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There's room at the table for the poor if we make it



One of the most misused passages of Christian scripture tells us we shall always have the poor with us. That is a statement of fact, often repeated by those who are not poor in order to dismiss any project that involves public expenditure or private generosity to people who are poor.

Cartoon by Chris JohnstonIn practice they mean it is fine that on any day some go hungry while others eat well. They mean it is fine for the rich man to feast extravagantly while outside a beggar craves the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table, the dogs all the while feasting on his sores.

They mean there is nothing odd in seeing homeless and hungry people in the streets while trucks go by loaded with food to be thrown out. They mean nothing is out of place in a society where some people buy $5 million homes while others sleep hungry on the streets.

When we do not focus on the good or bad conscience of the observer but on the lives of the people who are poor, we can see that the statement 'We shall always have the poor with us' is not a justification for a modern society that allows people to live in poverty. It is an indictment.

The truth is that there is enough food in the world to feed the world's population, enough wealth in the world to bring food to those in need of it. People are not poor and do not go hungry because there is no food. People do not live in the streets because there are no buildings; a child need not lack clothes unless her mother does not eat today.

They are forced to live in this way because as human beings we lack the attentiveness, the compassion, the wit and the persistence to cooperate in order to feed, house and clothe them. That the poor are always with us is not an unavoidable fact of life but the result of human failure.

One of the reasons why poverty persists is that we regard the relationships that entrench poverty and wealth as outside our control. We turn the decisions we make about the making and keeping of wealth into laws of nature.

When the workings of the economy, which are really shaped by human decisions about priorities, become sacred, it is seen as a moral failure to interfere with the workings of the market. Of course, the unregulated market often locks in extreme wealth and dire poverty.


"Anti-Poverty Week invites us to recognise the human face of poverty in our society and its costs to the people who endure it, no matter how gallantly."


In the 19th century the British government condemned many Irish families to starve because to give food relief would interfere with the workings of the market. The decision was defended as upholding the natural order of things: it was regrettable but necessary. In fact it simply said that private gain was more important than children's lives.

Today poverty and hunger continue to call into question our priorities. Of the disadvantaged people whom we serve at Jesuit Social Services, three quarters are receiving government benefits, almost half have mental health issues, a significant number of those under 25 receive no income, a fifth have a disability, and only ten per cent are employed. Over a third are homeless, half of whom have children.

If we translate these figures into the faces of vulnerable young people, our friends, you can understand their fear and our grief at the voices that wish to cut further what inadequate benefits they receive and impose on them conditions they cannot keep.

The great poverty engines of our time are environmental degradation, war and inequality. War sucks up funds that could be spent on schools, mental health programs and support for poor families and their children. The degradation of the environment will deprive millions of water, food and a world to live in. Inequality allows the wealthy to profit from the despoiling of the world, to endorse wars and to avoid meeting the eyes of the poor.

Anti-Poverty Week invites us to recognise the human face of poverty in our society and its costs to the people who endure it, no matter how gallantly, and to pledge that we shall never resign ourselves to saying helplessly that the poor will be always with us.


Julie EdwardsJulie Edwards is the CEO of Jesuit Social Services.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston.

This week is Anti-Poverty Week.

Topic tags: Julie Edwards, Anti Poverty Week



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Existing comments

Julie, I've always wished that an addendum was added to that scripture: The poor you will always have with you, and therefore, you will also always have the call to assist where possible. Poverty is such a horrid cycle of powerlessness, so hard to get out of. But it can be done with support, at the beginning especially.

Ed | 16 October 2016  

"The poor will always be with you" should be read in conjunction with the parables of Jesus such as that of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31 The Rich Man and Lazarus 19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The disregard of the rich for the poor, their unwillingness to share wealth hasn't changed over 2000 years. What is making it worse at present is the neo-liberal doctrines of both major parties where the market rules. It is difficult to believe that many politicians in both major parties espouse Christian beliefs but we see so little of of it in their policies or behaviour towards the poor who are being used to balance the budget while major companies pay no tax and bleed Australia of its resources with little return to society at large.

Henk | 17 October 2016  

A cogent and intelligent description and explanation of one of the scourges of our times. To see the increased numbers of people living and struggling on our streets is our national and personal shame and indeed an indictment of our society. Thank you Julie for all your work to change this unfortunate situation and to help us understand it more clearly. I truly hope it reaches the hearts and wills of our leaders.

Anne Doyle | 17 October 2016  

I have always taken that quote to mean that the 'poor' symbolise my responsibility to others so that I will always need to share my blessings both physical and spiritual with those in need.

Liz Munro | 17 October 2016  

Walking the city streets we are accosted by homeless people sitting along shop fronts. We ride public transport and are greeted by the sounds sights and smells of the poor and poor in spirit. Julie you say we may lack compassion ,attentiveness and persistence to deal with feeding , clothing and providing shelter for the Poor in our city . But if we just keep highlighting the sad facts that are so eminently visible we miss opportunities to reach the next step of action for change. We need imaginative solutions and strategies that can help ordinary folk respond to the complex task of changing the economic laws into a system that promotes a fair go for all. Maybe we could further promote the works of Jesuit Social Services and other social workers and mental health agencies.And tell of the good work being done by the "angels in the field" who support the unemployed , the lowly paid and people in incredible hardship.Is there an opportunity to organize campaigns and publish positives of examples where people have been helped out of poverty .? Could we focus on advocating the best ways to encourage well intentioned people to reach out rather than be burdened with feelings of guilt and powerlessness. ? If advertising can sell useless commodities ,surely it can sell ideas that can change the mindsets of helplessness and despair that may paralyse good folk and create a cloak of powerlessness over the whole of society. Some church communities have active programs. Are these reaching the mainstream of "good people" out there? Nero will still fiddle while Rome is burning unless we guide people to action.

Celia | 17 October 2016  

Julie, thank you. Great article - surely to win some sort of prize. Loved the point that beauty and now greed are in the eye of the beholder. A thought - how many homes could be provided if only a third of what we spend on "housing" in Nauru and Manus was spent here.

Maurice Heading | 17 October 2016  

There would be little if any poverty if everyone saw the image of God in all their fellow human beings. Sadly that is not going to happen and the poor will indeed always be with us. The poor are the product of the human failing of self first at any cost, the signature of the human world from time immemorial. Jesus of Nazareth was uniquely placed to understand the human nature he created and clearly knew that the flawed human being was always going to put self first - that the poor would always be with us.. Last week's gospel message is perhaps the most ignored of all. I often wonder why on Earth God bestowed such imperfection on his creation - it often seems to be an amusing experiment. I think I heard once that we are so diabolically bad as a punishment for some damned renegade angel who misbehaved. Humanity seems to have been buggered from the start - a curious justification for "salvation". Perhaps the poor will be with us always because of that alleged "preferential option" we keep hearing about. Hope I'm not earmarked to join that rogue angel for that one!

john frawley | 17 October 2016  

Thank you Julie Edwards. True words which resonate strongly. Would that our leaders willingly opened their eyes and hearts. I am grateful for your article today.

Joan Daniel | 17 October 2016  

'we shall always have the poor with us.' There are many ways of being poor. To be without food, shelter, or clothing... But the poorest of all is to be without hope. Such is the fate inflicted on the refugees on Nauru. And it is inflicted on them by those who are basking in plenty, and full of hope for even greater gifts. Perhaps the most ignored passage of Christian scripture is Luke 12:48, 'when a man has had a great deal given him, a great deal will be demanded of him.' We, as a Nation, have had a great deal given to us, the greatest, amount of territory and natural resources, per capita, in the world, and great hope for even more. But in the face of those in need, we look away, and those with the power try to block us from learning more, imposing harsh penalties on anyone trying to expose the situation facing those in greatest need of hope.

Robert Liddy | 17 October 2016  

Please name mental illnesses for what they are illnesses, not "mental health issues". The ubiquitous term "mental health" is resulting in sanitising, trivialising and diverting funds away from what are extremely debilitating and most painful conditions. Misguided efforts to destigmatise may be having a negative effect.

Sheelah Egan | 17 October 2016  

I've experienced the cruelty of Neo-liberal welfare policy but I also know that Sharing what we have with others is a challenging practice in Western culture today. A good place to start is what our family does each christmas. Each family member regardless of age receives an invitation to nominate which good cause they wish us to send their allocated money to instead of presents to each other. When I got married recently we asked for donations to be sent to a particular cause instead of receiving presents etc etc ... Setting an example regularly is one way of helping to raise awareness and link it to action without judgment or coercion. And the great Ignation stance of gratitude also contributes to seeing life as gift. Just check out the hardliners on this week's Q & A.... What an ndictment indeed.

Anonymous | 17 October 2016  

Thank you, Julie, for your powerful words. I totally agree that, 'The truth is that there is enough food in the world to feed the world's population, enough wealth in the world to bring food to those in need of it. People are not poor and do not go hungry because there is no food. People do not live in the streets because there are no buildings; a child need not lack clothes unless her mother does not eat today.' I wonder how those of us committed to ending poverty both in Australia and overseas can work more closely together to highlight the tragedy that is poverty? An income of $426.30 per week is the official poverty line in Australia but the Newstart unemployment weekly payment is well below this at just $264.35. Every one has to have a livable weekly income with which to pay for food, rent, clothing, education, medicine and other essentials. How can we make poverty a political issue and place it in the forefront of people's minds? I'd really feedback about this.

robert van zetten | 17 October 2016  

Thank you, Julie, for a very thoughtful article. I believe very much that when 'the poor' are anonymous, it is possible to think only in terms of economic theories, but when people become real people, known and our friends and neighbours, our way of seeing things changes - at least for most people, from my experience. So finding ways for people to really get to know people who are struggling, rather than ways of 'avoid(ing) meeting the eyes of the poor' are important.

Peter Dowling | 17 October 2016  

Julie, thanks very much for this wonderful article. Your words should also be heard by those economists who still defend the "trickle-down" theory or speculations on food prices at the stock exchange! This is part of the bigger picture and protest against while trying to follow your example on our own turf at home.

Frank Joussen | 18 October 2016  

'Please name mental illnesses for what they are illnesses, not "mental health issues"'.With you on that Sheelagh. Trying to explain to a very dear friend only this morning.Yes sometimes 'dis-ease' is apt.But today I am ill.

margaret | 18 October 2016  

Julie talks about finding the human face of poverty in this anit-poverty week but I fail to get a true picture of the people Julie and Jesuit Services serve. As the economic rationalist only looks at people in economic terms. The poor in this article are only seen in terms of statistics and categories. Half have mental health issues, or they are homeless or they receive government benefits. I'm afraid I'm not moved by this sterile description of the poor. As in Sting's song, he wrote I hope the Russians love their children too. There was something that we could all resonate with. Or with the Choir of Hard Knocks we really see the faces of people who struggle with poverty. This is a good article but maybe the human face could be better described in a creative and less sterile way. Do we need to categorise people as health diagnoses, or as homeless and if we do, could this be fleshed out to add something like they are homeless or have mental illness but they love their children too!

Ros Anne | 23 October 2016  

Julie, your article, and thoughts, exudes so much empathy, and compassion. Thank you.

HFA | 24 October 2016  

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