You’ve heard them…. Lazy. Stupid. Irresponsible. Drunk. Addicted. Spendthrift. Uneducated. Promiscuous. Immoral. Deserving of their fate. Cheats, liars & thieves. Big-time losers. These are some of the stereotypes that circulate in our society—and our minds—about people who live in poverty.
I find it really difficult to write these words. Poor-bashing stereotypes make too many assumptions about, and lump unique individuals into, a category of people who share only one objective characteristic—that they live in poverty. It is even more painful to read those words. I think of the people I know who live in poverty and feel horror, sadness, pain and anger that anyone would dismiss them on the basis of harmful stereotypes that have nothing to do with who they are.
Perhaps those who use poor-bashing stereotypes repeat what they assume is “common knowledge”, without considering the effects of their words. Some poor people may be able to shrug off poor-bashing stereotypes. But others are deeply wounded by the accumulated weight of such words. These are not simple adjectives used to describe an individual or a group of people. By using poor-bashing stereotypes, the speaker attempts to separate him or herself from those who are the object of their words. To put up a barrier between the speaker and the impoverished and put them in their place.
As I re-read these hurtful accusations, I cringe and wonder if some who read the blog might misunderstand and think that this is how I perceive people who live in poverty. I do not. However, the reality is that these ideas, myths and stereotypes regarding poor people are so pervasive that most of us carry around at least a little bit (if not a lot) of these unfounded judgments. After a few decades of reading, thinking, conducting research, protesting and teaching about poverty, I am able to see these as poor-bashing stereotypes that reproduce and reinforce the oppression and disenfranchisement of the poor.
Most horrifying of all is when the external accusations result in the internalization of poor-bashing—when poor people believe that their poverty is their own fault. The internalization of poor-bashing produces feelings of shame, worthlessness and inadequacy. Internalized poor-bashing is a form of internalized oppression, as debilitating as internalized racism, misogyny, and other forms of discrimination and oppression.
Stereotypes about the poor, women, gays, Jews, Muslims or any other category of people organize and compartmentalize our thinking about the world. As a result, we are unable to see authentically and thus make assumptions about who the other is and explain their behaviour based on our stereotypes. These compartments divide us into “us” and “them,” dehumanizing the other. In the case of stereotypes about people living in poverty, we hold fast to these stereotypes because we fear that we are not so far from poverty ourselves and we need reassurance that “we” are not like “them,” so that their fate could never befall us. As a result, we don’t have to think about the social injustices that cause suffering for others. Nor do we have to face the ways in which stereotypes limit our vision and the possibilities that our society might otherwise achieve.
For more information, see
- Eliminating the Poor Bashing Around Us
- Chandra is Reading…Poor-Bashing: The Politics of Exclusion
- Swanson, J. (2001). Poor-Bashing: The Politics of Exclusion short book review. Toronto, ON: Between the Lines.