Rich Man, Poor Man: Countries around the world link poverty with shame

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An Oxford University study has found that the condition of being poor is universally linked with feelings of shame.  The researchers have commissioned a new film, based on their findings, that looks at attitudes to poverty in culturally different societies across the world.  Called ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’, it will be shown on Community Channel on Saturday, 22 March. Media Trust made the film, which allows individuals from poor and rich backgrounds in four countries (Pakistan, Uganda, UK and South Korea) to talk candidly about their lives and what they think of people living in poverty.

In the UK, the experiences of two families living on different incomes are compared. The Bridglands are a family of three with their own house in Guildford with a weekly family income of £800. Meanwhile, the Mayes family of six live in a council house in Guildford and survive on weekly benefits of £372.

In the film, self-employed Paul Bridgland says: ‘It may sound a little unfair but for a large number of people who are in a bad situation financially, it is ultimately of their own making. It is up to them. Anyone can start doing something, start selling bottle-tops or whatever and start turning a profit. It just requires the effort.’

Tammy Mayes says she feels stigmatised because her family relies on benefits: ‘It’s not a case of us wanting to be on benefits; circumstances caused it. My husband was working when we started having children. We struggle with food; we have to use food banks. We have to work out every single bit of money that’s coming in.’

The research led by Oxford University was carried out in China, India, Norway, Germany, Pakistan, South Korea, Uganda and the UK. Interviews with people living in poverty in each of the countries reveal that they feel they are stigmatised as lazy or too dependent on others. They are made to feel ashamed because of the attitudes of their community, the government, the media, and even their own families and the agencies responsible for giving them social assistance.

The project is jointly funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the UK Government’s Department for International Development and is led by Professor Robert Walker. It involved a team of researchers in each of the countries studied.

Professor Walker said: ‘When people are already experiencing poverty, life is made doubly difficult when they are also being judged harshly by those around them. Our research suggests that in future policymakers need to be mindful of the risks of undermining those living in poverty. Treating people without respect may perpetuate the problem.’

In Pakistan, a mother who is a school cleaner married to a road sweeper, says: ‘We feel so ashamed of our profession and avoid meeting our relatives. We can’t meet them because of our vulnerable condition. While working in the school, I see rich children having a good lunch. I avoid being there because it makes me feel bad that I can’t provide my children with such food.’

A rich man describes the class system in Pakistan: ‘The “poor people” and people who come from the lower middle class, they are not striving hard. They are not doing enough for themselves, or for the country for that matter. If all classes became the same class, there would be no-one to do the work. The class system was created by God Almighty.’

This is the first time an international academic study has analysed the importance of shame in understanding the experience of poverty.

For photographs or clips of the film ‘RICH MAN, POOR MAN’, or to arrange interviews with the Oxford University researchers, please contact the University of Oxford News and Information Office on +44 (0)1865 280534 or email:

Notes for Editors:

 ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’ will be shown on Community Channel at 8pm and 2am on Saturday, 22 March.

  • Researchers carried out face-to-face interviews with over 600 people, most of them (adults and children) living in poverty, and also conducted focus group discussions with people from richer backgrounds, asking them how they viewed people in poverty. Representations of poverty in films, books, storytelling traditions and news reports in the media were also analysed. The researchers also looked at the language and practices used by agencies responsible for implementing social assistance programmes.
  • Professor Robert Walker, of the Department of Social Policy and Intervention (where he is deputy head of department) and Green Templeton College, was made an MBE for services to social policy research. He focuses on research relevant to the development of welfare policies in Britain and other societies; in particular poverty; social exclusion; family dynamics and budgeting strategies; employment instability and progression; and children's aspirations.
  • The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2013/14 is £212 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.
  • Community Channel offers an entertaining mix of inspiring community stories, uplifting series and ground-breaking documentaries. A unique home for untold stories, Community Channel encourages people to Do Something Brilliant and change their world. Community Channel broadcasts round-the-clock on Sky 539, Freesat 651 and Virgin TV 233 and between 2am and 8am on Freeview 63. The Channel’s website presents richer resources online and an extensive on-demand service can be accessed through the website, YouTube, BT Vision and BBC iPlayer. Community Channel is a Media Trust initiative, funded by Big Lottery Fund. For more information visit

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