The Cultural Shaming Of Poverty

The Situation

The greatest weapon employed on economically marginalized communities is the cultural transference of guilt and shame. When experienced over prolonged durations, these two emotions will paralyze and prevent us from thriving and offering our Light to the world. If you have ever been broke, like really broke, you know the fear you face — eyes wide open — every morning.

You crave that moment when everything will feel safe, when you can just breath and release, when you can finally allow yourself to relax and be present.

If you were raised outside the U.S. in a developing country, then you truly know the rough edge of poverty. Yet regardless of origin, suffering is relative and so is the perceived experience of poverty. Whether you are crouching down to urinate in the streets of Shanghai or you are stretching a day’s worth of food to last a week, the emotional effects are the same: poverty generates emotional fear and atrophy.

Breaking out of this cycle could be one of the greatest challenges a human being can face.


The other day I was speaking with a close friend who revealed to me the dichotomy of her experience.

“I just felt happy, for no other reason than I was just happy to be alive.” she shared.

“But, why should I feel happy? I am poor, I am on the edge of homelessness and I cannot find a job. I shouldn’t be happy.”

Somewhere along the road of living in this dualistic world my friend chose to believe that if you are struggling economically you cannot experience peace and self-fulfillment.

I felt deeply for her. I have felt the same way too.

For many of us our moments of happiness are often prematurely interrupted by our inner asshole.

You know the moment: we start to feel good, start to feel groovy and happy, grateful and breathing in the summer air, and all the sudden, our inner Judge, like some overly paranoid police officer, comes rushing to the scene, barking at us for experiencing a sense of fulfillment. Immediately, like trained foot soldiers, we abandon our moment of zen, our body becomes stiff with shame and we pick up once again on the trail of shameful tears.

The moment lends itself to the next and we feel powerless, defeated by economic conditions that we just do not know how to transform.

We feel lousy and we give up. We give up applying for that job because our thoughts persuaded us to believe in our inevitable failure. We give up playing with our children because we feel too sad to get out of bed. We give up on that spark of hope that we felt just a moment before. We give up, we buy into the shame complex and we cycle around again in a circle of cognitive madness.

No longer do we have breath, but just fight or flight.

We cry, but our voice only captures the echo of silence.

In any impoverished situation, many of us deny our body, mind and heart the gift of pleasure, waiting until “everything is aligned” to finally be content,

to finally say “I am enough. I love myself exactly the way I am.”

Whether that impoverishment is economic, familial or cultural, so many of us grieve over the belief that we are not good enough.

This needs to end.

It ends with letting go of shame.

And then it begins with seizing control over our thoughts.

Poverty Induced Shame

Most individuals or families who are experiencing generational or situational poverty are buried in a cycle of shame and guilt. So many question why social programs like TANF have such high retainment and recidivism rates.

Our rational, logical, let-me-deduce-everything-down-to-its-parts culture has a sick way of denying the role of emotions related to culturally induced shame. The band-aid system of welfare has been built upon an inherent value system of American Corporate Capitalism: “work, work, work and don’t fuck it up.” If you fuck it up we will shame you and limit your ability to rise up out of your mistakes and feel good again. And “if your parents fucked up, good luck!” This viewpoint sadly reinforces a culture of shame through a lack of compassionate awareness of the emotional paralysis that accompanies poverty.

Social programs like TANF, Medicaid or SNAP are top-down, bureaucratically designed policies, reinforced by governmental “parents” who control every disbursement of money allotted to feed a family of 5. A meager amount per month that is designed only to “supplement” and never to cover the full cost of living. With most other social programs now closing their doors due to budget cuts, many impoverished individuals and families have no where else to turn but to the paternalistic programs our government offers.

Yet economic struggle in America these days does not solely belong to this stereotyped image. Single parents, recent college graduates, elderly populations and those struggling with health/mental crises are slipping quickly into debt and losing control of their financial stability. When housing costs have inflated to an irrational level compared to average employee earnings, more and more people are moving home with their parents, living out of their cars, taking out more lines of credit and working 3 jobs just to be able to peak their nose out from under the blanket of poverty.

Economic Leprosy

Our laissez-faire ideologies have influenced the citizen majority to scorn upon the working class poor, continuously siphoning fictional stories as truth, stories generated by the corporate news media who laminate social program recipients as undeserving, lazy drug-addicts who cannot keep their pants on. These pro-elite pundits use clever divide and conquer strategies aimed at the poor, exploiting the “welfare mom” image. In effect, many Americans vicariously latch onto every word of propaganda, projecting their own shame through criticism and alienation onto vulnerable, marginalized populations.

Why does our culture shame poverty so much? Perhaps it is due to people’s own insecurity and unspoken resentment around our capitalistic system. A system that they agreed to marry “till death do us part.” A system that has them gridlocked into a never-ending mortgage, car payments and student loan debt. A system whose hands are dirty and stained blood-red by the corruption of White Men and the fallacy of Adam Smith’s economic idealism.

Or maybe it runs deeper. Maybe poverty frightens people so much that they shut down their hearts in the belief that they are powerless to help. Or maybe people have a fear of economic leprosy — if you go near or are seen with those “poor” folk, you too will catch their contagious economic disease.

We see this time and time again. People are afraid of disease, of poverty, of anything that threatens their sense of safety and being in control over their life.

Many who shame and criticize have closed down their hearts to feeling compassion and love. They are afraid to witness poverty in action. Why?

Because it hurts to see another human in so much pain. It is scary to see the effects of poverty: addiction, disease and violence. Most were never taught how to be present with suffering with an open and courageous heart. So people gentrify their fears, pushing away every shadowy aspect of suffering, in hope that the untouchables will not expose their own deep fear of mortality, suffering and powerlessness.

Photo by Christopher Campbell,

Global Economic Related Shame

A cross-cultural study was conducted in 2013 that sought to identify if poverty-related shame is a culturally bound or universally experienced phenomena. Understanding if economic related shame is indeed experienced universally would provide key insight into the failing social welfare top-down systems and potentially educate policy makers to drafting new legislation that was emotionally intelligent and economically restorative.

Seven different groups from seven different countries were analyzed and studied, using qualitative measurements. Researchers discovered that though different circumstances were experienced within each group, i.e., conditions of poverty, each group shared the experience, or the feeling, of shame universally:

Judged by material standards, respondents across the seven national sites lived in different worlds. The financial pressures on them were similarly different in degree and conceivably in kind; the decisions that result in starvation, going without a meal and ‘eating in’ rather than ‘eating out’ are not commensurate. But measured against local expectations, the pressures on parents to provide the best that they could for their children, their families and themselves may be much more comparable. As will become increasingly apparent, the failure to live up to those different expectations takes a surprisingly similar toll on the personal well-being and social functioning of people in each of the research settings…….A further strategy to cope with the prospect of shame was a partial and sometimes complete withdrawal from social life. This not only reduced expenditure but meant that respondents could reduce the likelihood of experiencing shame. The weakness in the strategy was that it inevitably reduced the social resources that people could draw on in times of crisis.” ¹

Researchers go on to further report that the way families coped with shame was through “partial and sometimes complete withdrawal from social life.” Unfortunately, for any individual or family choosing to isolate themselves as a way to avoid societal/cultural shame, they limit their ability to access resources, community support and further the downward spiral of poverty.

Facebook Will Probably Not Save The Day

Due to our economic structure, the rising tide of income inequality, and the iron-fisted legislative actions that are cutting funds for critical social programs, individuals faced with economic challenges may struggle even more than their ancestors, thus exponentially falling deeper into the cycle of shame faster than previous generations.

More and more people are staying indoors, trying to build connections over Social Media rather than developing meaningful relationships in person. Social Media can provide the illusion of friendship, but most know that every year the amount of people who call them to wish them a happy birthday becomes less and less. Cute memes and quick birthday shout outs are replacing genuine connections that fill the human heart with a knowing that they are loved, honored, and valued exactly as they are, darkness and all. More evidence warns us of the dark side of social media: community isolation, loneliness, and increased apathy toward social justice and humanitarian issues.

Olivia Laing writes in the Guardian:

The screen acts as a kind of protective membrane, a scrim that allows invisibility and transformation. You can filter your image, concealing unattractive elements, and you can emerge enhanced: an online avatar designed to attract likes. But now a problem arises, for the contact this produces is not the same thing as intimacy. Curating a perfected self might win followers or Facebook friends, but it will not necessarily cure loneliness, since the cure for loneliness is not being looked at, but being seen and accepted as a whole person — ugly, unhappy and awkward, as well as radiant and selfie-ready.

Our ancestors may have struggled with poverty, unfair taxation, public health and safety issues, but the one thing that grounded them was community and the sense of belonging. Many people from non-western countries always remark how their country may be economically poor, but rich in community, whereas in the United States we are becoming more and more isolated from each other. And for those already living in shame induced poverty, the isolation is significantly more severe and dangerous.

The Call for Awareness and Action

Our deep predicament is that we have a society based on classism, where the distribution of wealth is practically criminal; we have a political system that protects the criminal behavior of corporations; we have a system of capitalism that is built upon rewarding those who have the means to prosper, yet limits the ability for those without the means to rise up out of their circumstances, and we have a popular culture that reinforces the trademarked deception of corporate slavery just so they can Facebook their friends from their iPhone.

Without the collective and compassionate awareness of the psychological and emotional impact of poverty we will never see a positive shift in economic equality. Without the awareness of our personal responsibility regarding the cultural shaming of poverty and the idolization of wealth, nothing will ever change. Indeed, it has been this way for centuries.

Think tanks, economists and political science professors spend their life devising strategic poverty reduction plans, but most never approach economic vitality through a holistic and emotionally cognizant model.

Poverty is the largest contributor to violence, addiction, disease, racism, community fragmentation and political instability. We are all affected by poverty every single day, regardless of our socioeconomic status.

Every ecosystem on this planet survives, thrives and relies upon the delicate interdependence of every species occupying that ecosystem — from bacterium to fungi to plant to mammal — the Earth is our direct, most profoundly wise teacher regarding building sustainable systems of cultural cohabitation. Rising out of poverty is not just an individual endeavor, but a collective effort to harmonize our human ecosystem.

Healing Economic Poverty will only occur when we personally admit to the Shame we have been culturally reinforcing unto groups of people we fear or do not understand.

Healing Economic Poverty will only occur when we are brave enough to identify how fear of “economic leprosy” has prevented us from fully engaging in solutions.

Radical Self Responsibility

For those of us living in Poverty in America, our first action must be a radical love and forgiveness toward our Self.

Our worth is not dependent upon our cash value. Our worth is innate and indestructible. We deserve to be here. We are valued simply because we are here, alive, and are a intricate part of Life.

We cannot wait around until capitalism is healed or a new economic system is replaced with the old white man’s version of wealth. Our journey of economic rehabilitation begins when we own our pain, our history and how we have contributed to our present situation. Through this process we begin to see how our thoughts affect our emotions and how our emotions affect our actions. We honestly assess what needs to change and we start with one action at a time.

We create a budget. We change jobs. We prioritize our expenses. We find help for addictions we are ready to release. We set goals. We join a support group.

We walk away from destructive habits, people and places.

We allow ourselves to feel good, to trust the process and to believe wholeheartedly that through right action, right thought and radical self-love, we can slowly, but surely move out of economic poverty.

We give gratitude for every single thing we have in our life, and through the building of that gracious momentum, our perception shifts.

We finally see how wealthy we are and how much love resides in the center of our suffering.

We are visitors on this beautiful Planet for just a collection of moments.

In our moment of Death these moments become the One Sacred Moment, that we call Life.

And we must courageously embrace every sacred moment for a Life lived well.

The Prayer

I pray for those jailed in a cycle of fear and doubt. Those who feel powerless every month when the rent is due. Those who feel shame when they cannot buy a winter jacket for their child.I pray for US — for we are all in this together.Your poverty is my poverty and your wealth is my wealth. Together we share this burden, together, we share this wealth. Together, we will rise, we will sing once again. We will dance in the footsteps of our warrior ancestors. We will overcome.

This article was reposted by the author from

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  1. ROBERT WALKER, GRACE BANTEBYA KYOMUHENDO, ELAINE CHASE, SOHAIL CHOUDHRY, ERIKA K. GUBRIUM, JO YONGMIE NICOLA, IVAR LØDEMEL, LEEMAMOL MATHEW, AMON MWIINE, SONY PELLISSERY and YAN MING (2013). Poverty in Global Perspective: Is Shame a Common Denominator?. Journal of Social Policy, 42, pp 215­233 doi:10.1017/ S0047279412000979.
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