Ruth Lister: ‘The art of ignoring the poor’

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. On 10 May 2019 the findings were launched at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris. This article is the keynote address there, given by Baroness Ruth Lister, CBE, FBA, Emeritus Professor of Social Policy.

It’s an honour to be asked to give this keynote address prior to discussion of such an important research project. In many ways, I feel I’m simply reflecting back to you insights that have come from the work of ATD Fourth World and the kind of research many of you have been engaged in. And although I speak very much from a Western perspective I acknowledge the insights Western poverty research and activism have gained from participatory work in the global South. My own understanding of poverty — developed initially through my work with the Child Poverty Action Group, a UK campaigning charity, and as an academic — has been deepened and enriched by listening to those who speak from lived experience through a kind of personal merging of knowledge.

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 intriguing title I’ve been given raises questions that go to the heart of what we’re here to discuss. 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. And I’ll suggest that art itself has a role to play.

Ignoring ‘the poor’

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. Two quotations from the wonderful ATD Fourth World photo-collection called ‘The Roles we Play’ provide clues as to what underlies this inability to see. The first is from Paul who described himself as ‘thinker’. He said, ‘We have to step out from the shadows of statistics and come forward to present ourselves as more than just mere numbers’. The other is from Kathy, a ‘human rights activist’ who says ‘the stereotyping of all poor people dehumanises them in the eyes of others’.

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’.

Yet visibility does not of itself mean recognition. As the Fourth World-University Research Group’s report on the earlier merging of knowledge project noted, genuine visibility requires recognition of people in poverty as ‘fellow human beings’ and not as a problem to be solved’.

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.

Even at its most benign, Othering denies people in poverty their complex humanity and subjectivity. Less benign, it robs them of any humanity. Othering shapes how the non-poor think, talk about, and act towards ‘the poor’ at both an interpersonal and institutional level. It’s reflected in the language and labels used to describe ‘the poor’ in a way that denies them what has been called ‘representational agency’ — power over how oneself is represented. Mark Peel, author of an insightful Australian study, reflecting on how ‘some of our most respectable citizens’ refer to people in poverty, concludes that ‘somehow poor people have never quite become part of a common humanity…. To treat poor people so harshly you have to see them as unlike you in a very fundamental way’.

The media contribute to the process of Othering in the typically negative ways they represent poverty particularly for those without first-hand knowledge of it — though of course people in poverty may themselves see these representations also. Traditionally poverty has tended to be marginalised in the mainstream media — seen as depressing and not newsworthy — or at best it has been reduced to statistics or to pitiful portraits, which themselves can reinforce social distance through what we might call sympathetic Othering. More recently in the UK, and I believe elsewhere, it has acquired entertainment value through what has been dubbed ‘poverty porn’ (short for pornography) TV. Here ‘the poor’, and particularly women, are treated as objects of scorn for spectator sport. Such vilification is then amplified through social media, although increasingly it also provides a forum for people in poverty themselves to resist such portrayals.

Overall therefore, the Othering of ‘the poor’ means that to the extent they are not ignored they are typically targets, at best, of the non-poor’s pity or indifference and, at worst, of their fear, contempt, disgust, or hostility. As a consequence, people living in poverty often feel shamed and humiliated. Robert Walker and his colleagues’ previous international research shows how what they identified as the ‘poverty-shame nexus’ causes ‘social and psychological pain’. This can be particularly difficult to bear for children and young people whose identities are developing. And it tends to be mothers who carry the burden and guilt of trying to shield their children from the shame of poverty as part of their work as the domestic shock-absorbers of poverty.

We should not underestimate the depth and impact of the social and psychological pain that shame and Othering can cause when they make people feel inadequate, worthless, without dignity. A theological essay on human dignity and poverty observes that blindness to the Other ‘erodes another’s sense of dignity as source of self-respect’.

The words ‘dignity’ and ‘respect’ speak to a very basic human need for recognition of one’s humanity. The sociologist Richard Sennett spells out what the withholding of recognition and respect means: ‘Lack of respect, though less aggressive than an outright insult, can take an equally wounding form. No insult is offered another person but neither is recognition extended; he or she is not seen – as a full human being whose presence matters’. Or as Millicent Simms, a young unemployed woman, told a UK National Poverty Hearing: ‘I just feel very angry sometimes that people are ignorant to the fact that we are humans as well, and we do need to be respected’. She reminds us that the art of ignoringthe poor is an art rooted in ignoranceof the humanity of the fellow human beings who constitute ‘the poor’ .

The internalisation of shame and humiliation can be damaging to the psyche. But the kind of anger expressed by Millicent can also fire struggle and resistance identified in broad terms as part of the core experience of poverty in the research. And this brings me to the counter-narratives or ways of talking that I believe can help puncture the art of ignoring/the ignorance of people in poverty through recognition of our shared humanity.


The counter-narratives are agency and human rights; they are exemplified by ATD Fourth World’s ‘Roles We Play’ project. Reflecting on the project, Kathy, the self-defined human rights activist, sums it up: ‘It means I am not invisible any more. I am recognised as a human being with thoughts, feelings and aspirations. I feel respected. It helps me define myself more positively and feel I have a valuable part to play in society’.

The ‘Roles We Play’ sub-title — recognising the contribution of people in poverty — is an implicit statement of their agency. In other words, it shows that people in poverty are, like everyone else, creative actors capable of a degree of choice and able to make a difference in their own and others’ lives, even if only in a small way. This can simply be through the agency involved in getting by — the struggle to survive so well described in the hidden dimensions report: ‘Struggling and resisting are intimately linked in people’s efforts to survive…. The struggle takes different forms, many of which remain invisible to the rest of society. Creativity is used to meet basic needs in imaginative ways, a process through which new skills are learnt’. It can also be through, for example, attempts to get out of poverty or through resisting the Othering processes I’ve described, or through collective action to improve conditions in local communities.

An evaluation of the ‘Roles We Play’ project described reactions to the exhibition to which it led. A common reaction from a group of students was that the exhibition humanised what had previously been to them an abstract issue of numbers and concepts. One responded that she was now trying ‘to consider poverty from their perspective. Also these people aren’t just “poor souls” in need. They do important things for others that keep things working’. In other words the project, which emphasises the agency of people in poverty, helped the students see them as fellow human beings with a role to play.

But agency cannot be considered separate from structure — wider social, economic and political institutions and processes. For people in poverty, agency tends to be heavily constrained by oppressive structures in which the more powerful are able to exercise agency to their own advantage. Moreover, research has shown how the corrosive impact of shaming and Othering on feelings of self-worth can itself stunt agency.

Conversely, it’s been suggested that recognition of the agency of another is a mark of respect. Recognition and respect of human dignity are at the heart of a human rights approach to poverty and are critical to challenging the Othering and dehumanisation of people in poverty because they are premised on what we share and have in common as human beings.

The UN Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has underlined the interrelationship with agency: ‘Perhaps most importantly, the language of rights recognizes and insists on the dignity and agency of all individuals (regardless of race, gender, social status, age, disability, or any other distinguishing feature) and it is intentionally empowering’. Disempowerment is identified as part of the core experience of poverty by the hidden dimensions research. ‘Power not pity’ became a rallying cry of American poverty activists who used the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in their everyday organising ‘to counter the denial and shame of being poor’.

At an individual level a human-rights approach can be transformative. An unpublished evaluation of a poverty and human rights project by the British Institute of Human Rights observed that ‘a form of alchemy took place: people’s lives and their view of themselves were transformed’. It demonstrated ‘what is at the heart of a human rights based approach — people seeing themselves, often for the first time, as human beings who are worth something just by dint of being human and who are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect’.

Concluding comments

I have argued that the ‘art of ignoring the poor’ is a form of ignorance rooted in the dehumanising Othering of ‘the poor’ who are at best reduced to abstract statistics or pitiful objects. Merging of knowledge research of the kind we’re discussing today helps to puncture this ignorance and contribute to alternative narratives of agency and human rights in which people in poverty stand as fellow citizens, fellow human beings.

So too can art itself. The ATD Fourth World ‘Roles We Play’ project is a work of art in which participants had full control of how they were portrayed and as a result saw it as ‘a celebration of who we are’. I’d thus like to finish with a poem written during an earlier ATD creative writing project, which makes the demand to be seen as human much more powerfully than I can.

All people, all human

I’m telling the people with power
that I have power too.
If you stifle my voice,
and deny me a choice,
I will show my power to you.
I will not come with a weapon,
I will not come in fear.
I will come with others
as sisters and brothers
and a voice you will have to hear.


I’m telling the people with knowledge
that I have knowledge too.
If you ignore my words,
and deny what you’ve heard,
my knowledge will be lost to you.
I will not come in anger,
I will not come in pain,
I will come as me,
with dignity,
and your denial will be to your shame.


I’m telling the people with control,
that I have control too.
If you put me in chains,
then hatred reigns,
and fear gains control of you.
I will not come as a prisoner,
I will not come broken to you,
I will come with pride,
and stand by your side,
because I am human too.

– Moraene Roberts

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