The Shame of It: Global Perspectives on Anti-poverty Policies, by Erika K. Gubrium, Sony Pellissery and Ivar Lødemel (eds)

Policy Press, 2014, xiii + 231 pp, hbk, 1 44730 871 3, £70, pbk, 1 44730 870 6, £24.99.

As the title of this book suggests, at its heart is the experience of shame: an experience imposed on certain groups of people by other groups of people. Shame is physically damaging, and, far from incentivising people to seek employment, it can have a seriously debilitating effect. One of the important messages of this book is that ‘treating people with respect is not only a matter of social justice; it is also likely to enhance policy effectiveness’ (p.xi).

The first chapter studies a variety of social contexts around the world and finds connections between experiences of shame, one of which is that ‘conditionality, when imposed within an anti-poverty policy setting, heightens the shame experienced by policy recipients’ (p.12). Evidence offered in chapters on the experiences of benefits recipients in China, South Korea, Norway, Pakistan, and Uganda, back up this conclusion. A picture emerges of public rhetoric that blames the unemployed for not working, and of complexly conditional benefits schemes that encourage shame-inducing self-evaluations and public attitudes.

The chapter on India describes a corrupt and shame-inducing system for distributing grain to the poorest 30% of households. This chapter should be read alongside articles in the Citizen’s Income Newsletter, in issue 1 for 2012 and issue 2 for 2013, in which Indian Citizen’s Income pilot projects are reported.

The chapter on the UK charts a long history of attempts to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor, of shame-inducing penalties for those who fail to conform to increasingly onerous benefits conditions, and of increasing government vilification of people without employment. The assumption that personal failure is at the root of poverty has become culturally embedded (p.151), and an increasing reliance on means-tested benefits to support the incomes of people in employment has resulted in a rapid increase in families subject to intrusive and shame-inducing means tests.

The authors of this chapter, Robert Walker and Elaine Chase, suggest that the way back to the kind of social cohesion represented after the Second World War by National Insurance is through a change in the language used by ministers and the media. Whilst this might help, it will surely not solve the problem. Means-testing is inherently stigmatising because it involves officials asking intrusive questions of one group of people and not of others, and it involves one group of people being subject to a set of conditions not suffered by another group. Only if far fewer people, and preferably none at all, were to be subject to means-testing, would the now culturally-embedded vilifying public rhetoric no longer have a foundation in public policy. The authors recognise that Universal Credit, whilst it will bring the working poor into the same system as the unemployed poor, will increase conditionality (p.189). They ought to have concluded that greater use of universal benefits and reduced means-testing would reduce both stigmatising language and the experience of stigma.

The authors call for policy to be framed, shaped, structured and delivered in ways that take account of our need for dignity. They found that crucial to human dignity is a sense of personal security, a rights-based policy approach to achieve that, and consultation with benefits recipients. The book’s final chapter finds that new conditionalities in both the global South and the global North have introduced new ‘arenas for shaming for low-income respondents’ (p.208). Throughout the book we find that shame-inducing benefits systems are characterised by conditionality in general and by means-testing in particular, so it is rather surprising that the concluding chapters never suggest that a reduction in conditionality and means-testing would reduce the stigma experienced by people with lower incomes. One possible reason for the editors not arriving at this obvious conclusion is the quality of the index, which tells us that ‘means-testing’ is mentioned only four times in the book: once in relation to Norway, once in relation to Pakistan, and twice in relation to South Korea. If all of the incidences had been listed then it might have become clear that means-testing is at the root of both the experience of stigma and the public rhetoric that contributes to it. What is particularly bizarre is that the UK has no entry in the index under ‘means-testing’, and no ‘means-testing’ entry under ‘United Kingdom’, when it is precisely means-testing that much of the UK chapter is about.

This book is a fund of useful evidence in the cause of de-stigmatising global social policy, and we look forward to reading the outcome of the team’s promised further research work. We would encourage the researchers to study the more universalist and therefore less conditional aspects of social policy in the countries in which they are working, the levels of stigma attached to both unconditional and conditional policies, and the options available for the reduction of means-testing.