Ending poverty is a human challenge, not a technical one

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Poverty is an uncomfortable subject for conversation, partly because for most people with leisure to reflect on it, poverty is not their own condition but someone else's. It is difficult to do justice to the experienced reality of poverty and to acknowledge our responsibilities to people whose lives are blighted by poverty.

A boy sits outside his house in Cite L'Eternel, a poor neighbourhood of Port au Prince, Haiti. UN Photo/Marco DorminoThe complexity and awkwardness of the conversation about poverty are evident in the United Nations Day for the Eradication of Poverty. It embodies a metaphor in which poverty is seen as like a weed or a microorganism that is alien to a crop, and can be extirpated or poisoned without affecting the harvest. The metaphor suggests that dealing with poverty is a technical challenge that requires attention, ingenuity and determination. The Day for the Eradication of Poverty encourages these qualities.

Such a vision seems to have inspired Bob Hawke's pledge to end child poverty. He is said later to have regretted his commitment, not simply because his failure to deliver on it reflected badly on him but also because the alleviation of poverty required more than attention, planning and appropriate execution. The pledge drew attention away from the real achievements of good policy and effective administration. But the eradication of poverty was a more utopian goal.

The difficulty inherent in the metaphor of eradication is that it sees poverty as a discrete object that exists independently of the people whom it affects, and that can be dealt with by devising technical solutions. The image certainly has merit in that it avoids blaming poor people for their poverty and so reducing them to objects to be manipulated when dealing with it.

The Victorian Poor Laws, with their institution of work houses, and the refusal to intervene in Ireland during the potato famine because it would interfere with the workings of the market, are examples of how impoverished people are objectified The harsh conditions imposed on impoverished young people in Australia and the demonisation that they ritually suffer when they are periodically stripped of their benefits are more up to date examples of objectifying the poor. Compared to these practices the metaphor of eradication is harmless.

But like them it still ignores the complex sets of relationships that constitute poverty as a human reality. These include the family relationships that affect people's life chances, so encouraging or undermining self-respect, confidence, affection, trust, curiosity, articulacy and initiative in childhood.

They also include the relationships with neighbours, with child care, with employers, police, schools and hospitals that help shape the way in which people relate to society. They include relationships with alcohol and drugs and with those who profit from their sale and promotion, and the relationship to domestic and social violence. They may also include the contemptuous social attitudes shaped by media and by public leaders, and the way that negative images are internalised by society and by the people who are poor.

 

"Poverty is not something to be eradicated like a cancer or a pest. It refers to an incompleteness that must be supplied for and complemented by enriched human relationships."

 

This argues that poverty should not be objectified as a negative quality detached from human beings, and still less as a group of persons who are a threat to good human living and accordingly to be firmly dealt with. Poverty, like happiness or good fortune, is expressed in a pattern of relationships that constitute human lives. These relationships themselves always have an element of gift. But where poverty marks a human life, they are also marked by a deficit. For a child who grows up in an abusive family, the deficit in the affection, predictability, self-respect and other qualities that help people build a productive life is very high. But as stories of even the most deprived childhoods tell us, some aspects and memories often prove central to building hope. They are a gift to be built upon.

From this human perspective poverty is not something to be eradicated like a cancer or a pest. It refers to an incompleteness that must be supplied for and complemented by enriched human relationships. To transcend poverty requires us to affirm what is good, to supply for what is distorted or inadequate, and to build what is strong. It is about enrichment, not about stripping.

Good policy and targeted intervention can enrich people's lives. But they will not eradicate poverty once and for all. Relationships always need mending, celebrating and complementing. This is a continuing human and not a technical challenge.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

17 October is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

Main image: A boy sits outside his house in Cite L'Eternel, a poor neighborhood of Port au Prince, Haiti. UN Photo/Marco Dormino

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, poverty, Bob Hawke


 

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This article reveals a deep understanding about the meanings of poverty on both a personal and societal level, well written. Poverty drives people to desperate measures. It demeans them and lessens their ability to relate to others. A few days ago I was walking in the central business district of Sydney and put some small change into the cup of a woman who was sitting, with her few possessions, near a busy intersection. I looked into her eyes and there didn't seem to be a flicker of recognition. That saddened me more than her physical predicament. Indeed, mending relationship is the important factor in eradicating poverty.
Pam | 17 October 2017


It being very hard to address the complex set of circumstances that adversely affect people who are poor, Andy, you have once again excelled yourself in drawing attention to their particular plight and our attendant responsibility to change it. Perhaps your opening sentence says it all. By way of example of it from my youth: the Director of Vocations for the sub-Province of West Bengal used to be a Belgian Jesuit called Fr Beckers. 'Beckers', as his brother Jesuits and numerous students referred to him, was a big man who believed in praxis. He wrapped his few belongings whenever he traveled in a small knapsack, as is commonplace with the poor in Calcutta and elsewhere, and religiously observed the same humilities and deprivations visited upon them by the caste-based railway compartmentalisation that is de rigueur in India. In doing so, he also forsook the luxurious surroundings of St Xavier's College on Park Street, which catered almost exclusively for the children of the wealthy. Likewise at night, while waiting to change trains, he would use his bundle as a pillow and sleep on railway platforms in solidarity with those who had no choice but to emulate the manger. God Love You!
Michael Furtado | 18 October 2017


We as a community in Australia has done well in eradicating the worse of economic poverty, and as a world we are doing reasonably. We will do even better in the future with a mix of education, technology, open trade, and perhaps even a guaranteed living wage backed by solid progressive taxation on the better off, graduated GST etc. But in terms of other factors including addiction and other social psychopathies, they will be harder to tackle and require further evolution of the human spirit aided by infusions of holy grace. But e must hold on to the core fact of history: the ultimate cosmic victory of Jesus, our Christ.
Eugene | 18 October 2017


A sad reflection on what we have become with our privileged "progress". Wouldn't it be wonderful if we simply returned to belief in God and respect for our fellow men. We need the wealth that comes from holiness, not dollars.
john frawley | 18 October 2017


After his election as Pope, Pope Francis explained why he chose to take the name Francis - after St. Francis of Assisi, a symbol of peace, austerity and poverty. He called Francis “the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man”, and added: “Oh, how I would like a poor Church, and for the poor.” If you belong to a Church, please do all you can to help it become "a poor Church, and for the poor.” A recent survey showed that most Australians thought religion did more harm than good. Having a 'Preferential Option for the Poor' would help Churches turn this perception around.
Grant Allen | 18 October 2017


How clear and obvious this looks when we read your exposition. And it is - not easy, not simple, but obvious. In the Church, we've known about the primacy of 'right relationship' for two thousand years, but somehow we still fall for the old and easy myth of poverty as a discrete condition. Or poverty as something quite separate from our spiritual aspirations. Thank you, Andrew, for once more giving us a fresh look at the mission of the Church.
Joan Seymour | 18 October 2017


The provision of adequate, respectful housing options is physically and economically possible and the security of shelter is known to make a massive difference to people's behaviour, and in better times, their hopes, options, chances for education and continuing relationship and social interaction. But suggest this and some clown will strut past joking that if you gave "them" houses they'd all turn them into meth labs. The same type overheard on the 86 tram so pleased they'd got the scum out of Fitzroy now. I fear that poverty, relative or absolute, material or other, will be here too long in a world where it seems man is a wolf to man, some of us if not sheep are not wolves by nature or choice and power and greed and corruptible seed etc.
Jaq Spratt | 22 October 2017


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