Reducing social isolation can help fight poverty, OPHI research paper suggests

Social isolation of the poor should be addressed in poverty measurement and analysis, a new working paper published by OPHI has argued.

The authors of the paper, from OPHI and the University of Sheffield, emphasise that while most governments and policymakers define poverty by income, poor people consider their experience of poverty to be much broader, including lack of education, health, housing, employment and security. In particular, they argue that social isolation is often overlooked by poverty data and measures, yet is central to the experiences of the poor.

The paper presents three case studies from field research to illustrate how the ties poor people have to their friends, families and community play a significant role both in their experiences of poverty and, crucially, in their ability to escape it.

In South Africa and Mozambique, interviews and focus groups were carried out with vulnerable populations. A number of the participants expressed the belief that social connections were important to their lives and suggested that not having someone to share problems with is a deprivation in itself. A respondent from Mozambique said: ‘Whenever people are around you, whatever is eating inside you will become better because you are surrounded by people, as you are talking you will be able to talk out whatever is bothering you inside’.

Similarly, another participant stated: ‘Being poor means not having anyone to care for you, for example an orphan child ends up becoming poor because of lacking those relationships that would result into a support to him/her’.

The researchers note that isolation seems to work in two directions – people may be excluded by others because they are poor, or they may isolate themselves and not participate in a community in order to avoid the shame of being seen by others as poor.

The second case study focuses on the impact of isolation on indigenous populations. Looking at data on the Aboriginal peoples of Canada, the researchers argue that the historical forced relocation and social isolation of this group has contributed to their continued experience of poverty in many dimensions, including inadequate housing, lack of access to healthcare, and inferior educational opportunities compared to the rest of the country.

In the final case study, the researchers explore how people with disabilities experience profound stigma and isolation and argue that their access to essential services may be limited, jeopardising their health and wellbeing. An interviewee from Soweto, South Africa highlighted the link between isolation and disabilities, saying: ‘I think people are still hiding their children…the parents are ashamed, they think they did something bad that is why God gave them the children like that…or that they deserve it…Most people in the community look at the disability and not the child’.

The case study also looks at the work of Special Olympics International to highlight how sports programmes have given individuals with disabilities the opportunity to connect with a wider community.

The researchers stress the need to gather information on the ‘missing dimensions’ of poverty, which are overlooked in internationally comparable datasets. They call for improved data on areas such as violence, disempowerment, shame, humiliation and isolation in order to track, analyse and reduce the multiple disadvantages experienced by those living in poverty.

Read the full paper

‘Social Isolation and its Relationship to Multidimensional Poverty’, by Kim Samuel, Sabina Alkire, John Hammock, China Mills and Diego Zavaleta, was published in the OPHI working paper series in November 2014.

Find out more about OPHI’s work on social isolation and the missing dimensions of poverty. You can also view a video of OPHI director Sabina Alkire in a panel discussion on social connectedness.