Published: November 18, 2020


Changing the perception of destitute people; that their situation is not their fault, is key to solving Australia’s poverty. This is the view of Life Course Centre researchers at The University of Queensland, Associate Professor Cameron Parsell and colleagues, Dr Andrew Clarke and Associate Professor Francisco Perales, from the UQ School of Social Science, along with Associate Professor Richard Robinson from the UQ School of Business, who have teamed up to study how transforming charity could reduce persistent poverty.

Associate Professor Parsell (pictured) is a Life Course Centre Associate Investigator and incoming Chief Investigator, and Dr Clarke and Associate Professor Perales are Life Course Centre Research Fellows. Dr Parsell and the team will partner with key charitable organisations to underpin and change the work that they do.

“We are excited to be developing social science research that will benefit some of the most excluded citizens,” Dr Parsell said. “People living in poverty are often positioned as deficient, deviant, and responsible for their poverty. Our research advocates for governments and charities to re-position the recipient of charity as an individual, with the right to participate in interdependent exchange,” he said.

One of the aims of this research is to design a system where participating organisations – The Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul Society, The Commonwealth of Australia, and Department of Social Services – can provide support to individuals as a means of normality and inclusion.

Dr Parsell said critically, charities need to understand that society and wellbeing relies upon our interdependent relationships in society, and that we all benefit from both asking for and providing help.

“Charities need to start from a place that recognises people in need of charity are capable of giving back, and desire to give back,” he said. “But there will always be power and resource imbalances that mean individuals may never be able to give back what they have received. If they’re not able to reciprocate, this invariably makes people feels undervalued and insignificant. We need to go out of our way to create the practical and symbolic conditions where people can give back what they feel they can at that time,” Dr Parsell said.

The Australian Research Council is funding the project: ‘Transforming Charity to Reduce Persistent Poverty’ (2019-2023).

Charity and Shame: Towards Reciprocity 

Associate Professor Parsell and Dr Clarke have published an open-access article in Social Problems examining the experiences and meaning of charity from those who provide and receive it, based on in-depth interviews with 24 volunteers providing charity and 57 people receiving charity in Australia.

Their analysis shows that people receiving charity feel shame, and this shame derives from the judgements of volunteers and the position of recipients as passively receiving what is given. The findings also show that some volunteers actively engage with recipients to mitigate shame, and the dynamic interaction between provider and receiver of charity can reduce the shame people experience. Despite these successes in mitigating shame, the unidirectional provision of charity to people in poverty fails to take account of the value people place – and society expects – on reciprocity. Prioritizing the interests of those in poverty who receive charity, the article argues for the necessity of transforming charity to create conditions for reciprocity.

On the experience and meaning of accessing charity, the people who accessed charity demonstrated that the experience involved more than obtaining resources. They highlighted the importance of how they felt about the interaction with volunteers. Because people experienced receiving resources as humiliating, beyond anything else, charity was experienced positively when volunteers did not raise the problems that drove their need to seek help. People needed charity to address a problem, even if only temporarily, but they required it to be provided in a way that did not delve into their problems. The argument for reciprocity does not naively assume that people in poverty can reciprocate back resources and benefits of equal value to what they were given by volunteers who are likely to be in privileged positions. Nevertheless, the empirical material from this research provides a rational for a generalized exchange model of reciprocity that enables people to have the opportunities to give back; the agency and desires for normality expressed by people in this article illustrate the opportunities for charity to be sites of reciprocity.

Read the full article here.