Fix poverty by getting to know a poor person


Silhouette of poor persons

Anti-Poverty Week suggests that poverty is a thing to be uprooted, extirpated, warred against and conquered. 

The image is helpful in suggesting the care needed to identify why people are poor, and the determination and planning necessary to enable them to live with dignity. But it is less helpful if it encourages us to think of poverty primarily as a problem to be solved or an enemy to be destroyed.

We should imagine poverty primarily as people.  The abstraction embraces all the people who cannot live a fully human life because they lack the conditions for flourishing. People who are poor variously lack nourishment, shelter, sanitation, medical care, security, education, access to work and the ability to participate in society. Their faces are human but the conditions under which they live are inhumane.

Poverty is not simply about people as individuals but about people in their relationships. People are sometimes born into poverty because of the inability of others to make and sustain good relationships. Living in poverty puts great strain on people’s intimate relationships as well as on their relations to society and their environment. People living in rural poverty strip hillsides of vegetation in order to survive.  Suburbs in which people live in poverty may be marked by broken windows and defaced public places.

Living in poverty also hinders people from making connections with society.  Some can’t afford to travel in order to find work. If they have no stable home and lack access to computers they will find it difficult to participate fully in education. And if they cannot make these connections to society they easily become isolated and despondent. This is the human face we see in media images of poverty.

To imagine poverty fully, though, we need to go beyond individuals in their personal relationships and see them in the network of relationships that compose a society. When these relationships are healthy we will see ourselves as interdependent with all others in society. So we recognise our responsibility to contribute to the good of the whole society and particularly to people who are disadvantaged. People who are poor are the business of those who are better off. In complex societies governments have the responsibility to order society in a way that respects the dignity of poor people.  

Ultimately people will be prepared to accept responsibility for people who are poor only if they know them as persons and not as media fodder. If we do not have some personal acquaintance with the lives of people who are disadvantaged we shall come to see them as an abstraction or a problem to be solved.  The relationships that define us and are the stuff of society will disappear from view. 

One of the factors in any society that prevents us from noticing the lives of people less fortunate than ourselves and from accepting responsibility for ensuring that their needs are met, is gross inequality. Wealth enables people to choose those they want to connect with and also gives them interests that they may lose in a more just society. It is not in their interest to attend to the conditions under which people who are poor live.  

Because wealth and power in society are so intertwined, the conditions that create opportunities for the few to amass great wealth at the expense of others are tightly defended. The impoverishment of those who live in poverty will either be seen as an unfortunate condition for an economically sound society or will be seen as their own fault.  

Anti-poverty Week is about people: so it is not negative. It is above all about recognising the humanity and celebrating the resilience of people who are disadvantaged. People who are poor have the same dreams, the same needs and the same desires to live as people who are not poor. 

And the way in which people in the most difficult and deprived conditions make a life and give themselves generously to support their families and to build their lives is often both encouragement and reproach to those who know them.  This is not to romanticise poverty; it is to recognise our common humanity and the nobility that can flower in the midst of injustice and poverty.

Anti-poverty week recalls us to good relationships. It reminds us of our responsibility to accompany people in poverty and to help them flourish. It reminds us of our responsibility to shape a society that enables the flourishing of all its members, and particularly those who are most disadvantaged.  It is a time for celebrating the lives of the many people who go out to other people, are invited into their lives, and who help them realise their hopes. It is a time to let the voice of people whose humanity is unseen and disregarded be heard. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Poverty silhouette image by Shutterstock.


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, poverty, social inclusion, social welfare, relationships



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Existing comments

Yesterday, a wild storm lashed our district - fierce wind, torrential rain and a dark, threatening sky. It felt overwhelming and I was grateful to have a secure roof over my head. Those who are poor face threatening conditions every day and it can be easy for others who are more secure to categorise them, fit them into an ideology and plan to 'help'. Friendships are formed and people are respected not because of either person's wealth or success but through human connections. We are given a great privilege when we can truly treat someone else as an equal. So, well done to all who reach out to others and give their time and respect.
Pam | 15 October 2014

Thank you Eureka St for the article on poverty & it would be good if you could explore the poverty levels of Aussies who grew up in Orphanages,Children's Homes Fostercare run by Churches Charities & State Govts We were left to fend for ourselves when we left "care" everyone washed their hands of us we were lucky to get a suitcase of govt clothing and sent out into the world no after care support to fall back on . if you want to get to know a care leaver who is poor contact CLAN - there are 500,000 careleavers who mostly exist on the disability pension due to abuse & neglect in the care system. Many live lonely isolated lives feeling like second class people in Australia CLAN will taking our issues to United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva in November The Royal Commission which at long last is exposing the heinous crimes committed on vulnerable children who had noone to turn to Time for Justice and Redress for Care Leavers
Leonie Sheedy | 16 October 2014

Excellent. May I please recommend Linda Tirado's excoriating account of being among the one in four Americans who are working poor; "Hand To Mouth". Book and blog.
Peter Goers | 16 October 2014

'Onya' Andy Hamilton SJ for eloquently reminding us of such an important message in anti - poverty week . Andy draws us all back to the basic human premise of compassionately living in sync , within and beyond our 'neighborhood ' connections with ALL people .~ sharing opportunities , material goods and friendships. Timely.
Mary storey | 16 October 2014

There is a tendency to focus on material poverty, but there is a worse poverty, Poverty in spirit, or a broken spirit, which CAN result from material poverty, but can also be found in more affluent lives, leading to failed relationships, dependence on unreliable or even degrading influences like substance abuse and addictions. We all need to move towards greater community living, caring for all members and being aware of all the needs of others and helping every one to reach their true potential.
Robert Liddy | 16 October 2014

Thank you Andrew, many people in our society do not connect with those that are poor, therefore they are too removed from the situation to see why people are poor in the first place and how hard it is for them to break out of the poverty cycle.
Ximena Lopez | 16 October 2014

HORRIBLE headline... I was so relieved to see the article itself spoke of 'people who are poor'.. Even so I think that historically the 'get to know a person who is poor' has not been entirely helpful.Tends (especially in schools) to emphasise the 'other' ness of poverty.
margaret | 16 October 2014

1. I respectfully dispute the proposition in the title. Notwithstanding the serious obligations upon us all to perform the corporal works of mercy, poverty is not fixed by getting to know poor people any more than sickness is fixed by knowing sick people. The great St Damien of Molokai didn't cure the lepers, even though he improved their lives in many ways by living with and ministering to them. Leprosy was defeated with the invention of drugs by scientists who may never have met a leper. Global poverty was halved in the last decade at a rate unprecedented in history. This was not achieved through a massive increase in friendships between rich and poor, (or foreign aid, which did not increase over the period) but through the spread of the market economy. Over the vast sweep of history, poverty – the lot of the masses for all but the last couple of centuries – was caused by the suppression of our innately productive capacities via an inadequate framework of laws and taxes that suppressed the individual’s right to private property and free exchange. 2. I’m also very sceptical as to the role of “gross inequality” in hindering awareness of poverty. Is there any peer reviewed research on this? Fr H’s argument is that wealth prevents people from attending to the interests of the poor. On the contrary, becoming wealthy frees people from the daily grind of working to support themselves and their families so that they have the time and resources to assist the poor. We see this in the lives of many wealth-creators, such as Andrew Forrest, Dick Smith, and so on. But even acknowledging the contribution of the generous rich, the simple act of pursuing wealth creation through industry and trade has itself played the biggest role by far in reducing material poverty worldwide, as is reflected in the incredible leap in living standards of even the very poor in our society in recent centuries in market economies. Poverty Week is a great opportunity to focus on the vital importance of the market in enabling the poor to become wealth creators.
HH | 16 October 2014

Thanks Andy. I heard an ABC replay this morning of a 2013 interview with Richard Flanagan who attributes the appreciation of words and the facility with writing in his family to the illiteracy of his grandparents - a Man Booker in a generation! So to with poverty and the power of the human spirit to transcend. Social structures tend to segregate and discriminate. Pulic transport, the train to Sydney, is a great way to connect. Denis
Denis Quinn | 16 October 2014

HH, poverty and sickness are not just about biology, chemistry - mathematics and economics. In the Christian sense, Damian of Malokai DID cure the lepers in that he healed their spirit - by getting to know them. I can't see how you could dispute this if you had read the gospel example set down by Jesus.
AURELIUS | 16 October 2014

I wish to also respectfully dispute your proposition HH that "Over the vast sweep of history, poverty – the lot of the masses for all but the last couple of centuries – was caused by the suppression of our innately productive capacities via an inadequate framework of laws and taxes that suppressed the individual’s right to private property and free exchange". There also exists a subtle but completely different concept of "free exchange" and "an individual's right to private property" that engages in the idea of "mutuality and shared responsibility". The idea of friendship goes way beyond being friendly and suggests a "knowing" and "supporting" about/of the people involved in that friendship. This type of relationship helps attend to feelings and experiences of shame, stigma, lack of self-worth, experiences of betrayal and failure. This type of relationship is unable to be addressed by "science". What use is a cure for leprosy if life isn't worth living! Both 'doing' and 'being' actions are needed to attend to poverty. In doing so, rich people may even learn something from the poor ... e.g. how to share what little you have, how to help each other maintain their dignity in the face of humiliating circumstances etc ... I speak my truth from having known poverty in the midst of surrounding wealth and extraordinary ignorance. Bless all the poor people who have helped me and my family.
mary | 16 October 2014

The prevailing view of those inhabiting the halls of power today seems to see people and economic sectors only as either functional or non-functional units. Functional units are valued; defective units are viewed as a drain on limited public resources. The free application of market forces is the all-conquering panacea. Like the car industry or the fruit-canning industry, if these economic units are not viable, they can - should in fact - be allowed to fall by the wayside. Of course, 'defective' units are often non-functional through no fault of their own. Perhaps they are efficient high-tech industries supplying to a now defunct car industry. Or perhaps the individual units worked in one of these dying industries and have lost their jobs as a result. Or perhaps they have medical or mental problems that prevent them from functioning to optimum efficiency. There are dozens of reasons. But we are encouraged not to view them this way. Forces in our society want us to take the view that most such people are entirely responsible for the problems they are facing. Things would be fine if they worked harder, longer, ate fewer Cheezels, didn't watch X-Box. Pushed by the current government, abetted by certain media, and embraced lovingly by certain sections of the public, new campaigns are revving up again against all the good old favourites such as the unemployed, welfare cheats, single parents, people 'faking' disabilities, radical university students and so on. Some may actually still be rorting the system, but if you're in one of these situations it's usually the case that it's the last place you want to be. But boy, it sure makes great copy for certain media outlets. (And never hurts conservative vote tallies either!) A bit of stereotyping and scapegoating goes a long way. And dehumanising the targets makes it especially effective. That's why we need to get to know real people who are doing it tough. When it's Joe and Margaret, whose real story you know, instead of Defective Economic Units 001 & 002, it's a bit harder to demonise them.
Paul | 16 October 2014

While i am reading this article, out of ten comments, plus the author's main article, I only agree with two comments, Robert Liddy and HH. Maybe,I Should stop reading Eureka Street every day as their opinions is contrary to what I believe. Or maybe, I should continue to express my views. because, my views are shared by many other Catholics, in other publications.
Ron Cini | 16 October 2014

Andy, you have opened up the meaning of poverty by showing it in all its shades. Poverty not only of material things but of relationships, opportunity, experience,health- the human spirit. It's true, spending time with the poor helps us see their humanity, their vulnerability. It helps us question the structures in society which permit their poverty. It urges us to work strenuously on their behalf.
Anne | 17 October 2014

Ron, if we only consider or seek out those of the same opinion to us, how can we ever learn or grow?
AURELIUS | 17 October 2014

Please don't stop reading Eureka Street Ron. I'm not surprised you only agree with the contributors who are largely in accord with your view of the world (at least as you express it on ES). That's human nature. I generally don't agree with most of your comments or those of Double H for that matter but I keep reading them because there is sometimes a useful insight or point that I had not given enough thought to. There are other blogs with a right wing/laissez faire/survival of the fittest focus (and left of centre ones also) where those who take a different line are often shouted down (metaphorically) by other contributors. They serve a purpose if all you want to do is preach to the converted. ES is not like that and I prefer the compassion, intelligence and respect shown on this site by most of the contributors. Please continue your contributions Ron, even if we find we rarely agree.
Brett | 17 October 2014

Andrew does us all a genuine favour by reminding us that terms like social justice and poverty can all too readily become abstractions that serve to obscure flesh and blood individuals.
G.K. Chesterton likewise wrote that he did not want to be told of someone living in poverty, rather of the individual who had no food to put into his/her belly that day; nor of the homeless, but of those who had nowhere secure place of their own to rest their heads.
THOMAS RYAN | 18 October 2014

I'm just noticing that no-one as leaped in to refute my claim by demonstrating with abundant evidence how material poverty has been cured merely by knowing the poor, or that leprosy (the medical condition, not some vague metaphor) was necessarily cured by someone knowing lepers. Is Fr H's thesis that hard to defend?
HH | 20 October 2014

Social justice, as I see it , will not be resolved before constitutional reform is implemented. Suggest a review of the Jubilee manifesto for consideration
Tom Peat | 24 October 2014


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