When you are struggling it is easy to fall into despair. People do not like dropping “I’m in poverty” into any conversation. They hide it, in fear and shame.
This tendency of the poor to inflict invisibility on themselves is precisely why governments the world over are able to make poverty worse, spreading it like a malign virus. Nobody bands all the poor together to march on parliaments. Beggars are routinely ignored. They’re probably on drugs, people say. They’re probably alcoholics. They’re probably begging and yet secretly well off.
Probably. It’s a great word to deploy when wanting to dissolve guilt at not helping. At being part of the problem, not part of the solution.
Unless you are very rich indeed, anyone can fall into poverty – or be pushed into it. The death of a loved one after years of caring for them can result in homelessness. The loss of a job can quickly lead to going hungry. You are not at fault. Nobody chooses to be poor, to go without food or heating, to walk the streets without shoes. Governments are at fault. The economic systems we all live under, and struggle with, are at fault. The social framework is at fault, where inequality of opportunity and wealth distribution are maintained by the wealthy – those who have the most power to effect change. Mental health and social services are woefully underfunded, while mental health and social problems are widely misunderstood, swept under the metaphorical carpet.
You are not the problem when you are born poor or fall into poverty. You are not the failure. Most of us are closer to losing everything in a few days, a couple of weeks, a few months, than we are willing to acknowledge. Yet the fear of poverty is everywhere. Ask most people what they are frightened of more than anything and they’ll say, losing their loved ones, their homes, their income. So why not show more compassion to those who actually do?
Poverty is traumatising and, where poverty already exists and is worsened, trauma builds on top of trauma. New trauma overlays and interacts with the old. Poverty leads to drug use in some instances, yes, particularly alcohol if it can be found cheap enough, but it is understandable as a response to suffering with the need to escape and become numb to hunger and cold. It leads to other crimes as well, desperate ones. We can only be law-abiding with any certainty if our basic living needs are being met somehow. Some people starve quietly away from others but most would do something, anything, if facing death through starvation or freezing in a merciless winter, to get food, get warm, get noticed.
Yet the poor are often proud, keen to be law-abiding, keeping their homes clean and their children fed even if it means going without themselves. Poor adults sacrifice for their children like no others in society ever have to do.
Poverty denies opportunities for housing, work and education. Poverty, well, it makes poverty worse as an ongoing delapidating process. There is a deepening of despair, of degradation, of suffering and hopelessness, to which there seems no bottom, no end. Enlightened governments look to lift people from the poverty trap and, for that to happen, they first have to spend money on those who have nothing. They won’t get far without financial assistance, a leg up.
The poor have always been marginalised throughout history, put down, made to feel they are poor because they just didn’t try hard enough to avoid it or get out of it if they were born into it. Some, it was suggested, should eat cake – and heads rolled in revolution. Maintaining poverty and making more and more people poor has been shown, time and again, for centuries, to be dangerous to every level of society. If one must operate on self-interest alone, it is short-termism to profit from the poor, to build while others lose. Better to lift people out of poverty, in so doing creating a stable, equitable and just society.
Look to your friends, family and neighbours. Think: are they struggling? Don’t wait to be asked to help. Drop off an extra pie you baked ‘but don’t need’. Send an anonymous card containing a supermarket gift voucher. You don’t need to be seen as helping. You don’t need the thanks. They need the food and the money, not lectures. When you are at the supermarket, buy a packet or tin more than you need and put them into the collecting bins for the food banks.
DO SOMETHING. AND KEEP DOING IT WHENEVER YOU CAN. Don’t wait until people die. Your tears will help no one. As always, actions speak much louder than words. The costs of poverty, for everyone, are extraordinarily high and counted in more than money. The traumatising effect of poverty can last a lifetime. And it can be a shorter lifetime, too. Remember: change starts with each of us. Don’t wait for someone else to come along with the solution.