Journal Article

Charity and Shame: Towards Reciprocity

Published: 2020


Across rich nations with welfare states, charity continues as a dominant force in the lives of people who are poor. Inadequate state welfare and high housing costs drive people in poverty to seek daily support from charities. Based on in-depth interviews with 24 volunteers providing charity and 57 people receiving charity in Australia, as well as on observations of the provision and receipt of charity in practice, this article examines the experiences and meaning of charity from those who provide and receive it. The 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.


Parsell, C., & Clarke, A. (2020). Charity and Shame: Towards Reciprocity. Social Problems. DOI: 10.1093/socpro/spaa057