Why poverty and wealth remain the issue

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
14 Jan 2010

Some years ago the Latin American theologian, Gustavo Gutierrez, was addressing a large international Christian audience on the subject of biblically-informed responses to poverty. Someone got up from the audience and asked pointedly, ‘But really, professor, who are the poor these days?’

This was a question he was often confronted with, Gutierrez noted. But it was invariably asked by a particular kind of person. Namely, someone who was not in any sense in danger of falling into poverty themselves!

Sit a group of wealthy people down and ask them to identify the poor, suggested the Peruvian “father of liberation theology” (who has spent a good deal of his own time and ministry working among the most vulnerable, oppressed and on-the-edge), and “they will argue about it until the cows come home, or until the kingdom of God comes, whichever is first.”

They will split opinions over ‘relative’ and ‘absolute’ poverty. They will earnestly ask whether someone living in a shack who has a small TV can really be classed as poor. They will debate measurements, guidelines, axes and thresholds for arriving at an adequate definition of 'the poor'… before deciding, in all probability, that it is too complicated, that no-one really knows the solution, and perhaps that “poverty isn’t the only or even the most important issue” when confronting human need today.

Then they will most likely retire back to their own comfortable lives and put some money into a charity box dedicated to “those less fortunate” than themselves (ourselves).

By contrast, remarked Gutierrez, if you were to get together a group of people who know themselves to be poor – who struggle for daily survival, who are left out, who are made dependent because of their lack of resources – it will usually take them only a matter of seconds to answer the parallel question, “Who are the rich?” They will take one look at you, in comparison to themselves, and point their fingers of recognition.

This anecdote has come back to me on a number of occasions recently. I thought of it particularly when I listened to Conservative leader David Cameron telling struggling parents who have to live on low incomes in immensely difficult circumstances that money does not matter that much when you are bringing up children. It is “warmth” that counts and the amount of time you can devote to them. To those who are “competent and committed”, he suggested, financial circumstances made no “significant” difference to family prospects.

I am sure that Mr Cameron is a loving father and that he wants the best for the country’s children. But he is also a multimillionaire, I'm told, and in some of the remarks he made to a Demos think-tank event in South London, it showed. Poverty doesn’t really register with him, not at a gut level – just as it doesn’t with those earnest ‘debaters’ Gutierrez parodied.

Kathleen Kiernan, Professor of social policy and demography at the University of York, has considered Mr Cameron’s smooth assurances about the unimportance of money to parenting opportunities in the light of a little forensic inquiry, using data from the Millennium Cohort Study, which is monitoring over 10,000 children born in 2000/2001.

“Our analysis,” she said, writing in the Guardian (Thursday 14 January 2010), “compared the impact of poverty, parental resources and parenting on children's early educational attainment. 60 per cent of children who had never experienced poverty achieved a good level of achievement. Only 26 per cent of children in persistent poverty reached this level. When we looked at the impact of positive parenting, we found that it did, indeed, reduce this gap – but only by about half.” And only, of course, for those with the time and resources to transcend the other severe limitations of their circumstances.

Meanwhile, Imran Hussain of Child Poverty Action declared, on the basis of CPAG’s considerable practical and campaigning experience: “Poverty is a key factor in making the job for parents more difficult. The best thing Mr Cameron can do to safeguard all children is to put money in the pockets of the poorest families who need it most.” This is not the only thing that needs to occur, for sure. But it is a vital one.

However, it is not going to happen without massive countervailing pressure, for several reasons. First, the Conservatives, in particular, want to shrink government (that is, publicly funded) commitment to social welfare in order to protect the pockets of the better off who vote for them in large numbers. This will make consistent and even provision more and more difficult to achieve.

Second, all three ‘main’ (that is, best-financed) political parties are now embarked on a frenzied strategy of trying to out-do each other with promises of cuts – not for global investment bankers, who are about to trouser another £50 billion in ‘the bonus season’ (as the BBC’s business editor put it on Newsnight), but for those least able to support themselves.

For example, the Liberal Democrats’ leader Nick Clegg, congratulating himself publicly for his ‘realism’ (that is, for his electorally-charged rapid response accommodation to ‘the powers that be’) has just ditched the party’s key policies to help students, pensioners and, yes, parents. These are now ‘aspirations’ rather than foreseeable commitments, he says, because we all have to buckle down to tackle the recession. Well, yes, but I’m guessing that the Clegg household will probably not bear the severest burden of this.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding its massive promised reductions in funding for tertiary education, which will damage the social fabric in other ways, the Labour Party appears least willing to engage in this ‘downtrading welfare’ war. But in following the essential neo-liberal economic narrative established in the 1980s (the same one that ended in the terrible debt and credit wreckage all governments are now trying to claw their way out of) New Labour has presided over a deepening of economic inequality since 1997 and has failed to meet targets on child poverty, among others.

On that latter point, the Rev Paul Nicholson of the Zaccheus 2000 trust (named after a biblical character who repented of wealth built on corruption), recently hit the nail on the head. “The [current] child poverty bill is deficient,” he declared, “because it requires government to identify the numbers of children who live in households that cannot afford a range of basic activities or goods, but has no requirement on government to have regard to research which will show the minimum weekly income for a variety of households which will provide the items of which they are deprived, and so end their income poverty”– before adding: “Baroness Finlay of Llandaff has tabled an amendment which will require government to take this essential information into account.”

Some political players, like the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens are, whatever their own shortcomings, trying to pull the public debate about wealth and poverty in different, more socially and ecologically sustainable directions. But the values of the dominant political party system remain deeply warped by non-recognition of the real distortions that massive gaps between the rich and the poor, those with much power and those with little power, make in the real, workaday world. There is an air of profound unreality about our prevailing ‘realisms’, as there was about the ones that got us into a massive economic and environmental hole in the first place.

The one thing that can be guaranteed is that the most vulnerable are always in danger of being asked to bear the heaviest burden proportionately – in the same way that those at the bottom of a ladder engulfed in water will always have the most to lose from ‘everyone needing to step down a rung’. The impact of an appeal for ‘the same sacrifice from everyone' is not equivalent, fair or just when the starting points and levels of exposure are so at variance.

This is most starkly evident in the horrific scenes we are witnessing from the Haitian earthquake zone right now. For the unspeakable catastrophe unfolding in one of the poorest places on the planet is not, pace the headlines, “a natural disaster” alone, and certainly not “an act of God.” On the contrary, while many would die in a 7.3 scale ’quake anywhere in the world, it is in a city built for and by the poor that the most people are destined to suffer beyond all measure. So, long after the initial horror, people are languishing and dying needlessly in Port au Prince simply because there is no infrastructure (social or otherwise) to speak of, there are virtually no foundations (literally), there is no insurance, there are no ambulances, no emergency supplies and no reserve resources to fall back on. Just misery and dependence on outside charitable assistance, in the short term at least. It is scandalous as well as humanly (and spiritually) harrowing to behold.

Back in the 1970s, I recall, the radical charity War on Want got into hot water for describing the seismic impacts in the Ancash region (Peru), in North Pakistan and in other poor regions as “class quakes” compared to those in developed countries, because economic vulnerability made such a huge difference to the size and extent of the resultant human suffering and death. They were quite right, however.

This is why, in so many areas of life, the rich-poor divide matters deeply, unfashionable though it is to say this in a world where many politicians consider themselves ‘post ideological’ -- and by that mean that they see such 'divisive' talk as ‘rabble rousing’. Which brings us, by a circumlocutory route, to the Bible.

The biblical texts of Christians and Jews have more to say about the iniquity of wealth and the oppression of poverty than they do on any other ethical issue. When liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutierrez first spoke of God’s corrective ‘bias to the poor’ and the corresponding ‘option for the poor’ required of the church, it was not Marx they were referencing but the deep wells of scripture.

Yet today, when it comes to the Bible, many Christians choose to argue about a handful of texts allegedly concerning sexuality (a concept that was actually unknown in the ancient world from which they derive), rather than focusing on a multitude of verses describing and condemning the lesions of those who suffer injustice and deprivation – sometimes on a scale, as in Haiti, which modern secular vernacular still ironically refers to as being “of biblical proportions.”

The American evangelical social activist, Jim Wallis, sometimes still tells the tale of how, upon realising the scale of biblical concern for the gap between rich and poor, he decided, as a student, to try removing with scissors every single scriptural phrase about wealth and poverty. What he ended up with was a ‘hole-y Bible’, one shredded of both content and meaning.

Faced with deprivation, marginalisation, inequality, injustice and the shrinking of life circumstances wherever they may occur (‘poverty’ is a word that points to a host of these symptoms of exclusion, all with a root in economic life), Christians today should recognise a clarion call to action, to the building of alternatives, to the holding of power to account, and to the development of different viewpoints and practices from 'the norm'.

For as Leo Tolstoy once put it (and here again, I paraphrase): “food purely for my own contentment is a material concern; but food for my hungry neighbour – that’s a spiritual issue.” The same aphorism may be applied in many different situations, wherever deprivation and disadvantage reigns: in absolute poverty, and in the relative kind too. In Africa and Asia, and in an American ghetto or a European sink estate as well. Dividing the poor from one another is wrong. What we need to do instead is to share the wealth around.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. www.simonbarrow.net

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