Meanings of Being “Poor”: The Bolsa Família Case
This paper aims at analyzing the social meanings of “poverty” and “being-poor identity” among a group of players taking part in the Brazilian programme Bolsa Família: institutional agents (social workers, health workers, nurses and teachers), neighbours (non-beneficiaries) and beneficiaries themselves. Through participant observation and 70 in-depth interviews with residents of the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro city, we’ve noticed that although the programme has a strictly monetary definition of what it is being “poor,” the notions of “poverty” locally conceived are much more complex and based on different criteria when classifying others.
These criteria are not restricted to strictly economic evaluation. On the contrary, they are built up under the aegis of symbolic frontiers (Lamont et al, 2002) and moral perceptions of poverty. As an analytical tool, we made up seven ideal types for defining “poor” and “poverty”: “I” x “the poor”; “poor” x “pauper”; “apathetic poor” x “diligent poor”; “dependent poor” x “autonomous poor”; “humble poor” x “snobbish poor”; “neat poor” x “dirty poor”; “material poverty” x “spiritual poverty”.
These “poor” typifications are presented in two different categories: consumism and attitudes towards life. Surprisingly, it seems that institutional players tend to define poverty associated with attitudes, while beneficiaries seem to falter between those two definitions, at times assessing “the poor” by their behavior, at other times by their financial condition.