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Ending poverty is a human challenge, not a technical one

  • 17 October 2017


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.

The 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