Humiliation and Shame

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Austerity has increased poverty; austerity policies have hit the poorest hardest[i], increasing levels of poverty in families on the lowest incomes[ii]. Households living below minimum income standard has increased by a third since 2008. The majority of this increase is since 2010, when austerity policies began, and families with children are the worst affected group[iii]. Experiences of both shame and humiliation are endemic in poverty[iv], due to the low status assigned to people on low incomes, and rhetoric which blames poor people for their own need. Humiliation has also been highlighted as a central experience for those affected by the changes to disability benefits[v]. Both shame and humiliation are social emotions. Humiliation arises when people are made to feel that they are lesser in status or worth while shame occurs when people are made to feel that they have violated a social or moral standard[vi]. These feelings have been compounded by the punitive rhetoric used to drive through austerity policies, which have promoted the idea that those who use welfare benefits are worth less (‘shirkers’) than those who work (‘strivers’[vii]) .

The costs to mental health
Shame has been described as “the bedrock of psychopathology”[viii] meaning that it is central to many forms of emotional distress. Shame is associated with experiences of depression[ix][x], specifically when combined with a feeling of a lack of community[xi]. Shame is also central to many distressed responses to abuse[xii]. Experiences of humiliation are also known to be a key cause of depressed experiences[xiii]. Prolonged humiliation following a severe loss trebles the chance of being diagnosed with clinical depression[xiv]. Particularly at risk, therefore, are people who face sudden changes to their circumstances which place them in poverty, such as a job loss or benefit cuts.

Case study: Food banks
The growth of food banks has been a high profile feature of austerity. Reliance on food banks has increased 22 fold since the beginning of austerity policies in 2010, according to the Trussell Trust, who served nearly 1 million people in 2013/14[xv]. Shame has been identified as the most common emotion reported by users of food banks[xvi]. In a US study, 84% of visitors to food banks described feeling humiliated by the experience, while 43% hid their use of food banks from their children[xvii]. This is one example of the how the public exposure of being in poverty can lead to shame and humiliation. The most common reason for using a food bank in the UK is problems with the benefits system[xviii], including delays and benefits changes. This directly links austerity policies to the growth in food bank use.

[i] De Agnostini, P., Hills, J., Sutherland, H. (2014) Were we really all in it together?The distributional effects of the UK Coalition government’s tax-benefit policy changes, Social Policy in a Cold Climate: Working Paper 10, London School of Economics.

[ii] Hills, J. (2015). The Coalition’s Record on Cash Transfers, Poverty and Inequality 2010-2015, Social Policy in a Cold Climate: Working Paper 11, London School of Economics.

[iii] Padley, M., Valadez, L., Hirsch, D. (2015). Households below a minimum income standard. London: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

[iv] Mills, C., Zavaleta, D., and Samuel, K. (2014). Shame, humiliation and social isolation: Missing dimensions of poverty and suffering analysis. OPHI Working Paper 71, University of Oxford.

[v] We are Spartacus. The People’s Review of the Work Capability Assessment. London: We Are Spartacus.

[vi] Tracy, J., L., Robins, R. W., Tangney, J. P. (2007). The self-conscious emotions: Theory and research. New York: Guildford Press.

[vii] George Osborne, Conservative Party Conference Speech, 2012. Liam Byrne, Conservative Party Conference Speech, 2011.

[viii] Miller, R. S. (1996). Embarrassment: Poise and peril in everyday life. New York: Guildford Press, p. 151.

[ix] Kim, S., Thibodeau, R., Jorgensen, R. S. (2011). Psychological shame, guilt, and depressive symptoms: A meta-analytic review, Bulletin, Vol 137, 1, 68-96.

[x] June P.; Wagner, P., ; Gramzow, R. (1992). Proneness to shame, proneness to guilt, and psychopathology, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 101, 3, 469-478.

[xi] Scheff, T. (2001). Shame and community: Social components in depression, Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 64, 3, 212-224.

[xii] Whiffen, V., E., MacIntosh, H., B. (2005). Mediators of the link between childhood sexual abuse and emotional distress: A critical review, Trauma, Violence and Abuse, 6, 1, 24-39.

[xiii] Brown, G. (1996). ‘Onset and course of depressive disorders: Summary of a research programme’, in C. Mundt, M.J. Goldstein, K. Hahlweg, P. Fielder (eds), Interpersonal factors in the origin and course of affective disorders. London: Royal College of Psychiatrists.

[xiv] Kendler, K., S., Hettema, J. M., Butera, F., Gardner, C. O., Prescott, C., A. (2003). Life event dimensions of loss, humiliation, entrapment, and danger in the prediction of onsets of major depression and generalized anxiety, Archives General Psychiatry, 60, 8, 789-796.

[xv] Trussell Trust. (2014). Highlights of the year: 2013-14. London: Trussell Trust.

[xvi] Van der Horst, H., Pascucci, S., Bol, W. (2014) The “dark side” of food banks? Exploring emotional responses of food bank receivers in the Netherlands, British Food Journal, 116, 9, 1506-1520.

[xvii] Tarasuk, V.S., Beaton, G.H. (1999), Women’s dietary intakes in the context of household food insecurity, The Journal of Nutrition, 129, 3, 672-679.

[xviii] Trussell Trust. (2014). Highlights of the year: 2013-14. London: Trussell Trust.


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