broader society in which they live. For instance, they beg, scavenge, live in squatter areas or engage in unlawful activities.

I will not deal here with the various definitions of poverty as such, but the poor people in my research share common experiences: They live in shanties, have a low level of education, have no formal employment and their income is too low to satisfy all their basic needs such as proper food, medicine and adequate housing.

Social Distance and Poverty

The question is, why are there poor people being stigmatized and discriminated?

According to Mike Rose, social distance has partly something to do with it. If society separates groups of people physically and psychologically, it is easier for them to attribute inaccurate beliefs, thoughts and motives to each other. These attributions have an effect on how people respond to poverty.

In my research, I found that poor people are often associated with laziness and various types of crimes. A young man whom I interviewed did not have the opportunity to study; instead, he stated that he works to help his family financially. I asked him if he would go back to school if he had the possibility:

Young man: I cannot say, since I already got used to working hard.
Me: How do you feel about going to work every day?
Young man: Tired, then sometimes people accuse me of stealing.

Poor people, in my research, try to engage themselves in various informal jobs to increase their income; occupational multiplicity is a must for them to afford food.

This is a contrasting observation to the notion of poor people being lazy, one that Paul Gorski and the Philippine sociologists Isabel Panopio and Adelisa Raymundo also made.

Another interviewee emphasized on the problems with drugs in his community and expressed fear that someone would mistake him as a drug dealer and kill him, even though he does not use drugs.

These kind of generalizations of poor people have negative impacts on the lives of those who are not engaged in criminal activities. It is part of the social marginalization that they, as stigmatized poor, experience even though criminal activities are found in all social classes.

The absence of poor people from the public space enhances the social marginalization of poor people. Mike Rose underlined, “the poor are pretty much absent from the public and political discourse, except as an abstraction—an income category low on the index of socioeconomic status—or as a generalization: people dependent on the government.”

Researchers like Troung, Hall and Garry, who studied poor people’s perceptions concerning poverty alleviation through tourism in Vietnam, also underlined a social exclusion of poor people from decision-making processes, project implementations, and development plans; it is an exclusion that complicated the work of reducing poverty.

The researchers suggest that academics and policy-makers understand poverty differently from poor people and that the poor also can perceive poverty differently among themselves.

Taking into account the perceptions of poor people is thus significant when searching for a meaningful approach to alleviating poverty.

From a historical perspective, Lewis A. Coser wrote that in Puritan England, the poor were not perceived as part of the society.

He quoted William Perkins, a Puritan preacher who stated the following:

“Rogues, beggars, vagabonds … commonly are of no civil society or corporation, nor of any particular Church: and are as rotten legges, and armes, that droppe from the body… to wander up and downe from yeare to yeare to this ende, to seek and pro- cure bodily maintenance, is no calling, but the life of a beast.”

Leland Ryken added that Perkins’ thoughts on the issue could exemplify the typical Puritan view.

Individual and Structural Attributions of Poverty

In a statistical study, Dace Landmane and Viesturs Reņģe investigated attitudes towards the poor. The study participants included social workers and poor people.

The research revealed that those who explained poverty through individualistic attributions had more negative attitudes towards the poor than those who explained it through structural attributions.

Individualistic explanations of poverty emphasize that people are poor because of limitations related to the individual, while structural explanations refers to external forces such as society negatively acting upon the people.

Social workers who identified themselves with poor people tended to explain poverty through structural attributions and had more positive attitudes towards the poor. However, poor people who identified themselves as poor and explained poverty through structural attributions still had negative attitudes towards other poor people.

The researchers suggested that poor people protect their social identity by taking distance from other poor people through negative attitudes towards them. In other research, Margareth Kusenbach called this type of distancing as “fencing” and described it as a strategy to protect what some people perceive as their decency.

In the following quote of an interview, a local Catholic priest in Hagonoy whom I will call Marc described some aspects of what poverty is to him; I find his arguments related to an individualistic explanation of poverty:

Marc: Poverty is not a situation for me … it is a way of life, when we say poverty, it is more of, you are responsible of what you become. When we say destiny, destiny is [as] most of us define [it]: certain things that will come your way as it is planned.

But there is also another definition of destiny. When we say destiny [it] is what you make [of] it. And if I would use that destiny to poverty … sometimes poverty is something that we make, something that ah, something we decide upon.

That is why for me it is a situation. Yes, we can see there are statuses, there are surveys, there are numbers, there are situations, real situations. But in a deeper sense, there is also a way of life, because many people decide to become poor.
Me: Why?
Marc: Because they don’t strive [to succeed].

Further in the interview Marc argued he had worked a lot as a young man cleaning vehicles and expressed his frustration with people who “do nothing” instead of working:

Marc: … there will always be something you can do, always something you can offer, so that you can earn a living, though it is little … that is why, I sometimes, I am irritated with the people who are just wasting the day on talking outside, you know, some stores.

People, I argue, do not belong to either individualistic or structural explanatory models for poverty but can hold both perspectives depending on the context.

A gas stove inside a shanty, the food here is very limited. The older couple who live here try to cope as best they can but they are sick and weak. The women sells lottery tickets while her husband has become too sick to work. Copyright image by Antonio Rosales, all rights reserved.

In the interview with Marc, I found that he had incorporated both ways of explaining aspects of poverty; it is a reason why he expressed both frustration towards poor people whom he thought were “doing nothing” and compassion towards children, sick and older people.

In the following quote he had a structural perspective:

Marc: … there are so many factors that we have to consider … they must work but we also have to consider, is there any work, are they capable of working? And second, the government cannot provide everything [to the people].

Social Reciprocity

I would like to point out a contrast between how poor people protect their decency through negative attitudes towards other poor people and how some of them use their social networks.

Teresa Tuason, a psychologist who studied poor people in the Philippines, found that relationships with family and friends make an important part in dealing with poverty because they can ask for help.

In this way, the poor can attain a level of social security, since the ones who help can expect for the other to help them in return in the future. It is a form of reciprocity of favors or a social investment – because those who received help carry a feeling of indebtedness towards the people who have helped them.

Poor people are not always able to reciprocate. Lewis A. Coser pointed out that there is an asymmetrical relationship between social workers who represent society and poor people who receive relief. The poor are not able to reciprocate with society and become part of a unilateral dependency where those who provide gain power over those who receive.

Consequently, many perceive the poor as non-contributors and making up part of a low status in which they are not given social recognition. The inability of poor people to engage into an interdependent relationship with society offends some members of society. To receive assistance in a unilateral relationship is stigmatizing, beggars make a clear example of this. According to Coser, poverty cannot be eliminated if poor are not empowered to be able to give and not only receive.

Inside a shanty area in Hagonoy; heavy floods and high tides during the monsoon period affects the area. In this image, the water receded a bit, days earlier, however, people had water inside their homes. Copyright image by Antonio Rosales, all rights reserved.

Most of the poor people whom I interviewed did not have the opportunity to study; this increased their limitations to improve their situation and reciprocate with society through a formal employment.

Instead, they have to find other ways to have an income, such as begging, collecting plastics and metals from the local trash dump and doing favors for people.

The needs of the poor means that even children and sick people work.

The money they earn is not enough for them to escape poverty and they end up struggling to satisfy their daily needs.

In one occasion, a mother brought her two children to the interview naked; most of their clothes had been lost in the recurring floods in their area.

Further Thoughts on Stigmatization

The topic of poor people being stigmatized is vast and there are still interesting issues to expand on-more explicitly than I have done here.

Issues of interest include how members of society justify certain stigmas, how social norms and power structures among poor and non-poor reproduce stigmas, and how stigmas relates to social functions or social control.

In a sociological sense, stigma is a social definition, a social construction that we as actors in society can experience and observe. There are nuances, yet in a broader perspective, I believe that understanding the way that society stigmatizes poor people reveals aspects of stigmatization of other groups of people.

The process of social stigmatization incorporates features that various groups of people may experience, such as hostility and blaming.

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