The experience and reproduction of poverty
George Ellis is short, Cornish and a ball of energy. He’s also Long Gully’s resident historian. He was born and bred with the smell of the mines in his young nostrils and grew up to be a firefighter in one of Long Gully’s fire brigades, now long gone. I’ve sat many times as George has recounted the houses, businesses and dynamism of a neighbourhood that I never knew and find hard to imagine. George is a memory-keeper, and, as well as writing several short books on Long Gully’s history, makes it his business to erect monuments on vacant pieces of land, thus keeping alive some of the history of Long Gully. Many of the monuments are to the miners and the hardships and poverty they suffered to make Bendigo rich. I’d like to be able to tell the story of poverty and my neighbourhood with as much energy and insight as George tells its history. Indeed, this series of articles aims to help us see the poor clearly and to respond as the people of God.
Yet to see those who are poor clearly is not an easy task. The view is obscured. First, by the need for poor communities to demonise themselves in order to get help in the form of funding or other government assistance. It’s the ‘squeaky wheel’ factor; community workers need to say what’s wrong in order to get anyone to pay attention. Our eyes are further clouded by the voyeuristic gaze of the mass media, for whom ‘poverty news’ is a genre with unchanging characters, plot and setting. Mark Peel wrote ‘The Lowest Rung’, a powerful reflection comprising the stories of 300 people from Inala, Broadmeadows and Mount Druitt. He recounts:
For people living and working in suburbs such as these, describing disadvantage is always a dialogue, albeit one in which they never have the final say…[The media] won’t listen to you anyway, because their answers are already in place, and their images of your life - a few used needles, tattooed teenagers and the only smashed-up house in the street - are already on the videotape. If they’re not, they’ll be cut in from last year’s expose.
In both these cases, complex realities are obscured. Obviously, Christians need a different way of seeing, and in a previous article (Oct 2016), I proposed seeing those who are poor through the lens of the image of God; that is, through the eyes of Christ. In this second article, I will attempt to communicate the human experience of being poor in my neighbourhood and the way it is reproduced in our culture. However, I am not poor and never have been or will be and it’s likely that most of you, my readers, share those characteristics. Hence, my writing may fail to adequately convey the reality of poverty. In the case that it does, I recommend taking Shane Claiborne’s message to heart: ‘The great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor, but that rich Christians do not know the poor.’
Poverty and the poor
Poverty in Australia is not really about money. Of course, lack of money is a common problem. Late in 2017, the Social Policy Research Centre estimated the budget needed by low-paid and unemployed families to lead a ‘fully healthy life’. Leaving aside philosophical considerations of what constitutes a ‘fully healthy life’, they found that money is extremely tight. For example, a low-paid couple with one child would be $10 short of their weekly budget, which increased to a shortfall of $90 with two children. For the unemployed, things were really tough: for example, an unemployed couple with two children has a shortfall of $130 per week.
So what do I mean when I say that poverty is not really about money? I mean that money is only one part of the complex machinery that keeps poor people poor. In what follows, I hope to introduce not only the personal side of poverty, but also the ways that poverty is reproduced because of economic and social structures.
If this were a more formal essay, I would begin my exploration of poverty by defining terms. What is poverty? And that is exactly what I intend not to do. So much of the research into poverty is consumed with defining and measuring it, which in a way makes sense, rather like a doctor diagnosing a sickness before recommending treatment. But here, the eradication is not what I have in view, though that may be hoped for, but that the Church may find her true place as companion of the poor. And that needs a different approach; one in which we meet the poor, rather than measure them. That’s the approach Jesus takes when the scribe asks him, ‘But who is my neighbour?’. Instead of giving the scribe a detailed and abstract description, he tells a story, the moral of which should drive the questioner to meet the poor.
Andy (I am not using people’s real names in this article) is a case study of life for some young people in Long Gully. I met Andy when I volunteered to help the local neighbourhood centre run some youth activities. Already intimidating at 14 years of age, Andy modelled his masculinity after a big brother who liked to throw his weight around. His family home was loving, but overflowing with siblings and other relatives, so Andy spent a lot of time on the street. Eventually, he committed some petty crimes, which led to a spiral out of school and off the path that leads to employment. In this respect, he was simply following in the footsteps of his father and uncles. Functionally illiterate, he entered adult prison when he committed a violent crime. I kept up contact with him while he was in prison and my son sent him a drawing with one of my letters, which he treasured like a child.
What’s the future for Andy? He spends his time, and the little money he has, fixing up an old car at a mate’s property and continues to live at his parents' house. A son from a short-term relationship hovers on the edge of his consciousness. On the surface, his predicament seems of his own making. But there are economic and social factors that perpetuate poverty in Andy’s life.
In older times, despite his lack of education, Andy could have entered a semi-skilled manufacturing industry and served an apprenticeship, learning skills and gaining qualifications along the way. But neighbourhoods like Long Gully are the product of economic and political forces far beyond the control of individuals – in particular, the subordination of the needs of society to the demands of the market. From the late 1970s, economic reforms in Australia began to copy those overseas: markets were opened and ‘free trade’ was the mantra. This philosophy has been variously named neoliberalism and economic rationalism. The logic of the market would naturally lead to prosperity for all, as a rising tide lifts all boats. There would be some collateral damage along the way and those who relied on government support would need to get with the program as state funding for manufacturing industries fell away. This is the actual story of neighbourhoods like Long Gully, populated with the working class for whom skilled industry was literally their bread and butter.
Andy’s life is profoundly shaped by these economic forces, but also by social factors that drive poverty at a more personal level. For example, his geographical location in a public housing estate severely restricts his social relationships, which are limited to others who are unemployed and suffering poverty. This restricted horizon, present from childhood, also restricts the possibilities that Andy sees as viable. When your parents, and the parents of your friends, are unemployed or in low-paid jobs, it’s difficult to imagine a different future. In addition, the simple lack of connections in poor families into the world of work leads to a lack of the necessary knowledge and skill to navigate it. By contrast, middle-class children grow up with a large social network of employed and educated family and friends. Who will have an advantage in the job market? The likely outcome is that, in order to live with this disadvantage, Andy will internalise this limited social network as simply ‘the way things are’.
Cameron was born with Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD) and displays many of its symptoms: stunted physical growth, intellectual delays, distinctive facial features and impulse control difficulties. FASD occurs when the foetus is affected by alcohol consumed by the mother during pregnancy. Cameron is one of five siblings. His mother has partnered with a series of abusive men who have robbed her of confidence and parenting authority and given Cameron a deep mistrust of men. Being diagnosed with FASD means Cameron struggles with the demands of school education and his mother finds it difficult to advocate for him in a health system that does not have much understanding of his condition, nor how to treat it.
If Cameron was born into a middle class family, or one with a supportive extended network, his life would be much easier. His family would be able to pay for immediate paediatric care, rather than waiting three months in the public system. Uncles and aunties would take him for weekends to give his Mum and siblings a break. Cameron’s life would have some hope.
Instead, Cameron is caught in a cycle consisting of two powerful social dynamics which perpetuate his poverty. One is the trauma of poverty over generations. Not only is economic poverty inherently stressful, it is traumatic. Cameron has been damaged by stress, misfortune, sickness, hunger, shame; not only in the present time, but generationally. In his case, this generational dimension has been passed on biologically though FASD, but for others it is passed on socially and emotionally through the experience of being constantly in the presence of violence, relational dysfunction, hunger, and need. The damage of poverty creates difficulties for Cameron when he tries to engage in the world of education and employment.
The second dynamic is that of shame. Shame is, on its own, a powerful social factor in Cameron’s poverty. Shame is the emotion triggered by the disgust and stigma communicated by others in his social world. Cameron’s condition, as well as his poverty, often leads to a response of disgust on the part of others in his world, such as teachers, social workers and neighbours. Richard Beck argues that this response of disgust occurs because people like Cameron are a symbol of everything we are afraid of happening to us: need, sickness, helplessness, oppression. Cameron and his family cannot hide their need as we do and thus they become objects of our disgust. That triggers a response of shame on the part of Cameron: he has not measured up to the standards of goodness in our culture. This is not positive shame in which an offender is shamed into admitting his guilt and is re-integrated back into a community, but destructive shame that is not acknowledged and where there has been no offence and where the ‘offender’ is shunned and avoided and ignored. Living with a sense of shame perpetuates the fatalism about poverty that characterises many poor neighbourhoods.
What then should we do?
Through these short descriptions of Cameron and Andy, and the forces that reproduce their poverty, one thing is clear: to the majority of Australians, the poor as found in neighbourhoods like mine are the stranger, those to be guarded against, the symbol of all we fear and thus what we need to reject. This is perhaps more true of poor white people than others. Zadie Smith writes:
In this process, everybody has been losing for some time, but perhaps no one quite as much as the white working classes who really have nothing, not even the perceived moral elevation that comes with acknowledged trauma or recognised victimhood. The Left is thoroughly ashamed of them. The Right sees them only as a useful tool for its own personal ambitions.
Even the Church, in its congregational forms, has trouble seeing the poor as brothers and sisters. To be sure, church-linked welfare agencies do fantastic work, but the welfare system is part of the problem, one that I will address in the next article. Overwhelmingly, actual congregations of Christians in Australia are placed in more affluent locations, which makes meeting the poor as people difficult. There is a need to see the poor, again, through the eyes of Christ. When we do so, we begin to do so with ‘awe’. As C.S. Lewis puts it:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.
Can we imagine somehow that this poor neighbour of mine, suffering poverty, is made for glory? That she may be glorious? And that if I had eyes to see, I would see that glory? Such a burden is harder, I find, to shoulder than any project or program of poverty reduction. It relies not a set of KPIs to achieve but on realising that glory is relational; that I cannot be part of helping this person to glory without giving of myself, rather than giving my skills and ideas and plans and projects. And that requires repentance: a turning to those who are poor and away from our own addiction to wealth and comfort.^ back to top