What I Know About Poverty

I often think about what I would like to say to the world about poverty if I were ever to have the chance to stand before the world and say, this is why everything the bankers, financiers, economists, and politicians are wrong when they talk about poverty. Of course i’d add a little disclaimer that recognised that there are a small number of these people that are actually not wrong when they talk about poverty, unfortunately these are the people that get yelled over, called snowflakes, or the some other derogatory term followed by a threat that the world would implode if you were foolish enough to believe them and act on their information.

Before I start though I will just share a bit about myself. I was born into a pretty average middle income family. However, when I was very young my father developed an illness which put him out of work, resulted in him being very mentally unstable, and require my mother to remain at home caring for us kids, because we would be at serious risk of harm if she left him in charge while she worked. So the family income was dramatically reduced. When I went through high school the money was not available for me to sit school cert. I left school without a formally recognised qualification in the middle of a global recession, unemployment was rife.

I spent years being made to do one course after another. I learnt to weld, paint signs, milk cows, retail, pick berries, ride horses, drive tractors, the list of such noble accomplishments is rather diverse really. At the end of each of these courses life reverted to what it was before, and every time it happened It just reinforced to me further that I was a failure. I failed at school, and I failed at everything I was ever told I had to do in order to succeed. I myself believed the message that my failure was my fault. It was hopeless I was never going to amount to anything and my very existence was a waste. To add insult to injury I even failed at suicide a number of times. Not because I was afraid to do it, but, because I was afraid of failing and finding myself crippled, so thankfully I always held a little something back.

It’s hard to live in a world that hates you, so much more so when you hate yourself. So I spent many years in a substance abuse blurr. I cannot remember the number of times I was told I was an addict, I would always laugh at this because I knew it wasn’t true. What was true was I had nothing to live for and was too much of a coward to end it all once and for all so oblivion was better. I was pretty much homeless from 15 through to 21, finding a bed where I could.

Then I started trying to regain control over my life, to make decisions about what it was I wanted to do with my life, what I wanted to achieve. Turns out what I wanted really didn’t matter, I lived in a place where training opportunities were sparse and moving to where opportunities existed was impossible due to my personal circumstances. Because by this time I had had a child, and was constrained by the requirement of meeting my child’s basic needs first. I was trapped by a house, I could not leave that house to pursue training and get a house where I needed to be in order to provide for my child. There was no agency for this, but, I could get a vacuum cleaner, I didn’t need one but I could get one. So I have developed a bit of personal insight into poverty over the years, and that informs my knowledge about poverty a lot, but, it’s not my only insight into poverty. More on that at the end.

Lesson One: So since that opportunity is unlikely to become available I have decided to write down what I wish I could tell the world instead, at least in this way it is out there. I can be pretty assured that I will never be invited to stand up in a large crowd and speak about this in the flesh because lesson number one that everybody should be very well aware of, but, probably needs to have someone actually explicitly state it is this; The poor, the impoverished, the marginalised are never a part of the discussion, it is always about them, and it is a conversation that is always begun on the principle that there is something wrong about these people.

This is an important lesson that everyone needs to understand if we are ever to actually make a difference and work toward solving poverty and all the nasty problems which are born of poverty. Only the poor, the impoverished, and marginalised can solve their problems, no one else can do this for them, it will simply never work, and doing this has become an exercise in providing further proof to bolster the false assumption that it is the individual’s fault. Here’s the thing the world has created the trap and then has blamed those that have fallen into it for being there.

Most of the world’s people are just average folks going about the business of getting through the journey of living a good life. Life is busy and we really don’t have a lot of time for our own personal research into poverty, its causes, and its solutions. Most of the world’s population actually want to see a fair equitable society that performs for everyone. So when we see a charity asking for money to solve poverty and inequality in some far of distant environ we happily contribute, we don’t want anyones children dying unnecessarily for want of funds to provide clean water or adequate shelter we are not monsters. So we give, and we have been giving for decades now and the problem has kept growing. Why is that? It is because of problem number one, we cannot solve poverty for people and our failure to learn this is throwing away precious resources so we can feel better that we tried to do something. So it must be their fault.

Well it is rarely the fault of the victim. It doesn’t matter if they are a victim of crime, or a victim of the poverty trap, or a natural disaster. It is not the rape victim’s fault that the rapist chose not to control his violent impulses. It is not the victim’s fault that there was a major earthquake that destroyed their home, and it is not the impoverished at fault that the world developed a poverty trap for millions of people to fall into. You could rightly ask why would the world choose to do this, it’s crazy and it makes no sense to do it, so doubt the reality of that statement. And, you would be right, I don’t think it was intentionally created, it is what economics refers to as an economic externality.

The poverty trap was created when the economists, and politicians decided that in order to keep wages low there needed to be a supply of unemployed workers that could be used to rapidly fill unskilled positions, thus reducing the bargaining power for higher wages for the biggest pool of the workforce. This pool of unemployed meant that workers demanding higher wages now faced being replaced by someone that was just grateful for a job if they rocked the boat. The pay off is lowered business costs meant they could keep their costs low providing lower prices to their customers.

So the welfare state was born. This was a trade off, for those that were being deliberately denied a job a small state paid stipend was paid to them so that they could survive, and also to ensure that there were not more examples of mass rises amongst the proletariat overthrowing the elite and running around beheading them and such which had previously happened when the masses had found themselves unable to survive as the financial resources were increasing hoarded by the elite. Because, let’s be real about this, it may not be old bike parts or magazines, but, compulsively adding more and more zeros at the end of your net worth is hoarding. It’s a compulsive activity, there will never be a limit that these people reach that says to them hey I have enough. They will never actually be able to use their hoard in their lifetime, in fact some hoards have grown so large at this point they are likely to last longer that human life on the planet earth, but that’s another topic.

I guess I could say that Lesson number two is that money hoarders create poverty. But, I won’t, that’s not true either. Lesson number Two is that poverty is a political creation. Poverty is great for politics, politicians and NGO’s. Thats right, without poverty, politicians would have to come up with a new source for the fear they peddle at election time. I think we’ve all heard it by now, “if you vote for them your taxes will increase and you will become poor and impoverished like all those poor unfortunates.” Politicians actually like to encourage money hoarding, it is a public good to build wealth and it is your right to do so. It is just that your hard work be rewarded, and it is unjust to reward the lazy downtrodden that failed and are now homeless, unemployed, with assistance because that minimises the rewards of hard workers. The thing is while money hoarders are being congratulated and heralded as social hero’s, the truth that I am sure they don’t want to face is that the hoarder of money is sign of a mental health issue just as it is for those that hoard daily newspapers, it’s just a more socially acceptable expression of the same illness.

That is not to say people should not work hard, or save, and do not have the right to benefit financially for their efforts. They absolutely should. It is saying no matter how much money you have hoarding it should not be your goal, if it is, it is an unhealthy goal and for the benefit of your overall well being you should deal with this. It’s just a hard problem to see that you have when all the messages are telling you that it is the meaning of life. You cannot have health, wealth, success, good relationships, personal growth etcetera without money. We are told that to have anything that you may value you must have money and lots of it. Money helps you achieve some of the things you value it’s true, but, it is an aid to achieving things of value it is of no value in itself (unless you’re a money hoarder). The only value money has is what you are receiving in exchange of it.

Heres lesson number three: No one escapes poverty without the means to do so, and those means will include money. To escape poverty, the impoverished must have access to the funds to get there. You can give education, and the end result is most likely to be an educated impoverished person. Your can put them into a health program and you will get a healthier impoverished person. Poverty is the result of a sever lack of the means of exchange to mean their basic needs, you cannot change this if you keep taking the money out of the equation. So the end result of this form of poverty reduction is that you are constantly spending loads of money around them and nothing ever changes. This then becomes further evidence of there being something wrong with the person.

The thing is even if you educate someone to the point of holding a Phd in say finance and nothing else that person’s circumstances will not change if they have been subject to long term poverty. That person will most likely have some pretty big health problems, decaying teeth, possibly lice, and/or sores from living in the elements. Neglect of basic hygiene is going to be pretty much part of the parcel of being homeless with no washing facilities for the body or clothing. In some instances their clothing will be courtesy of the refuse. Living on the street, you’re likely to have some sort of criminal record because regardless of guilt you are less able to defend themselves against a false charge, it’s a by product of powerlessness.

If we are honest with ourselves, few would give that Phd finance graduate a job to work their way out of that poverty. We don’t want to share our work space with someone that smells bad, is dressed in rags, and has illnesses and infestations that we run the risk of catching. Its an extreme fictional example, but, it is what happens when agencies work around those living in poverty to solve their problems for them, they are ultimately given everything these agencies think they need, and as for the person’s actual needs – nothing, because we don’t trust that they will do the right thing, we don’t believe they can make the right decisions, and we doubt their ability to know what is good for themselves. And we do this because we created a narrative that returns exactly the proof we need to support these beliefs.

So I have shared what I know about poverty. I have shared it from having lived it and having known others that have lived it. Some I know continue to live it, actually I could technically say I still live it. Perhaps I should say I am now upper poverty class? Something for me to ponder later I guess. Anyway, now I hold two degrees, a BA in Social Anthropology and Development Studies (that’s right living in poverty was not enough I went on to study it), and I have a Business degree majoring in Business Information Systems with a minor in Geography (I actually only just managed to get the money together to pay off my library fine so that I can put in my application to graduate). I am looking for work, and so in the meantime I am doing a short course to update my IT credentials.

These days my barriers to employment, as I see it, is a lack of recent suitable references (hopefully my presence on the computer course will assist with this) and a lack of suitable clothing, and other small tweaks to my overall presentation for job interviews. It remains a work in action. But, these days instead of seeing myself as a failure, I know that I will be among one of the best decisions my future employer makes in their career. and so lesson four is how you end poverty,

To end poverty, we must include the impoverished in finding their solution. We Must make money available to them directly and work with them in partnership. We must put aside our prejudices, and fears, and be willing to take a personal risk and give people a chance. Stop judging others so harshly, show some patience and compassion toward your fellow man. Understand that at times things happen that are beyond people’s control and those things will deliver them to some terrible situations and when we judge people harshly for that we are building more barriers to that person taking responsibility for their situation so they can move beyond the moment, learn from it, and grow. Financial poverty will never end until we end the poverty of compassion.



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