Ways of knowing people in poverty


Homeless man and woman sit together, begging, while in the foreground people walk pastIf we are fortunate in our circumstances, Anti-Poverty Week invites us to look beyond, at another less advantaged world. It also invites us to reflect on our own attitudes. In writing on poverty there is often tension between a hard-edged realism and spiritual or romantic fascination. The tension suggests that neither attitude is sufficient.

The fascination is fostered by many religious traditions in which the poor are blessed, and by a string of writers who have discovered a paradoxical value in poverty. Dostoevsky, Gorky, Steinbeck, Orwell and McCourt come to mind. If we are fascinated by poverty we may be tempted to soften its edges, to see it as ennobling and not as an indictment of the society that tolerates it. We become unrealistic.

When we look realistically at poverty we see the hunger, insecurity, deprivation of what society takes to be the normal things of life, humiliation and destructive ways of escaping that constitute the reality of poverty.

We also see the effects that these conditions can have on people: the stress they place on relationships, the disruption of education, the isolation, despair, addiction, physical and mental ill health, abusive relationships, exposure to violence and to the criminal justice system, and the lack of connection with society, which are often associated with poverty.

This analytical focus on poverty and its effects has its own temptation. It may lead us to see the poor as objects. Their human reality is defined by their experience of poverty. Whether they are the objects of our scorn or of our pity, they are still objects.

This objectification can be seen in the treatment of people caught in or fallen into poverty in the media. Almost invariably they are pictured with glum, sad faces, usually turned away from the camera. They are The Poor whose condition needs to be changed for them. They can then become the object of planning and condign intervention.

The proper starting point for reflecting on poverty must be the lives of people who are poor. Like other human beings, people who live in poverty are defined by their relationships with family, friends, to home, to food and shelter, neighbourhood, to school, to work, to play and to society. Their poverty limits their opportunity to build these relationships.

When we begin with people who are poor, we see them as defined, not by their poverty but by their humanity. We see them as people who will often surprise us by their resilience and their insatiable and often inarticulate desire to live fully. If there is a joy in working with the poor, it lies in discovering and being humbled by the resilience, generosity and desire for goodness of people who have so few natural advantages.

This is perhaps the basis of the romantic fascination with poverty. People who live in poverty can be a surprising gift to those who come to know them. Those drawn to them can find deeper human relationships and can find their own superficial relationships to the world and to the others based on possession deeply challenged. They can find their shared humanity a matter for celebration.

If we associate with people who are poor we also notice that they usually suffer from institutional relationships that perpetuate and exacerbate their poverty. They have limited access to good medical care, to family support, to education, to transport and other services. They lack transport to work that might be available to them and cannot afford child care. Without support they, their partners and children will be caught in a continuing cycle of poverty. If we care for them we shall try to change these conditions.

As with other human conditions, poverty matters because people matter. And we sometimes only come to recognise that people matter when we discover a humanity deeper than our own in people who are poorer than us in intelligence, wealth, power, possessions education, skills and other things that matter only relatively. That discovery underlies the romanticism of poverty.

But when we recognise that people matter, poverty will also matter greatly. Certainly exceptional people raised in poverty can transcend it. But that does not entitle any society to neglect the many whose lives are crippled by it. That is why Anti-Poverty Week also matters.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. This week is Anti-Poverty Week.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Anti-Poverty Week



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So where is a starting place for journeying with those who live with poverty? Maybe a visit to a local NGO, that supports people in poverty, to volunteer in their program. Local community is a good place to engage.

Jo dallimore | 17 October 2013  

A wonderful, balanced piece. Thanks Andrew.

Leon | 18 October 2013  

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