Life on the edge: Understanding the psychology behind our perceptions of poverty

November 25, 2022

An experiential research project at Simon Fraser University explores the psychology behind our perceptions of poverty.

This story originally appeared on Innovation.ca, the website of the Canada Foundation for Innovation.

The soaring rise in the cost of living and the lack of affordable housing is raising the spectre of more widespread poverty in Canada and around the world. About 2.4 million Canadians live below the poverty line, with persons with disabilities, children, Indigenous people and recent immigrants being disproportionately affected. Since 2019, the number of visits to food banks across the country has increased by an average of more than 20 percent, while some have recently seen spikes of over 50 percent.

But what does it really mean to live in poverty? “Despite its prevalence,” points out Stephen Wright, a professor of social psychology at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Burnaby, B.C., “poverty remains largely misunderstood.” And largely stigmatized, with many believing it is synonymous with homelessness and drug use, or that people living in poverty are mainly responsible for their fate. The reality, however, is far more wide-ranging and complex.

Understanding the psychological underpinnings of our perceptions of poverty is at the core of experiential research conducted at SFU’s Intergroup Relations and Social Justice Lab, directed by Wright. Funded in part by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the lab has been running poverty simulations since 2016, which aim to give participants a taste of living day to day with limited means. Ultimately, the goal is to reduce stigma surrounding poverty.

On pause since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the simulations are set to start up again in early 2023, a timely relaunch given the current economic climate.

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