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THE ART OF IGNORING THE POOR

June 4, 2019 1:30 PM

In 2016-2019, ATD Fourth World, in partnership with Oxford University, conducted a participatory international research project called "The Hidden Dimensions of Poverty". The project took place in six countries: Bangladesh, Bolivia, France, Tanzania, the United Kingdom and the United States. People living in poverty, professionals and academics worked together to clarify how we understand poverty and its multi-dimensional aspects. OECD AND ATD Fourth World (OECD AND ATD Fourth World)

Contributors to the UK Research, included newly elected Eastern Area MEP, Lucy Nethsingtha,Suffolk County Councillor Caroline Page and East Suffolk Lib Dems Vice Chair Jon James who met as members of a eastern area panel.

On 10 May 2019 the findings were launched at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. Extracts from the keynote address, given by Baroness Ruth Lister, CBE, FBA, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy are included below:

The Art of Ignoring the Poor.

"One thing it has taught me, and that has emerged so strongly from this international research project, is the importance of the psycho-social (ie, the interaction of social and psychological elements) and the relational (rooted in social relationships) in understanding how poverty is experienced. That is not to understate the importance of the material - the lack of resources sufficient to participate fully in society which is what defines poverty and the economic insecurity and powerlessness typically associated with it. But economic deprivation, insecurity, and powerlessness have psychological effects. Poverty is given meaning through relationships with others at both the interpersonal and societal level (including through interactions with professionals and officials."

…."The first part of my address will explore what I believe accounts for the art of ignoring the poor: that is the dehumanisation of people experiencing poverty due to them being seen as Other, and due to the way in which statistics, important as they are, can obscure the people they count. In the second part I'll suggest that two interrelated counter-narratives, which recognise the agency (or capacity to act) and human rights of people living in poverty, can help shift the angle of vision. This is so that the wider society can see people in poverty as fellow citizens - fellow human beings 'suffering in body, mind and heart', to quote from the project report."

"If the non-poor fail to perceive people in poverty as fellow human beings with similar needs, aspirations, and dreams, it's all too easy to ignore them…."

"As Ruth Sidel put it, 'statistics are people with the tears washed off'. In our preoccupation with categorising, classifying and counting 'the poor' we blind ourselves to how they constitute what Jacques Ranciere describes as 'the category of people who do not count'. And as ATD's founder, Joseph Wresinski, observed: 'the greatest misfortune is to know that you count for nothing, to the point where even your suffering is ignored'. This was expressed forcefully by an informant in a UK study who said he felt he was treated as 'a zero' and that this '"nothing-at-all" value is a destroying experience'. He said, 'I am invisible'.

That brings us to the second factor contributing to the dehumanisation of people in poverty - the process of Othering. Othering describes how the more powerful 'non-poor' treat the less powerful 'poor' as different and inferior. It's a dualistic process of differentiation and demarcation that draws a line between 'us' and 'them', which establishes, maintains, and justifies social distance. It's closely associated with and reinforced by the related social processes of stereotyping and stigmatisation. It is not a neutral line for it is imbued with negative value judgements that diminish and construct 'the poor' variously as a source of moral contamination, a threat to be feared, an 'undeserving' economic burden, an object of pity or even as an exotic species. At this point, it's worth saying that when I use the term 'the poor' I'm putting it in what Americans call 'scare quotation marks' because lumping together the diverse human beings living in poverty in this way itself risks contributing to the dehumanising process of Othering...."

TO READ THE FULL ADDRESS BY RUTH LISTER CLICK Ruth Lister: 'The art of ignoring the poor'

On 14 October 2019, ATD Fourth World will launch the British report based on this international research in an all-day conference at Amnesty International in London. For more information, or to attend, please contact atd@atd-uk.org.

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