Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Complacency about the ‘New Poor’?

First of all, relax! I’m not about to come all Billy Graham with you. I give the quotations below from, respectively, the Old and New Testaments because they, handily, aspire to take a long term perspective on poverty as it manifests itself in the human race over history.

11"For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, 'You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.' Deuteronomy 15:11

11The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me. Matthew 26:11 (On the occasion of the woman in Bethany pouring expensive perfume on Christ’s feet and of some of the disciples complaining that it could have been sold and given to the poor).

These texts suggest that human poverty is an integral part of the human condition. Of course, the moment one hints anything of the sort, outrage will be expressed in many quarters at the inherent complacency of the assumption. It will seem that there is no greater sin than this complacency and its concomitant failing of not being a crusader filled with the virtue of the fight for our brothers and sisters. This is because we all know that the world is getting better all the time, human society is on a long march to progress and it is only a matter of time before poverty is ‘solved’ or eradicated from the world just like smallpox or polio were, right? Therefore you’re either for us or against us! You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem!

But what if this view of history is not right and we are not progressing to ever sunnier uplands? Are we being complacent or merely realistic and free from the affliction of starry-eyedness? We don’t seem to have eradicated crime and immorality from human history and, if you look at Shakespeare with King Lear in the 17th century, Swift with his ‘Modest Proposal’ in the 18th, Dickens with his workhouses in the 19th and Orwell on ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ in the 20th it doesn’t look like poverty is going anywhere fast. And that’s before we even begin to look at the rest of the world outside the UK. This reveals that the ’progressives’ and ‘meliorists’ are casually assuming a very particular and easily identifiable ideology which can certainly be contested as being the right one. Their assumption is far too casual when placed against the backcloth of history. Other interpretations are certainly available.

And then, what about governments? There is a tendency now to assume that the job of governments is the utter eradication of poverty and that any failure to achieve this extraordinary aim is evidence of a kernel of pure evil at their heart. Merely ‘governing’ what is there is not enough. Regrettably this means that every government will have to slink away under a burden of shame. This is, of course, not to say that governments should not do their best to provide their citizens with as good a quality of life as is possible by making the economy work as well as possible so that the standard of living is as good as it can be for as many as possible. But why wouldn’t they want to do this anyway?

The Deuteronomy quotation might suggest that the interest is not in whether we can or can’t eradicate poverty (it suggests we can’t) but in how we respond to it. How do we behave towards the people with whom we rub shoulders every day in the local High Street, both rich and poor? For a comfortably off person does their response show them to be selfish and heartless or generous and sympathetic? For the poor do they respond to their condition with criminality or with dignity? For these are the choices that define what people really are and what people really are (rather than what they have) is what matters ultimately. The wealth and the poverty are merely the backcloth to the human drama. It is this that makes the novels of Dickens and Tolstoy so marvelous.

This morning I listened to a phone-in on the radio about the ‘new working poor.’ Many callers complained that life was tough, that they had to make sacrifices to raise their children and there were certain things that they were unable to do. No doubt if they had been calling in a hundred years ago they would have been saying the same things. The presenter talked with one caller who thought that the problem was that people’s expectations were too high and that it was wrong to feel that one had a ‘right’ to certain things. And while it is unpleasant to be obliged to make sacrifices and have less than others where does the sense of entitlement to something better come from? Who said the world owed you a free lunch? Where exactly is that written down? In UN charters perhaps but I don’t see the UN any more than our government eradicating world poverty or, for that matter, world criminality. It’s a fine idea but……..

What matters in these arguments is how you frame them. If you frame them within a progressive agenda then your reaction to poverty is going to be outrage and condemnation of..…somebody or other. If you don’t frame it thus your reaction might be very different. It might be slipping an extra £50 in your payment to the carpet fitters who worked hard for you all morning or it might be lending your season ticket to the old fella over the road when you are away because it is never going to be in your power to make them all wealthy. In other words it might be in your reaction to the real people with whom you come into contact in the particular rather than the nebulously general.

So its all in how you frame things. I’d suggest that Deuteronomy and Matthew get it right and that if we act on their assumptions we will make things as good as they can be without being hag-ridden by the spectre of having to bring in a new age of Aquarius.

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